Penn State History Lessons: The President’s House
Simply put, Penn State is a big place. At the University Park campus alone, over 5,000 acres of land are owned by the University. And while some of that land is devoted to ag fields and the sprawling Arboretum, those thousands of acres also house a myriad of different campus buildings. Some of these buildings could be mistaken for one another; take Burrowes and Sparks, for example. Those classic Greek columns and faded white facades make the two buildings look essentially the same. Conversely, most of the science laboratories look the same, just in a different way. The tall, square buildings are often quite literally connected by tunnels. It’s no wonder people get Buckhout and Whitmore confused.
But among all of those campus building dopplegaengers, one building stands unique from the others. Compared to the tall, academic buildings surrounding it, this building seems, well, quite homey. Understandable, that cozy vibe is so obvious because this building once was a home. Like I said before, Penn State is a massive place, so I’ll just announce what this week’s history lesson is about: the President’s House. Now you might be wondering where this ‘university house’ actually is on campus. Don’t worry, I promise it exists. It just goes by a different name these days: the Hintz Alumni Center.
Before it was named Penn State’s alumni mecca, the white house in the middle of campus was actually the home of the University President and their family. From 1864 to 1970, the three-story stone house was what the leaders of the University called ‘home.’
Construction on the President’s House began in 1862, under President Evan Pugh. Pugh began the project not out of desire, but out of necessity. According the Penn State University Archives, Pugh arrived at Penn State in 1859 to find an incomplete five-story building, which was supposed to be his home. Nowadays, we call that building Old Main. Anyways, back in the day, Pugh found it completely unsuitable for his new bride, Rebecca Valentine. So, Pugh requested a new house for the couple.
To save money on construction costs, Pugh actually helped build the house himself. According to University Archives, Pugh helped dig out the basement with faculty and students. Remember, Penn State was a farming school at this time, so physical labor was part of each student’s curriculum. In fact, students were required to perform three hours of labor each day, according to University Archives.
Even though Pugh poured his blood, sweat, and tears (probably, the Archives didn’t specify, exactly) into the President’s House, he never called the place ‘home.’ Eight months before construction was completed on the University House, President Pugh passed away from typhoid fever at age 36.
The President’s House was completed in 1864, but wasn’t inhabited by a University President until 1882. That year, President George Atherton and his wife Frances took up residence in the house. The Athertons made it their mission to make the President’s House the center of social life on campus. According to the University Archives, Mrs. Atherton turned part of the house into a make-shift grade school for kids in State College. There wasn’t a public school system in State College until the end of the 1880s, so Frances Atherton used the house’s library as a classroom. But she didn’t just use the President’s House for educational purposes. During the Atherton’s time in the President’s House, Mrs. Atherton hosted meetings for the Women’s Club and distinguished speakers.
The Atherton’s also made some aesthetic changes to the house. They created an asymmetrical roof, created more rooms on the third floor, and built a wooden porch at the corner of the house. The wooden porch was actually built around an apple tree in the yard. According to University Archives, Mrs. Atherton refused to let the tree be chopped down because it shaded her bedroom. Thus, the porch was built around the tree.
The President’s House, circa 1872 (Photo: Penn State University Archives)
President Sparks and his family were the next to live in the President’s House, from 1908 to 1920, according to University Archives. The Sparks made some changes to the house as well, though they were far more controversial. According to University Archives, Katherine Sparks purchased silver wallpaper for the presidential parlors of the house. This wallpaper cost nearly $10 a roll, which would be over $200 per roll today. Yet the expensive wallpaper was not the only addition made to the President’s House during the Sparks administration. During World War I, the entire southern part of the house was converted into a wing of the American Red Cross, according to University Archives.
The President’s House almost met its end during President Ralph Hetzel’s administration. Though he wanted to build a new house for the University President, he decided to massively remodel the President’s House instead. He reinforced the roof, and built a new garage for the house. But perhaps most importantly, President Hetzel added in a lily pond to the house’s yard. That lily pond is now more commonly known as the duck pond.
The house, circa 1939 (Photo: Penn State University Archives)
President Milton Eisenhower didn’t make many changed to the President’s House during his six years as president, from 1950 to 1956. However, his brother, Dwight Eisenhower, did make several visits to Penn State during those six years. Though President Eisenhower held all of his entertaining in the Nittany Lion Inn, he encouraged students to swing by the President’s House. According to University Archives, President Eisenhower would leave the porch light of the University House on to signify his ‘office hours’ to students.
The last Penn State president to call the President’s House home was Eric Walker. Walker’s family lived in the house for over a decade, though it was not always the most peaceful residence. In April of 1970, over 100 student protestors stormed the yard, demanding the President discuss national and local issues with them. According to The Centre Daily Times, these students threw rocks at the President’s House to get their point across. The lack of privacy was too overwhelming for the Walkers, and they moved out of the President’s House in 1970.
After the Walkers left the house, Penn State planned to demolish the building. Instead, the University decided to convert the residency into an alumni center. It changed the name from the ‘President’s House’ to the ‘University House.’ With a shiny new title, the house was remodeled once more. This time, the house was redesigned to better reflect Evan Pugh’s original vision for the house. The remodeling cost $9.5 million, and the University House was officially renamed the Hintz Alumni Center in 1997.
In a letter from 1863, Evan Pugh described his new house for Penn State to his aunts. He drew out a small sketch of the house’s layout, and gave a construction update. In the letter, Pugh said, “It will be a very fine house I think when done.” Over a century and a half later, that sentiment still rings true.