For modern administrators, one mansion is too many

The Provost’s House at 35 Hillhouse Ave. was built in 1836 and sold to the University in 1953.
The Provost’s House at 35 Hillhouse Ave. was built in 1836 and sold to the University in 1953. Photo by Alison Griswold.

The year was 1993, and Yale’s newly-appointed president, Richard Levin, had a choice to make: To move into the official president’s residence at 43 Hillhouse Ave. or stay in his longtime East Rock home?

Levin, his wife, Jane, and their children had lived in ordinary houses around New Haven since Levin became an assistant professor of economics in 1974. By the time Levin rose to the University’s top job, the family still had three children living at home. The Levins’ youngest daughter was eight at the time, and her best friend lived next door.

“We had many friends here,” Levin said. “We were locals, residents at that point for 23 years.”

The President’s House as 43 Hillhouse Avenue is now used only for ceremonial functions, such as receptions for freshmen and donors.
The President’s House as 43 Hillhouse Avenue is now used only for ceremonial functions, such as receptions for freshmen and donors.

So the Levins decided not to move into the grand mansion, whose 28 rooms are kept up by a full-time staff of at least four administrative assistants and decorated with paintings from the Yale University Art Gallery. Though their children are now grown, the Levins still live on Everit Street, using the Georgian Revival-style President’s House for hosting events such as receptions for new freshmen and donors.

Two doors down, at 35 Hillhouse, is the Provost’s House, a pale-yellow Greek revival mansion originally built in 1836 and sold to Yale in the mid-20th century. Like Levin, Provost Peter Salovey has never occupied an official Yale residence, keeping his own home near Edgerton Park through his tenure as dean of Yale College from 2004 to 2008 and his two years as provost.

Once grand private homes, the houses became permanent residences for presidents and provosts from Charles Seymour to Bart Giamatti. President Benno Schmidt was the first to decline living in the house, setting off controversy when he insisted on keeping a full time home in New York.

But now, both ceremonial houses on Hillhouse Avenue, along with the Yale College Dean’s House on Prospect Street, are entertainment and meeting spaces for whomever holds those three offices. Guests including Class Day speakers Tony Blair and former president Bill Clinton LAW ’73 have slept in the President’s House, and the Hillhouse home of then-secretary Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. was used to house actress Jodie Foster when, as an undergraduate, she needed shielding from paparazzi.

The University originally began providing administrators housing in 1937, when then-Yale president James Angell complained of not having a place to live, Yale historian Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said. Since then, part of the philosophy of maintaining the houses — which are paid for out of the Yale facilities budget — has been to keep administrators visible in New Haven, unlike professors who often live in the suburbs, Smith said.

“The president and the provost and the dean of Yale College ought to be on the scene as much as possible,” Smith said, recalling the public furor over Schmidt’s refusal to live in the New Haven area.

The president’s and provost’s mansions are the last remnants of an earlier era for Hillhouse Avenue, when University professors, benefactors and administrators dominated the avenue’s houses and social life.

By the early 20th century, Hillhouse Avenue had become a hub for New Haven’s elite and home to several Yale legends — among them Walter Camp, the so-called father of American football, and Henry Farnam, after whom Old Campus’s Farnam Hall is named.

Henry H. Townshend Jr., whose family owned what is now the Provost’s House from 1916 to 1953, recalled going to tea at the Yale treasurer’s house and dropping into Farnam’s home, now the President’s House, to visit the library there.

Then several of the Hillhouse houses were torn down or sold to make way for the University’s ever-growing need for more office space and academic buildings. Most of the mansions on what Charles Dickens once called the “most beautiful street in America” now belong to the School of Management, the Economics Department and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

The house at 35 Hillhouse became the Provost’s House when Townshend, now 91, sold it to Yale after his father’s death in 1953, he said.

“It was a pretty grand house, and the servants were in the back wing,” he said in a phone interview. “You needed three people to keep it up.”

Now, Salovey said, the Office of Facilities employs one staff member to coordinate events, cleaning and upkeep of the house. The President’s House even keeps its own yale.edu e-mail account to help the staff keep organized.

Like Salovey before her, Yale College Dean Mary Miller elected not to live in the Dean’s House on Prospect — like Levin, both administrators decided they lived close enough already. The Saloveys’ home is already close to campus, and Salovey’s wife, Marta, runs a consulting business from offices they built in the attic, Salovey explained. But the Saloveys sometimes host meetings and stay overnight when events run late or they are hosting special guests, he added.

“Marta and I like 35 Hillhouse very much, and have tried to add our own personal touches to it,” Salovey said. “We especially like the back porch as a place for quiet conversation with faculty colleagues, visitors and students.”

Miller, too, lives with her husband in the New Haven house they bought six weeks before she was named dean, using the Prospect Street house only for faculty dinners and other entertaining, she said.

All three administrators said they prefer the privacy and comfort of their own homes.

“The thing about 43 is you begin to think that you are the type of person that lives in a house with 28 rooms and your own Renoirs,” Levin said last year. “Quite to the contrary, we live in a completely ordinary faculty house.”

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