Idaho's Empty Governor's Mansion a Thorn in Residents' Sides

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Idaho governor's mansion

It's a stunning, 7,100-square-foot mansion -- "visible for miles," some have said -- sitting on a grassy hilltop in Boise, Idaho, with views over the scenic Boise Valley. The magnificent, Mediterranean-style structure commands 37 green acres and boasts a library, a boardroom, two kitchens and ample entertainment spaces. A dream home, it seems -- so why is it so hard to get someone to take it?

You'd think people would be fighting to lay claim to Idaho's majestic governor's mansion, but nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, the state's governor doesn't even want it -- and never did.

Idaho governor's mansionAfter being elected governor in 2006, Clement Leroy "Butch" Otter politely declined to occupy the State of Idaho's Executive Residence. Instead, Otter chose to live on a much humbler riverside ranch in western Idaho. So the Idaho governor's mansion, also known as the Governor's House and the Idaho House, has remained empty, aside from the occasional state function.

But it sure does cost a lot to let a house like that sit vacant. Keeping up with the maintenance of the home continues to cost Idaho taxpayers at least $125,000 a year -- more than the median price of a Boise-area home. And just this year, the maintenance price tag was even higher: $177,400.

Angry residents have demanded that the empty, 32-year-old home be returned to the Simplot family, the founders of a potato-farming empire who donated the hilltop mansion to the state in 2004 for the sole purpose of it being the governor's residence -- something that didn't become official until 2009. Yet Gov. Otter, whose marriage to a Simplot ended in divorce in 1993, has never moved in.

"It's inappropriate to continue funding this mansion on the hill," Boise resident Barbara Kemp said during a public hearing held by the Governor's Housing Committee on Oct. 2. Kemp told the committee that potato magnate J.R. Simplot himself, who is now dead, would have seen the mansion as a "waste of money" and financial drain on a state that's already "tapped out."

Kemp's thoughts are echoed by former Boise legislator John Gannon, who said at the hearing that Idaho's governor's mansion program (which includes a maintenance fund that has plummeted from $1.5 million in 2005 to $900,000 in 2012) is both costly and outdated.

"There is nostalgia for a governor's mansion, probably based upon the beautiful century-old homes that many other states have. But I think many Idahoans are frustrated that the idea just hasn't worked in Idaho," Gannon told AOL Real Estate. "After 25 years, many expensive plans, and a costly, empty mansion for six years, the governor's mansion program has failed."

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Governor's Mansions That Are Sitting (Nearly) Empty
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Idaho's Empty Governor's Mansion a Thorn in Residents' Sides

Location: Albany, N.Y.

The governor's mansion in New York has housed 31 of the state's executives, including Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. Theodore added a gymnasium to the residence during his stay, and Franklin put in a swimming pool.

The executive mansion's last full-time tenant was former Gov. Mario Cuomo (1983-1994). All succeeding governors have chosen to maintain residences elsewhere, including the state's current governor -- and Mario's son -- Andrew Cuomo. Andrew keeps a home in Westchester County, but stays at the official residence part-time.

Location: Denver

Current Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is only the second governor to turn down living at the state's executive mansion. Former Gov. Bill Owens (1998-2006) moved out after living there for two years, saying the place lacked privacy and was "like living in a fishbowl."

Hickenlooper maintains his own 3,400-square-foot home with his wife a few miles away from the Governor's Residence.

Location: Indianapolis

Though the Indiana Governor's Residence had been put through a $1.2 million renovation, Gov. Mitch Daniels uncovered a report showing that the home needed another $2.6 million in repairs. Daniels promised not to use taxpayer money for the fixes but said he wouldn't live in the home until the repairs were made. The solution? He decided to build his own home in Carmel, Ind., and live there.

It's not the first time a governor's mansion went unoccupied in Indiana. No one ever lived in the state's second executive residence, which was built in 1827. By the 1870s, it was demolished.

Location: Princeton, N.J.

The New Jersey governor's mansion, known as Drumthwacket, has been little more than a reception hall for Gov. Chris Christie. He'll host Sunday dinners and staff parties at the home, but he lives full-time in his own residence 50 miles away. The two governors prior to Christie only lived there part-time.

Location: Concord, N.H.

