For one weekend every year at Johns Hopkins University, the formal garden in front of President William R. Brody's Georgian home turns into a kegger. This spring, bands jammed, Coors Lite flags fluttered between stately old trees and fraternity brothers danced in the mud. Plastic orange hazard fencing roped off the lily-pad pool in the center of the garden, just in case students were tempted to take a dip.
And all night, as Brody and his wife tried to sleep, the generators on the beer trucks kept up the same dull roar.
At Hopkins, as at many other universities, the president lives in the middle of campus, immersed in the culture of the school, aware of any problems -- and an easy target for pranks. Brody doesn't pick up the newspaper in slippers and bathrobe. He once accepted a small goldfish in a coffee cup of water from a senior moving out of her dorm. And he tries to ignore the rumors of late-night trysts in his back yard.
A president's house is an odd place to live -- part lovely historic house, part frat row. As presidents spend increasing amounts of time raising money, their houses have become emblematic of just how little private life is left for top administrators. Schools pour money into presidents' houses, which are often the symbolic heart of a school and the perfect setting for fundraising events.
They're also potential land mines, said Ann Die Hasselmo, managing director of Academic Search Consultation Service. Presidents have lost jobs after extravagant renovation and redecorating projects, as happened at Towson University a few years ago. Political battles are not uncommon as bills come due, and many public schools find it easiest to postpone maintenance work until a president steps down. The College of William and Mary will begin a $1.3 million collection of long-delayed wiring, heating and plumbing repairs and improvements this summer before its next president moves in.
Presidents' houses are often part of the package offered to tempt administrators to campus, especially in searing real-estate markets like the Washington area. Many local schools own expensive homes for presidents off campus: George Washington University's president lives in Kalorama, George Mason's in Fairfax, Howard's in Spring Valley, Georgetown's in Hillandale.
Those who are smack-dab in the middle of campus can find life a little surreal, with sorority rush next door, protesters, streakers, students asking to borrow the kitchen to bake cookies and stolen mascots left on the doorstep.
In some ways things are made easy -- the president doesn't have to pull hors d'oeuvres out of the oven or vacuum before the fundraiser -- but in other ways they're oddly sticky. Getting the kids to the school bus, sitting outside with a cup of coffee or installing a ceiling fan all take more thought than they would in a normal home.
Sometimes presidents and their families get holed up in corners, leaving the grand public spaces free for receptions. The elegance can hide leaks in the roof or, as at William and Mary, 30-year-old heating and air conditioning systems, making the houses not always as comfortable as they look. And university-owned houses can box people out of the market when they leave the job without home equity, which is why some presidents prefer housing allowances, which typically run $20,000 to $50,000 a year.
Besides, as Hasselmo said, "colleges are full of pranksters, and a president's house is a welcoming invitation for that." It's also a convenient symbol of spending, useful to protesters when tuition goes up or a dorm elevator breaks down. In the 1960s and '70s, some presidents moved off campus after one too many angry demonstrations.
Those days are mostly gone, however. A few presidents have stories about sand poured in the gas tank or a rock hitting a window. But today they're more likely to laugh about the times students drop by late at night, tipsy and wondering about switching majors. Many, such as Brody, say they love living on campus.
"It's been terrific," he said. It makes it easier to get to such student events as lacrosse games and concerts. He works out alongside students at the gym. And Nichols House, as the Hopkins president's house is known, is welcoming for alumni and other guests, he said. "Inviting them to the president's house, on campus, is a really special thing for many people."
At the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, the president's house has been used since 1732, with British royalty, George Washington and, purportedly, melancholy ghosts passing through. Louise Kale, executive director of the historic campus, keeps a sharp eye on the house. She doesn't want it to be a stay-behind-the-velvet-ropes museum piece, but she also hopes families won't hammer nails into the 18th-century mantel for Christmas stockings.
At Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Va., President Thomas Burish sometimes drops onto the sofa in the parlor after a night of receptions, loosens his tie and thinks back on how many people have lived there, how much history is in the house built for Gen. Robert E. Lee. George Washington's dishes and Lee's grandfather clock are just part of the furniture, and the garage used to be the stable for Lee's horse, Traveller.
Then he can think about all the eyes on his back: Two freshmen dorms are right there.
Burish once invited a student over for a tour, and she said, "Oh, I live in that room," pointing to her dorm window. "I can see everything that goes on in the Lee House."
That's when his wife started buying drapes.
At Hopkins, Brody said living in the president's house does take some getting used to. He's been surprised by Secret Service agents doing a sweep of the house and caterers walking through the living room. His wife loves to garden, "and she'll be out in her shorts and bandana, for God and country to see, while an important delegation is having a meeting, or there's a wedding at the Hopkins Club next door."
And every spring, the bands and the trucks and the kegs come back to their garden.
"When summer rolls around," Brody said, "it's -- it's just too quiet."