First lady opens gov’s house for the holidays

Children seem to adore the state’s first lady, Jessica Doyle, especially when they’re renewing their acquaintance with her. Jessica often visits classrooms around Wisconsin, so checking out her house in Madison seems natural, especially during this festive time of year.

The beautiful Executive Residence, home to the governor and his family, sits on four acres that overlook frosty Lake Mendota. Jim Doyle is the 13th governor to live here. The family’s private quarters are upstairs; business and official entertaining are conducted elsewhere in this 34-room, 13-bathroom and seven-bedroom mansion.

The spacious home occasionally is open to the public, and this is the time of year to see it decked out in holiday trimmings.

Visitors are introduced to a half-dozen holiday trees, each with a different decorating theme. Buon Natale (“Merry Christmas” in Italian) celebrates that nation’s heritage with adornments of candles, fruit and angels. People with a relative or friend pay homage through contributions to the Tribute to Our Troops tree.

Fourth grade classes from throughout Wisconsin sent handmade ornaments for the Bright Star holiday tree, which honors some of the state’s unique and talented residents. Magician Houdini, author Laura Ingalls Wilder and Gov. Gaylord Nelson (founder of Earth Day) are among the honorees.

The three other decorated trees are devoted to Wisconsin products, charitable groups and schools of higher education. All six contain LED lights, an energy conservation measure because they use about 10 percent of the electricity that traditional holiday lights would require.

Dozens of volunteers guide visitors through the sunlight-filled mansion, and some of these knowledgeable docents have donated their time for decades.

At this time of year, narration emphasizes decorations much more than architecture and history, but there are exceptions. “Look above you,” guide Lu Ann Williams suggests to a class of elementary school students. “This candelabra lantern is one of only two in the world. The other is in the White House.”

In the mahogany-walled library, guide Barb Voigt notes that all wood construction was put together with wood pegs. “No nails,” she emphasizes, then pointing out a Hmong musical instrument – the qeej – atop a fireplace mantle.

Gifts from other people and countries – toasting goblets from Shanghai, a silver-plated chalice from the Dalai Lama – tend to be displayed in this room.

Visiting students typically also see the state Capitol during their field trip to Madison, and it is a perfect match for fourth graders, whose studies include Wisconsin. Their learning veers into many directions.

“Where’s the TV,” a youngster asks, and Mae Jensen nods toward the library. “Others are in the basement,” confides this tour guide of more than 20 years. Mae’s longevity of service is a point of personal pride and connection: “This is our home, too,” she notes. “It belongs to all the people of Wisconsin.”

Dining room chair seats, Mae mentions to visitors, contain needlepoint of violets, a nod to the official state flower – and symbolism is apparent in other subtle ways throughout the building.

Being a natural and trained teacher works to the friendly but firm first lady’s advantage. Jessica welcomes questions, even those off-topic (“What’s behind there,” an inquisitive child asks. “A cabinet for sheet music – isn’t that great,” she responds, pulling out a slim drawer for all to see.) and potentially off-putting (“Who are you,” a distracted boy asks. “I’m Jessica, and I get to live here” is her matter-of-fact reply).

Jessica’s petite build places her closer to the students’ eye level, and that also works to everybody’s advantage. “She has visited our school,” says Judy Benish, who teaches fourth grade at Mineral Point Elementary School. “We didn’t want her to leave.”

“Do you have another tree upstairs,” the first lady is asked. Uh-uh, she admits: “These seem to be enough.”

The Executive Residence, 99 Cambridge Road, Madison, welcomes visitors from noon to 2 p.m. Dec. 13, 16 and 18. Holiday tours of 30 minutes also will be given from 12:30-1:30 p.m. Dec. 20. Groups of 20 or more should make a reservation before visiting on these dates.

Tours also are offered from 1-3 p.m. on Thursdays, April through August.

There is no admission charge, but visitors are urged to donate new or gently used books for children. See http://readon.wi.gov/.

For more about the Executive Residence and tours: http://jessicadoyle.wi.gov, 608-246-5501.