Gov. John Lynch decided not to move into the New Hampshire governor's mansion, known as Bridges House, recognizing that the home needed several upgrades to become more conducive to meetings and official business. Security and climate control, meeting rooms, a larger kitchen to support big groups, and handicapped access were among the biggest needs of the house.

Once the home is renovated and restored, it will be used as an extension of the governor's office, as well as a place to hold community events.

Location: Lansing, Mich.

Gov. Rick Snyder is the first Michigan governor not to live in the Michigan Governor's Mansion since it was donated to the state in 1969. Snyder, instead, maintains his home in Ann Arbor and commutes to Lansing for work. Snyder said he didn't want to move to the mansion in Lansing because it would disrupt his daughter's schooling. Oh, and also, his own home is bigger: 10,600 square feet.

Location: Bexley, Ohio

Gov. John R. Kasich wanted to stay close to his twin 10-year-old daughters' school, so he decided not to move his family into Ohio's Governor's Residence. He's the second governor not to live in the home, donated to the state in 1957. Former Gov. James A. Rhodes stayed in his own home during his second two terms in office (1975-83). Critics pointed out that the cost to maintain the home in 2011 was $438,720.

Correction: This slide previously pictured the wrong mansion.

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Despite pressure from Boise residents to hand the keys back to the Simplot family, the heirs to the Simplot estate have said that they have no intention of taking it back.

"It's a special piece of property that the Simplot family intended to be used for a special purpose, and being utilized as the official residence of the governor would fulfill that intent," Simplot spokesman David Cuoio said in a statement to AOL Real Estate. "We are satisfied with the agreement we made with the state."

A proposal was made in February to sell the mansion in order to save Idaho's drowning state parks system, but it was rejected by lawmakers.

An 'Outdated' Program?

According to Gannon, the very idea of having a governor's mansion is becoming "obsolete." The traditional, hierarchical ideal of having a governor "watching over" his or her people and the necessity of designated housing for the chief executive (conventionally meant to symbolize the "grandeur of government") is backward and does not cater to a "modern-day" governor with his own family, tastes and preferences.

"This is fundamentally why the modern Simplot mansion has been empty," Gannon told AOL Real Estate. "No person should live in a home chosen by others."

And it's not just Idaho's Gov. Otter who thinks so.

Governors from several other states have also declined to move into official residences or only occupy them part-time, including Colorado's John Hickenlooper, Michigan's Rick Snyder, Indiana's Mitch Daniels, New Jersey's Chris Christie, New Hampshire's John Lynch, New York's Andrew Cuomo and Ohio's John R. Kasich. In some cases, governor's mansions have been transformed into museums or wedding mills just "to make ends meet."

9 PHOTOS
The Real Homes of Governors
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Idaho's Empty Governor's Mansion a Thorn in Residents' Sides

Location: Chicago
Price: $998,000
Bedrooms: 5
Bathrooms: 4
Square footage: 3,817

This is the house where FBI wiretaps helped cook Rod Blagojevich’s goose, the house that Patti Blagojevich posted as collateral for bond when her husband was awaiting sentencing on corruption charges, and the site of multiple news conferences since then. Earlier this year, Rod Blagojevich left this home to begin his 14-year prison term.

The home was on the market for $1.07 million in October, and the price then dropped to $998,000, still about double the price they paid in 1999. The home has three fireplaces, a library, music room and a gym. It was temporarily taken off the market this spring, with Patti Blagojevich citing the stress and upheaval of her husband’s jail term as the reason. (CNBC)

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Location: Mendham, N.J.
Price: $1.677 million estimated value
Bedrooms: N/A
Bathrooms: N/A
Square footage: 6,979

The cantankerous governor of New Jersey is one of the most recognizable state leaders and has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney. His family home on 6 hilltop acres in Mendham was built in 1959.

Christie opted to make the 50-mile commute to the State House from Mendham, rather than move into Drumthwacket, the official governor’s mansion, in Princeton, so he didn’t have to pull his kids out of school, according to The New York Times. However, he told the Times in 2009 that his wife, Mary Pat, planned a weekly family dinner at Drumthwacket, so that the family could have dinner together at least once a week. (CNBC)

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Location: Garretson, S.D.
Price: see below
Bedrooms: N/A
Bathrooms: N/A
Square footage: N/A

Republican South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard built this energy-efficient house himself. In an address to the South Dakota Rural Electric Association, Daugaard described taking inspiration from President Jimmy Carter’s 1977 fireside chat mentioning the need for energy efficiency.

