After more than 130 years, 80 different wallpapers and 20 executive families, Johnathan Campbell says the North Dakota former governor’s mansion is still solid.
“Just a little loose in the joints here and there,” the mansion’s site supervisor of 14 years said.
This month, contractors were working on repairs to the modern porch to remedy dry rot — a frequent issue affecting the stick-style Victorian house at 320 E. Ave. B in Bismarck.
“Because of its historic nature, we don’t want to use modern materials, so, obviously, we avoid vinyl and steel siding,” Campbell said. “We have to deal with dry rot. Unfortunately, a lot of modern lumber doesn’t have the durability of what they used originally."
Much of the mansion’s interior oak and walnut likely came from the East Coast, or possibly Michigan or Minnesota, while the house’s framing materials could have been derived from the local Missouri River bottom, according to Campbell.
Dick Weber is a Bismarck resident leading a fundraising campaign to raise up to $60,000 to replace the mansion’s roof — repairs which require unique shingling. Weber said fundraisers are reaching out to local businesses and individuals, hoping to raise the money before year’s end.
The campaign has garnered about $20,000 in contributions so far, he added. To Weber, the former governor’s mansion is unique and significant for its architecture and designation as a home to the state’s early governors.
Businessman Asa Fisher built the home in 1884 on a prairie hill overlooking young Bismarck. In 1893, the state of North Dakota purchased Fisher's mansion.
“I don’t know that this has anything to do with it, but shortly after he sold his estate, he became the North Dakota Republican chairman,” Campbell said with a smile.
Only a few other homes of the mansion’s style may exist in North Dakota, he added.
"It's something you tended to see on the East Coast," Campbell said.
Lorna Meidinger, architectural historian with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, said the mansion “evokes a certain era” for her — something she looks for in a building.
“I’m really, really attracted to that in a building, is when it speaks to when it’s from,” she said.
Twenty executive families lived in the mansion from 1893 to 1960, up to Gov. John Davis and his family. Only Davis and Gov. Doug Burgum have lived in two official governor's residences in North Dakota.
Throughout his time there, Campbell has traced a number of marks left by previous residents — from a child’s scrawl in a toy chest left by Gov. Frank White’s son, Edwin, to a phone number for angel food cakes carved in a door frame. Through newspaper research, including Tribune archives, he's been able to find out much about Fisher and the history of the house.
All three floors of the mansion are open to the public. The basement is generally off limits. Its steep stairs lack a railing.
About 4,000 to 5,000 people see the former governor’s mansion in a year, according to Campbell. Tourists in a day can vary widely — from five to 40 people. Children’s programming occurs monthly, and student music recitals are common in winter. Up to 1,000 people could filter through the mansion this month, Campbell added.
“It’s a significant piece of North Dakota history,” Weber said.