In August, Katherine A. Rowe and her husband Bruce Jacobson moved into a 5,763-square-foot Colonial Georgian built in 1732 that has witnessed the famous, and infamous, for centuries. It housed British General Charles Cornwallis near the end of the Revolutionary War, and has hosted George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and every president from Woodrow Wilson to Dwight Eisenhower.
It is also a great deal. As president of the 325-year-old College of William & Mary, Ms. Rowe gets to live free in what the school attests is the country’s oldest official college presidential residence. “Being in this house brings us back to that early moment of thinking about the beginning of higher education in this country,” she says.
One of the most lucrative perks of becoming a college or university leader is the housing. The average tenure of a college chief was 6.5 years in 2016, according to a study by the American Council on Education. During their time in charge, many presidents get to live in some of the grandest and most historic properties in the U.S.
For many campus leaders, the value of their free accommodations is not taxed as income. According to Donald Budnick, a New York-based accountant, housing isn’t considered part of taxable compensation so long as the president is required to occupy the home as a condition of employment and the home is located on campus. This is the case for about 70% of public college and university presidential contracts, according to research from James Finkelstein, professor emeritus, and Judith Wilde, professor, both in public policy at George Mason University. (No data was available for private college presidents.)
For these presidents and chancellors, the campus homes are also more than residences. They serve as the cog in a university’s social life, hosting events for students, faculty, alumni and prospects throughout the year.
The President’s Mansion at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, is a bustling social center for the campus. President Stuart R. Bell and his wife Susan say they host dozens of events annually at the antebellum, 11,781-square-foot Greek Revival mansion, which features dramatic, twin curving staircases from the ground to the formal second-floor balcony entrance.
Between alumni and student tours, formal dinners, student barbecues, tailgate parties for up to 800 and Easter egg hunts for local children (featuring 9,000 eggs this year), the place clearly belongs to the campus community. “It did take a little bit of an adjustment to hear people coming and going through our house all the time,” says Mrs. Bell. “Within a couple of months, it was astounding when there were not people going through.”
Some presidential homes, due to location, size or tradition, are less a social center and more like an inn. The President’s House at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., occupied by President Sister Jane Gerety for the past 10 years, is a 6,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom renovated carriage house and stable that was part of a grand estate built for successful banker William Watts Sherman in 1876, according to historical records. It is one of the seven contiguous historic estates owned by Salve Regina in the Ochre Points/Bellevue Avenue neighborhood in Newport, known for Gilded Age mansions like the Marble House, built in 1892 for William Vanderbilt, and the Breakers, built in 1895 for his brother Cornelius.
The President’s House is divided into two apartments, one for the president, one for visitors. Sister Gerety says her bedroom was where Mr. Sherman’s staff used to wash the estate’s horse-drawn coaches. “I’m living in a place where servants lived,” she says. “I like the symbolism of that.”
Aside from their history and pedigree, another recurring theme among these campus treasures is the maintenance, repairs and renovations they require, which because of their age and intensity of usage can be a constant, expensive process.
Garner President’s House at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, is on the National Register of Historic Places. Gifted to the college in 1908 by William Fletcher King, one of Cornell’s earliest presidents, it is hailed by architects as an exceptional example of Gothic/Victorian architecture, the college says.
It was also falling apart. When President Jonathan Brand and his wife Rachelle LaBarge arrived in 2011, they had to move to temporary housing as the school was just launching an 18-month, $1.9 million renovation.
Prior to their arrival, Mr. Brand said the board debated whether to undertake renovations at all, given the poor condition of the 168-year-old home. His predecessor, Les Garner and his wife Katrina, lived in the house for 16 years, and Mr. Brand says the house was named after them to honor how they made the home a focal point of the community, and also due to their fortitude in living with its challenges, including constantly freezing pipes and a leaky roof. “They had a very tight relationship with the facilities staff,” says Mr. Brand. “I mean I can visualize them blowing with hair dryers on pipes literally an hour before an event.”
Despite the renovation, Mr. Brand says that rumors persist that the spirit of Mr. King, the early president who donated the home to Cornell on the condition he be allowed to continue living there, still occupies the place. “People say he stayed for 13 years after he retired,” says Mr. Brand. “But I think it might be more like 100 years.”
Ghosts are another of the perks that come with a presidential residence. William & Mary’s President’s House, which is on several campus ghost walks, reportedly has apparitions, says Ms. Rowe. They like to knock on the front door, and open the kitchen cabinets at night, she says. There are tales of a ghost of a French soldier who died in the house in the 1700s. “I speak French, and I figure when he’s ready to have a conversation, he’ll let me know,” she says.
The University of Alabama home may have one as well, says Mr. Bell. “We’d been here a week and a half and heard noises,” he says. “We looked all through the house and couldn’t find anything, and Susan and I turned to each other and said, ‘this is a big house, let’s go to sleep.’”
Despite the challenges of living in so public a space—with visitors both corporeal and incorporeal—the presidents and their spouses say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. The Bells are enamored with their home’s majestic front porch, where Mr. Bell says he spends many Sunday mornings with hot tea and the newspaper. Ms. Rowe and Mr. Jacobson say they cherish their cozy upstairs den. Sister Gerety likes to meditate in her home’s sunroom, which looks out over a rose garden. Mr. Brand and Ms. LaBarge love their bright kitchen.
Mr. Brand says that he’s taking a cue from former President King who, as was his wish, lived in the house until he died in 1921. “I’ve already penned a letter to my successor,” Mr. Brand says. “‘Get ready. We’re not leaving.’”
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