Construction crews are poised to demolish the president’s house at the University of Maryland this week and to pour the foundation for a new 14,000-square-foot on-campus mansion that carries a $7.2 million price tag.
But some question why the school would build such an elaborate house at a time when the flagship university is asking donors to support students who might drop out because they can’t afford tuition. And construction will begin just weeks after President Wallace D. Loh announced that he will cut eight varsity sports teams in June to save an estimated $29 million over the next eight years.
University leaders say the school has a dire need for the new facility, which is designed to woo supporters and attract major donations at a time when state funds make up less and less of the overall budget. They say the bill will be picked up by about 30 private donors — not students or taxpayers — and will pay huge dividends. It also will replace a building plagued with problems.
The university will continue to pay for general upkeep and utilities for the mansion, which will be more than twice the size of the current home and will have dedicated entertaining spaces.
Staci Armezzani, director of communications for the student government, said even student leaders did not know the new house was in the works.
“They’re a bit confused,” said Armezzani, a senior criminology and criminal justice major from Germantown.
“The big question that I’ve heard is, ‘Why is the money being used there instead of for athletics?’ ”
On many campuses, the president’s house has long been a revered gathering place for students, faculty and friends of the school, especially generous friends. Most presidents in the region live in university-provided housing and host thousands of guests each year, making the space feel like a museum or bed-and-breakfast. One president likes to joke that he and his wife “live above the store.”
Buying, building or renovating one of these homes is considered a sure way to ignite controversy, especially at public institutions. Last year, University of the District of Columbia President Allen Sessoms was questioned for making nearly $500,000 worth of repairs over several years to a university-owned house in Chevy Chase. In 2009, North Dakota State University’s president resigned after construction of a new home went more than $1 million over budget.
“One of the first things you learn as president is, don’t renovate the house, especially the kitchen,” said former U-Md. President C.D. “Dan” Mote Jr., who used to live in the soon-to-be-razed house with his wife, Patsy. “We never complained.”
Mote retired and moved out in 2010, and he now has no problem listing his complaints with the old home: temperatures that fluctuated between too hot and too cold; limited privacy, as the couple shared their kitchen with caterers and their living room with the world. The Colonial-style house was filled with asbestos, was not fully accessible to the disabled and faced away from campus.
Mote called his wife a “miracle worker” for decorating the rooms and masking imperfections with elaborate flower arrangements. In their 12 years there, the Motes hosted more than 1,000 events. For small dinners, they squeezed 14 to 16 people in the dining room, another 20 in the living room, and 45 to 50 in a converted garage. Gatherings of more than 100 required pitching tents (and, in the winter, nervously watching wealthy supporters and high-ranking officials maneuver around heating lamps).
“It’s a nice residence for a family, and I think that was the intent” when it was built in 1956, Mote said. But the president then “didn’t see the presidency as we see it today.”
When the house was damaged by a tornado in 2001, Mote said, he contemplated a major expansion but decided doing so would attract negative attention. When he announced his retirement, the foundation that fundraises on behalf of the university decided to take on the project itself.
“There’s never going to be a good time; it doesn’t matter what the economy is like,” said Brodie Remington, president of the University of Maryland College Park Foundation and a vice president at the school. “This is a good investment.”
Remington said the foundation’s trustees decided it would be easier to rip down the house and start fresh.
The “University House” is scheduled to open this fall and will have two distinct sections: One wing will contain a 4,000-square-foot private residence with four bedrooms that will cost about $2 million. The rest will be a 10,000-square-foot “events center” with a grand foyer, public living room, catering kitchen, office space, a formal dining room for small parties and a large hall that can seat 125. That section will cost $5.2 million.
Loh currently lives in a house he purchased near campus, and it’s unclear if he will relocate. Two university spokesmen declined to make him available for an interview.
“We’re not sure. That will be his choice entirely,” Remington said.“The facility is primarily for events.”
Unlike other entertaining venues, Remington said visiting the president’s house can elicit emotions similar to those felt when receiving an invitation to the White House, governor’s mansion or a friend’s home. “We informally call it the ‘power of the house,’” he said.
That power is being utilized on other campuses, too. Although many schools have historic homes that have sheltered a long line of presidents, others created that space more recently. Johns Hopkins University reopened its president’s house in the mid-1990s and now requires residency in employment agreements. In 2008, George Washington University transformed its alumni club into an on-campus home for its new president, Steven Knapp. And in October, St. Mary’s College of Maryland trustees took the first step toward planning to build a president’s home.
In College Park, the university asked for demolition permission from the Maryland Board of Public Works on Wednesday, while students were still on winter break. This was the first time many people had heard about the project. The request was approved. One board member — Comptroller Peter Franchot (D) — voted against it and quizzed officials for about 15 minutes.
“What is the cost of the project?” Franchot asked during the hearing.
“Seven-point-two million dollars,” Remington told him.
“Okay, and didn’t I read recently that College Park is planning to eliminate several Division I sports?” Franchot said.
“That is correct,” Remington said, explaining that building the house will be a one-time expense that will have “a considerable return on investment” by attracting donations for the entire campus, including athletics.
“Maybe it’s the timing, maybe it’s the bad economy . . . but this just strikes me as a really unfortunate project,” Franchot said. “I guess the wrecking ball is out there, poised, but I would urge you to reconsider this, because it doesn’t look good.”
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