What can Yale do with 17 million dollars? Pay a full-time professor for 94 years. Pay full tuition for 290 students. Complete 85 percent of the renovations on Sterling Memorial Library. Or, renovate one house. This September, University Provost Ben Polak announced in a campus-wide email that the President’s House at 43 Hillhouse Avenue would be undergoing a 17 million dollar renovation, entirely funded by an anonymous gift. The staggering price tag of the project has been raising a few eyebrows, as well as voices, around campus over the past six months.
Renovations on the residence actually began last summer and should finish this coming fall, when President Salovey, GRD ’86, his wife Marta Moret, SPH ’84, and their dog Portia will move in.
To complicate the perception of this project, just after the announcement of the renovation, news of Yale’s 39 million dollar budget deficit spread throughout campus. Budget cuts, layoffs, and reductions in funding followed. With the backdrop of the deficit, the renovations were cast in further doubt.
As high as 17 million dollars sounds, the original budget was even higher. Polak scaled back the original plans in order to cut down on the cost. “We went through and looked for ways to do things more cheaply and cut things out of the project,” he said in an inter- view. It’s possible that the roof may still leak because a repair was removed from the plans. An expensive HVAC system was cut and the second floor air conditioning system along with the design for its fence were ultimately lessened. Neither President Salovey nor President Levin have been involved in the renovations because of a conflict of interest. “The capital projects process was altered because the president usually plays a big role, but he was removed from the decision making here,” said Judith Chevalier, co-chair of the University Budget Committee.
There are 17 million other ways for donors to spend 17 million dollars, such as endowing more professorships, hiring more professionals to help with student mental health, and raising wages for facilities workers. At face (and numerical) value, the project sounds exorbitant. But if Salovey uses the home at its full capacity and for its ideal purpose, then the space has the potential to better foster community, tradition, and connections for all of Yale—from matriculation to life past commencement.
Both Mark Twain and Charles Dickens called Hillhouse Avenue, where the President’s House stands, the most beautiful street in America. The street originated as the urban center of an agricultural region transforming into a city, a process that accelerated after the Revolution- ary War and into the early 19th century. Henry Farnam, an upstate New York farm boy turned railroad magnate, settled in New Haven and built the mansion at 43 Hillhouse in 1871. Its original incarnation as an elaborate, turreted Victorian Gothic structure stood until the 1930s. When Charles Seymour became the first Yale president to inhabit the house, after Farnam bequeathed his home to the University, the house underwent a major facelift. “[President Seymour’s] wife refused to live in such a monstrosity,” said Yale archivist Judy Schiff, “because by that time, this very high Gothic style had become very unfashionable and the style of the day was Colonial Revival.” Except for some minor updates and improvements, the over- all structure of the house has remained unchanged since the transformation from Victorian to Colonial in 1934.
Considering the number of decades that have passed since then, renovation was ultimately necessary: the house was in desperate need of repair. Window frames were rot- ting, the structure was not up to fire code, the electrical wiring proved hazardous, and the inefficient heating and cooling systems needed updating. According to Polak, “the furniture was famously falling apart.” The renovations aim to make the house easier to run for the staff. In addition, the house also functions as a mini-museum, displaying major artworks from the collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. The safety of the paintings on view required both security and sprinkler system improvements.
The planned improvements range beyond the operational. Polak stressed the identity of the house as a gateway to Yale, and a gateway must be accessible. “The only way you could get a wheelchair in there was going down the driveway and then taking a tiny service elevator that only a small wheelchair could navigate,” he said. The construction of handicap-accessible bath- rooms and the installment of an elevator will fill this gap. Accessibility is the most important aspect of president’s house, as it serves as much more than just a liv- ing space. Salovey, along with his wife and dog, will occupy an apartment on the top floor—the majority of the house provides a gathering place for the community and visitors. Traditionally, parents drop off their freshmen here on the opening days of school, and return at graduation. The president welcomes new faculty, visiting professors, and donors in the bottom two floors of the house. Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Presi- dent George W. Bush, DC ’68 were recently hosted there.
Salovey will be the first president to live at 43 Hill- house since 1986, when former president A. Bartlett Giamatti, SY ’60, and his wife moved out. When he was President, Giamatti’s successor, Benno C. Schmidt, Jr., TC ’63, LAW ’66, maintained residence in New York, and attracted criticism for his physical distance from campus. Most recently, President Levin, GRD ’74, lived with his family in East Rock. Salovey’s decision to re- turn to the House at the center of campus is a promising prospect for his connection to students and the com- munity. “He’ll be picking up his newspaper in the morn- ing in his pajamas and he’ll see students running past up to science hill—if they’re up that early,” said Polak.
While a pajama-clad Salovey on Science Hill in the ear- ly morning may seem like wishful thinking, it’s clear that Salovey has shown a commitment to making Hillhouse Avenue more accessible to all within the Univeristy. On a warm Sunday in mid-October, Yalies, professors, and community members all flooded the street to celebrate the president’s inauguration. “It was treating Hillhouse as a public space that could have bluegrass music being played, children running around, and students singing,” Polak said. “Having Peter be right there as a part of that will add to student life, and it will make him very connected to the community.” Salovey could extend that moment of celebration in New Haven and Yale if the house continues to be a microcosm of the spirit of that day.
“When I occasionally traveled with President Levin we saw the houses of other college and university presidents and they often looked well appointed and impressive,” commented Penelope Laurans, Master of Jonathan Edwards College. “I am not saying we have to compete for elegance. But Yale should have a president’s house worthy of its name. It should be safe for the fabulous art displayed therein, i.e. secure and safe from fire or damage. It should be workable for the staff who have to run literally scores of events. It should be comfortable for the president’s family. It hasn’t been any of those things and it is pleasing that it will be.”
Now, blue fencing and scaffolding obscures parts of the house, and a wide array of trucks that only my six-year-old cousin could name clog the driveway, the backyard, and the short stretch of pavement in front. Yet in a few months the vehicles will drive off, the construction fences will come down, and the grass will regrow. Yalies and New Haven residents will have the opportunity to wander the sizeable gardens that will open up as public space behind the house. As an in- vestment in a space to cultivate community and spirit, this 17 million dollars promises to be well spent.