With boarded-up windows, peeling paint and a rooftop tarp that flaps in the ocean breeze, the beachfront retreat at the end of Gulf Way Drive is a $1 million eyesore in paradise.
Odd as it may seem, this pricey dump is Alabama’s coastal governor’s mansion. And it has been falling apart for nearly two decades because of government inaction.
The state has been unwilling to repair the house since it was damaged by a hurricane 18 years ago. Officials also have refused to return the land to the developer who donated the property for a gubernatorial retreat in 1962.
So there sits the mansion, vacant and deteriorating a little more each day. Neighbor Ralph Gilges says he has asked the state to at least paint the house and repair the rusting fence, but nothing has happened yet.
“It is nuts,” Gilges said. “We would really like to see something done with it.”
Property caretaker Bill Ross, a retired Mobile shop supervisor, comes by three days a week to guard against vandalism, cut grass and make sure plywood covers the broken windows.
But Ross is 88, and the demands of caring for a nearly 7,500-square-foot, two-story beachfront house far outstrip his abilities.
“It’s just a shame that it’s in this condition,” Ross said.
Governors used the six-bedroom, four-bath house off and on until it Hurricane Danny damaged it in 1997. Since then, successors have been unwilling to take on the political risky task of renovating a mansion that most Alabamians couldn’t afford.
Property records show Republican Gov. Robert Bentley owns two homes within a couple miles of the mansion, so he has no personal need to fix the house. Plus, spending state money on mansion repairs as he supports tax increases to plug budget gaps could be tough politically.
Bentley has stopped by several times recently to look at the mansion, and he told The Associated Press that an architect is assessing what could be done with the property. No final decisions have been made, but Bentley said possibilities include using it for entertainment as an economic development tool.
“The reason we need to at least improve it is because of the neighborhood,” Bentley said. The mansion “is deteriorating, and it does belong to the state.”
Gilges, who discussed the mansion’s condition with Bentley after seeing him on the property, said the time might be right to get something done.
“There are things a second-term governor can do that a first-term governor can’t, and I told him that,” Gilges said. “It’s quite a dilemma.”
Built with private contributions, the house was constructed on land donated by Louisiana developer E. Lamar Little and his partners in 1962, when George C. Wallace was in his first of four terms as governor.
Workers began repairs after Hurricane Danny but they weren’t completed. New doors, windows and exterior columns remain stacked inside, unused and covered with dust.
Ross’ patch jobs have kept the interior dry and some of the lights still work, yet the kitchen, family room, den and bedrooms have all been gutted.
Little twice filed lawsuits to reclaim the property, but courts turned away both challenges, most recently in 2010.
“I was so disappointed in the state,” Little, 89, said in an interview from his home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It looks like it has so much potential … and no one picked it up and ran with it.”
The original donation agreement bars the state from selling the property. Records show the house is worth $403,200 despite its poor condition, and it is attached to two beachfront lots worth a total of $686,200.
Until someone figures out what to do with the property, Ross said he will come by, unlock the rusty gate and mow the lawn every few days. State records show he draws about $8,400 annually for his work.
“I’m just supposed to be here,” he said. “I do a little maintenance, and I love cutting grass.”
Republished with permission of The Associated Press.