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President's house will be a home

President Peter Salovey ’86PhD and his wife Marta Moret ’84MPH are planning to live at 43 Hillhouse, Yale's official presidential home, making him the first Yale president in 27 years to live there full-time. But first, the house is going to need a little work. 

Provost Ben Polak explained in an e-mail to the Yale community on Tuesday that the 142-year-old house will get a $17-million renovation to improve handicapped accessibility and safety, security, and mechanical systems. Polak said the project is a scaled-down version of an earlier renovation plan and will be funded by donations. It will be completed by fall 2014.

These renovations will be nothing, though, compared to the overhaul the building got in the 1930s when Yale first acquired it. The house was built in 1871 by Henry Farnam, a local entrepreneur, in the Victorian Gothic style that was then fashionable on Yale's Old Campus. In fact, architect Russell Sturgis, who designed the house, also designed Farnam, Lawrance, and Durfee Halls at Yale. (Henry Farnam funded the dorm bearing his name.)

Farnam left the house to Yale in his will to use as a president's house, but only after his widow and then his son (economics professor Henry Walcott Farnam) had the use of it. By the time the younger Farnam died in 1933 and Yale acquired the house, the pendulum of taste in American architecture had swung to the clean lines of Georgian and early American, and the dark, ominous house looked like no place for a Yale president. So before new president Charles Seymour ’08 moved in in 1937, the house was de-gothicized: the tall, thin, Victorian windows were replaced with square-paned Georgian ones, the pointed-arch porch was removed, and two turrets were pulled down.

Presidents from Seymour to A. Bartlett Giamatti ’60, ’64PhD, used the house as both a ceremonial residence for receptions and as a place to lay their heads. But Benno Schmidt ’63, ’66LLB, largely commuted from New York, where his wife had a career as a filmmaker, during his six-year presidency. His spurning of the official home was one of the things that led to the perception that he was absent and inaccessible. T-shirts and signs reading "Where's Benno?" appeared on campus.

Ironically, when Richard Levin ’74PhD took over in 1993, his decision not to live in the house was seen as a positive statement. Levin and his wife Jane were raising their family in their home in the East Rock neighborhood, and they wanted to stay a part of their community—a valuable PR move at a time when improving relations with New Haven was near the top of the university agenda. The Levins live in East Rock still, though like Schmidt they used the president's house for receptions and other functions.

All the same, the campus community seems to feel like something has been restored by Salovey and Moret's decision. As Salovey told the Yale Daily News this spring, “People seem excited when we tell them. I’m not quite sure why. There’s a certain way in which people are charmed when you tell them you’re going to live on campus.”

Filed under 43 Hillhouse, Peter Salovey
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