In the ’80s while Daugaard worked as a banker by day, he built the house on the family farmstead on nights and weekends. It cost about  a cost of about $60,000 at the time, and during the nine-month building process, Dennis and his wife, Linda, lived with his parents.

The home’s walls are “super insulated” at 13 inches thick. The home uses a heat pump water heater, which cools and dehumidifies. Instead of dumping heat outside, it channels the heat in the water heater. The structure has no west-facing  windows to avoid heat buildup during hot summer days,  and has only one north window “because that’s an energy loser.”

Most of the home’s windows face south. The home’s overhang is designed for its latitude, so that the low-hanging winter sun comes in house in winter, while in summer the overhang shades it. (CNBC)

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Location: Park City, Utah              
Price: $44 million
Bedrooms: 12
Bathrooms: 16
Square footage: 22,000

Former Utah governor and onetime GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman purchased a Federal brick house in D.C. in 2010. But his philanthropist father, Jon Huntsman Sr., has a remarkable ski home on the market that certainly has more than enough room for Jon Jr., his wife, Mary Kaye Cooper, their seven children, and then some.

Previously listed for $49.5 million, the mansion on 60 acres is a rustic private resort. Features include a gym, indoor pool and hot tub with views, game room with views, decks with sunset mountain views, a collector’s garage for about 20 cars and a castle-length dining room table. (CNBC)

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Location: Richmond, Mass.
Price: N/A
Bedrooms: N/A
Bathrooms: N/A
Square footage: 7,500

Gov. Deval Patrick keeps this vacation home in the Berkshires region in western Massachusetts. Sweet P Farm sits on 77 acres and includes a tennis court, pool and cabana. Patrick and his wife, Diane, moved into the newly built house in 2006.

They put their Milton “empty nest” residence of 20 years on the market in 2009 for $1.9 million and despite a number of stints on and off at different prices, it has not sold. (CNBC)

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Location: Warwick, R.I.
Price: N/A
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 2 full, 1 partial
Square footage: 3,024

The Exeter compound of Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently made headlines when his 18 year-old son hosted a graduation party that resulted in an intoxicated underage guest being hospitalized.

The Chafees sold their seven-bedroom Providence home in 2011 for $675,000. Another one of the Chafee homes , pictured here, is on the Greenwich Bay waterfront in Warwick. (CNBC)

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Location: Lebanon, Pa.
Price: $996,000
Bedrooms: 5
Bathrooms: 4
Square footage: 5,820

Thomas Jefferson wore many hats: governor of Virginia, author of the Declaration of Independence, the second vice president and of course, the third president of the United States. As if that was not an impressive enough resume, he also designed buildings, like his own home, Monticello.

This is another house Jefferson designed. It was built in 1813 and now serves as a bed and breakfast called the Millstream Farm Inn. It’s on 12 acres with formal gardens and a stream called Bachman’s Run with a covered bridge. (CNBC)

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Location: Wauwatosa, Wis.
Price: N/A
Bedrooms: 4
Bathrooms: 2 full, 1 partial
Square footage: 2,152

This home of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been the site of multiple protests, including a We Are Milwaukee-organized recall rally last November.

The two-story house in Wauwatosa, which is located just to the west of Milwaukee, was built in 1924 on a quarter of an acre. (CNBC)

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The future of the Idaho House is now being questioned in a series of public hearings taking a look at how to fend off some of the state's fiscal problems. Though there is a case to be made for preserving historic structures and landmarks, "I can't believe we would let this symbol of Idaho go to some developer," Boise resident Michael Costanecki said at one public hearing.

But the costs involved in maintaining a governor's mansion is hard to justify and "not worth the expense," according to governors from Arizona, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont, which don't have governor's mansions, as well as California -- where the governor's mansion long ago was turned into a state park.

"A governor has the right to choose a residence and receive a housing allowance as part of the compensation package," Gannon told AOL Real Estate. "In Idaho, it's time to end a program that has failed."

See also:
Live Where John F. Kennedy Planned His 1st Political Campaign
Former NFL Star Rod Kush's Huge Mansion to Be Burned Down

Mary Kennedy's Home, Where She Committed Suicide, Up for Sale in Bedford, NY


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