TALLAHASSEE -- – Hidden behind live oaks and magnolias near the Florida Governor's Mansion, a historic house that symbolizes much of the state's past and its transformation will soon have its doors opened to the public.
Crews and contractors are putting the final touches on a substantial renovation of the antebellum mansion known as the Grove just a few blocks north of the state Capitol.
Built by one of Florida's early territorial governors using slave labor, the Grove would later serve as home to the governor who shepherded the state through the Civil Rights era.
The state — at a cost of nearly $6 million — is turning the Greek Revival style mansion and its 10-acre grounds into a museum designed to document the lives of the state's governors as well as an architectural classroom for visitors.
The house, which had settled over the years, needed brickwork repairs and updating to meet modern building codes. It is scheduled to open this fall.
The fact that the Grove has remained standing for so long is also a reminder that Florida did not endure the same type of destruction associated with the Civil War. Tallahassee was the only Southern state capital east of the Mississippi that was not captured during the war. Even today the front windows have some of the same glass used when the home was built.
"This is one of the most remarkable places in the state," said Rob Bendus, the director of the state's Division of Historical Resources. "We are in the middle of an urban area and it's still intact the way it was 200 years ago."
Situated atop one of Tallahassee's hills, the Grove was once part of a 640-acre tract including the land that now contains the Governor's Mansion.
Richard Keith Call, an officer on Gen. Andrew Jackson's personal staff, modeled his home after Jackson's Hermitage in Tennessee and is believed to have finished building it by 1831. The mansion features a wide main hallway found in many Southern homes, pinewood floors and a winding cypress staircase.
It was at the Grove in 1861 that Call chastised a group when they came to tell him Florida had voted to secede from the United States.
"Well, gentlemen, you have unlocked the gates to hell, from which shall flow the curses of the damned," Call reportedly told them.
Almost a century later, another owner of the Grove would have to confront the turbulence of the Civil Rights era.
Gov. LeRoy Collins, who married Call's great-granddaughter Mary, entered office in 1955. He would earn a reputation for trying to chart a moderate course on race relations instead of adopting the confrontational stance of other Southern governors.
Collins blasted state legislators when they passed an "interposition" resolution in 1957 contending the U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering the desegregation of schools to be null and void in Florida.
"I decry it as an evil thing, whipped up by the demagogues and carried on the hot and erratic winds of passion, prejudice, and hysteria," Collins wrote.
Collins and his wife, Mary Call Darby Collins, bought the Grove in the early 1940s. By that time, the home was far removed from its glorious past. Over the years, the land surrounding the mansion and the furniture inside had been sold off. At one point, it was turned into a rooming house.
Collins and his family wound up living at the Grove while he was governor after the state tore down the original Governor's Mansion and replaced it with the one now standing. Signs of the family life there include Collins' son writing on the wall how much he hated "damned homework."
The state paid more than $2 million in the '80s to acquire the 10 acres and the mansion, but it included a provision that the state would not physically begin work on the property until Mary Collins died. Former Gov. Collins died in the home in 1991; his wife passed away in 2009. Both are buried on the estate.
"It was a place we all loved, not only because of its history," said Collins' daughter Mary Call Collins, who recalled sliding down the bannister of the stairs as a child.
Even though the Collins family helped repair the home during the decades they lived there, transforming the mansion to a public museum has been a time-consuming undertaking. There also have been legal battles after Gov. Rick Scott and state officials supported a move to acquire property next to the site for parking. The case is still in court.
The rear of the home, which is an addition built in the 1950s, was modified to make it accessible to the disabled. An elevator was placed where a bathroom once stood and crews have made the old home energy efficient.
"It's been like birthing a child," Bendus said.
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