China & chocolate chips

Photos by Melissa Oivanki

Despite its dignified trappings, the Governor’s Mansion is surprisingly (first) family friendly

The signs are there, though they are easy to miss. In a corner of the drawing room, between the early 1800s breakfront bookcase and the embroidered silk drapes, a tiny plastic outlet cover blends into the baseboard. At the bottom of the spiral staircase, a retractable baby gate is ready to be deployed at a moment’s notice. And in the backyard, a playhouse fort stands sentry near the rose garden.

The Louisiana Governor’s Mansion, in all its stately splendor, may be the house of the people, but it is also the home of some very little people. Beyond the pomp and pageantry, there’s plenty of room for play. And that makes for one memorable place to spend a part of childhood.

Selia, Shaan and Slade, the children of Gov. Bobby Jindal and his wife Supriya, are the youngest residents in the mansion’s half-century existence. “Our children were 5, 3 and 14 months when Bobby was elected,” says Supriya. “So one of our first tasks was to baby-proof the mansion.”

That explains the stairway gates. But as it turns out, the Governor’s Mansion has seen a lot of child’s play since it was built. Elected in 1964, John McKeithen had six children, the youngest few of whom are rumored to have amused themselves by playing with the dumbwaiter and riding their bikes down the marble halls, says mansion coordinator Irene Shepherd. Dakota, the youngest child of Buddy Roemer, enjoyed a wooden tree house that still stands in the backyard. Even Edwin Edwards reportedly hosted a few slumber parties here for his grandchildren.

“We truly are blessed to live in a home that is full of such amazing Louisiana history,” Supriya says, “and it is wonderful to watch the kids experience life in it.”

The juxtaposition of the formal and fancy with the fun and free-spirited is one that’s visible throughout the Governor’s Mansion in subtle ways. By day, this place hosts nonprofit events and official state business. Curious travelers and busloads of students file through the mansion’s first-floor public rooms for tours. They learn of the intricate work that was involved in laying the state seal in marble on the rotunda floor and of the dramatic restoration of the mansion, which was completed during the term of Gov. Mike Foster and spearheaded by his wife Alice.

But when school is out, the laughter of the Jindal kids–now 12, 10 and 8–can often be heard wafting down from the family’s second-story private quarters. And after-hours, when the visitors are gone, this 25,000-square-foot Greek Revivalstyle behemoth and its oak-lined grounds are theirs to explore.

The Jindal kids are as active as any typical Baton Rouge students, with soccer practices and tennis tournaments occupying much of their free time, but some of their favorite at-home activities are planting and harvesting vegetables in the garden on the mansion’s east side. The bell peppers and tomatoes they pluck are used in the mansion kitchen to prepare meals that the family will later enjoy in their own private dining room, a space Supriya says is their favorite in the house. “It is where we are able to sit together, have a meal and talk about our day,” she says. The mansion menu is planned by Shepherd and assistant mansion coordinator Bobbie Johnson every two weeks. “The family loves Louisiana cuisine, especially crawfish pie,” Johnson says. “The kids also love eating boudin and fried fish, but eating healthy is a priority, so we always have lots of vegetables.”

Another favorite pastime for the three resident children is painting, and their works are on display for mansion visitors, as are those of George Rodrigue and Hunt Slonem. Unlike the Rodrigue and Slonem paintings, however, most of the Jindal-signed canvases are housed in more unassuming locations–the public restrooms adjacent to the rotunda.

In 2008 Supriya launched an initiative to showcase the art of other kids around the state on a designated wall; the art is rotated on a monthly basis. “We welcome principals from across Louisiana to share their students’ artwork with us for display,” says Johnson. “We receive thousands of pieces. The first lady also invites the students to bring their classmates, parents and grandparents–really anyone they would like to bring–for a tour of the mansion and to view their artwork.”

The first lady’s focus on children extends beyond the mansion and into the state’s classrooms. Through the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, more than $2 million has been raised to put technology into the hands of young students. By the end of 2013, interactive whiteboards were installed in more than 350 classrooms; combined with other tools, the foundation’s work is estimated to have reached some 15,000 children.

Back home, the outreach continues through special events aimed at the state’s youngest residents. Each spring, preschoolers from area Head Start programs tromp through the front yard for a massive Easter egg hunt. And winter brings Supriya’s favorite festivity, the annual mansion Christmas tree lighting. “The governor and Santa attend, of course, but the highlight of the night is the guests–they are the families of the members of the National Guard, Gold Star Moms and Blue Star Moms,” the first lady says. “In particular, we welcome the children whose parents are deployed and may not be home in time for Christmas. It is a fabulous night to honor our military families, the real-life heroes in Louisiana.”

The big events are surely special, but when you have small children inside a place like this, any day can be an unforgettable one. Supriya, for one, has seared in her mommy memory the time that Shaan “decided to fly paper airplanes from the second floor down to the rotunda while Bobby was holding a meeting.” She also can’t forget the time Shaan closed the doors to the drawing room while a guest was inside “and then declared that the guest was in time out!’ ”

“It certainly has been memorable living in the mansion with young children,” she says. “There are many stories that have made our time here truly unforgettable.”