The Sloane House, better known as the President’s House, is easily one of the most visible, but least recognizable, buildings on campus. Though most students pass it several times each day, its interior is as unfamiliar as the office mazes of Stetson. Equipping ourselves with cameras and notepads and enlisting President Carl Vogt ’58 as our guide, we set out to elucidate the public about this mysterious house on the hill.
Built in 1801 as a wedding gift for a local merchant’s wife, the house has been the home of every College president since Mark Hopkins. Each of these presidents has left his mark, and the result is a pleasing collaboration of several architectural alterations and add-ons.
From the outside, the President’s House breathes the perfect combination of stately grandeur and New England antiquity – it is a typical American colonial mansion with some neoclassical elements. The charming faÃ§ade facing Main Street hides the large additions that come to view when entering the main side entrance. It is, in many ways, the White House of Williams College. Set back from the road, it serves as a social space and a showcase of history and tradition. And, like the White House, it even has its resident squirrels, frolicking about in the large side yard.
It is a large house whose primary purpose is entertainment. The first floor is graced with spacious reception rooms, including a large ballroom-like space, a large dining room and several drawing rooms. The house’s size is perhaps its most distinguishing feature. Vogt noted, “I’m here by myself with eight and a half bathrooms,” to which President-Elect Morton Schapiro playfully asked, “So, do you rotate?”
The President’s House needs to be large because it is not just a private residence, but also a public showcase for the College. Countless receptions, teas, lunches and dinners take place annually at the house, including entertaining alums, prestigious guests, lucky students and members of the board of trustees and other key College groups. “We’ve had a lot of people for dinner through here,” said Vogt. He added that “It’s a lovely house for what it’s for, especially official functions – it’s a college president’s house.”
The rear wing of the house, however, is quite different from the front, and more public, wing. In stark contrast to the openness and largesse of the front part of the house, the residence’s rear section is an eclectic labyrinth of narrow staircases and halls that lead to a confusing yet fascinating grouping of rooms. Vogt suggested that they might have been used as servants’ quarters at one point. Today, though, they offer many opportunities; one could easily imagine them as children’s rooms, offices or, if needed, storage space.
Being such a central part of the Williams landscape and the College’s history, the house also has many legends. Vogt jokingly confirmed the reports that the mansion is indeed haunted. “Mark Hopkins’ ghost is here,” the president said. He assured us, though, that he did not cause many problems, saying, “He’s pretty tame.”
Every president who has lived in the house has left his own unique mark on the residence. Vogt ’s enduring impact on the house is currently in production: the house is undergoing an extensive and long overdue renovation. The residence is also being de-leaded, in order to accommodate the incoming president’s family. Massachusetts state law requires that there be no lead paint below four feet in a building that houses children under the age of six.
Layer after layer of the 15 or so coats of lead paint has to be scraped away while intensive reconstruction work is done in every room. In addition to the deleading, the Vogt administration’s other lasting mark on the residence will be air conditioning. It surprised the two reporters – both west-coasters – that this important home lacked air conditioning. To make way for the Schapiro’s southern California lifestyle, however, air conditioning will finally be installed in the mansion. Also, a fence will be added in the rear yard to accommodate the Schapiros’ dog, and the rear-recessed roof will be converted into a patio.
Vogt has good-naturedly sacrificed his last remaining months at the house to let these changes be made. He continues to live in the mansion, despite all the construction and workers who have invaded the house, commenting that “every day at seven in the morning, about 25 guys show up at the house.”
Most of the rooms in the house currently bear the marks of construction workers. Some of the rooms have been stripped completely bare, while others are jam-packed with plastic-covered furniture, ladders, dangling wires and exposed pipes. Only Vogt’s bedroom, an office, a bathroom and the main kitchen are left to live in.
In addition to the construction, the second drawback of the house is the noise. Located on a crest of Route 2, the front section of the house often resonates with the sound of 18-wheelers downshifting as the crawl up the hill. This noise, coupled with the enthusiastic chimes that ring from Lasell every quarter hour, is aggravated in the summer months when heat necessitates open windows. The installation of air conditioning should drastically reduce this problem.
Despite the noise and the chaos of construction, Vogt has enjoyed his stay at Sloane House. Although its high ceilings and maze-like old servants’ quarters are reminiscent of a much older time, it still has the feel of a home. “When you first come here, it seems big and not that intimate, but I’ve gotten to like it…it’s really a neat old house.” Vogt and his wife (who lives and works in Washington but frequently visits) have tried to make the house as home-like as possible in their short time here.
On Halloween, they hung a skeleton by the front door and hoped for trick-or-treaters. Returning from a theatre event at the Adams Memorial Theatre, President and Mrs. Vogt overheard four male first-years deliberating whether they should trick or treat the house. Vogt and his wife came up behind them and introduced themselves, whereby the boys immediately switched from daring trick-or-treaters to composed college students.
Vogt was sorry to note that they received no authentic visitors that night. A note to president-elect Shapiro (and to students): the house is a fine place to stop by on Halloween.
While comfort is one large benefit of living in the President’s House, location is another. President Vogt notes that the centrality of the house precludes the need for frequent driving. “It is a three-minute walk to the office,” he comments. “It feels like home.”