An unassuming brick building set back from the street by wrought iron fences, the president’s house, located at 55 Power St., is both a gathering place for members of the Brown community and forms a chapter of Brown’s history on College Hill. Since assuming the presidency in 2001, President Ruth Simmons has used her “wonderful house” to make ties between people on campus and outside guests drawn in by events.
The Gregorian Revival-style house has a central, three-story section flanked by two-story wings. Once inside, guests encounter a marble fireplace, marble floors and a spiral staircase. Around the house, the landscaped lawn provides room for larger gatherings and features a recessed grass patio.
Designed by William Aldrich and originally built in 1922 as the home of Rush Sturges, the house was sold to the University by the Sturges family in 1947, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. President Henry Wriston was the first University president to reside in the house. In 1970, a later resident, the wife of President Donald Horning, commented that the house is so large, it “needs a lot of people.”
An evening at 55 Power St.
Today, Simmons said she tries to adhere to this advice, frequently opening her house to student groups and community members as well as more notable guests of the University.
Some “high level” guests receive invitations to formal dinners at the house. Recent guests have included Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and New York Times op-ed columnist and author David Brooks, who came to the house immediately after a March 6 appearance. “Gatherings may be at any time of day,” Simmons said, adding that these may include breakfast, lunch, tea or dinner. The house can accommodate 60 guests inside, and large indoor events usually take place in the light-filled conservatory near the back of the house.
In some cases, guests also stay overnight. “The residence is meant to be a place for guests of the University, especially the president’s guests and high level visitors,” Simmons said. “In lieu of staying at a hotel, they are invited to stay at the president’s house.”
Of course, the president also hosts student groups in a more informal setting. For example, preceding first-year orientation last fall, participants in the Third World Transition Program gathered in the president’s garden to mingle with professors and have a buffet-style lunch.
Lydia Sharlow ’09 was invited to dine at the house in February as a mentee of Simmons through the African, Latino, Asian and Native American Mentoring Program. The president invited ALANA members and other Providence residents to a memorial dinner for artist Kiki Smith.
Simmons takes a special interest in how the events and menus are set up, saying she tries to “incorporate variety.”
“Because it’s my house, I feel very strongly about putting my stamp on things,” she said.
And of the salad, pollack and crab entrÃ©e and dessert course served at the ALANA function? “It was delicious,” Sharlow said.
Sharlow said Simmons managed to create an environment that was both sophisticated and comfortable for all the guests.
“All the guests there made an effort to know each other,” she said. The president is “a big listener, but we didn’t talk much since she was entertaining so many people.”
Simmons tries to engage the students without putting them on the spot. “What I try to do is allow people from campus to interact with leaders of their day,” she said. “If we have a world leader (visiting), I want people to have a conversation with that person.”
However, Simmons recalled that, at some events, students have complained about being called on to speak. But when Simmons decided not to use that tactic at the recent dinner with Reed, students also expressed disapproval to her privately.
The president has held several events at her house in conjunction with the Campaign for Academic Enrichment. “During the campaign, the house is especially helpful because of the call for many special events with donors,” Simmons said. “It’s always memorable because the people giving to us are very memorable people.”
Fit for a president
Preceding the inauguration of new presidents, the house is customized to accommodate the needs of the incoming presidents, taking into account the size of their family and their lifestyles.
“In my case, the previous president has just renovated the house extensively,” Simmons said, adding that this process included the addition of a conservatory. “I liked the renovations and decided not to do anything significant.”
No staff members reside in the house, though sometimes they do come in, especially when making preparations for guests. “It is actually a house, not an administrative space,” Simmons said.
However, the house still contains much furniture and dÃ©cor from its previous inhabitants.
“It’s hard to live at a place where you’re not surrounded by the things you’ve acquired over the years,” Simmons said.
Fortunately, Simmons experienced living in a president’s house at Smith College. Moreover, many of her personal belongings are dispersed in storage, with her children or at a second house she owns in Texas.
Still, Simmons said she has developed a connection with the house. “I will feel very anxious about separating from it when I ultimately retire.”
Houses on the Hill
Though Simmons continues the tradition of residing at 55 Power St., Brown presidents have lived in various locations on College Hill through the years. According to Encyclopedia Brunoniana, the very first house for Brown’s president was located on Prospect Street near University Hall (then called the College Edifice).
In 1840, a new house was constructed on the corner of Prospect and College streets. President Francis Wayland, Brown’s fourth president, was the first to live in the house, and President Elisha Andrews was the last, leaving the house 1898. A 1900 edition of the Brown Alumni Monthly reported, “The old President’s house has become unsuitable for a family, since the cable cars have turned College Hill into a railroad.” For nearly a decade after Andrews’ departure, the house was used as the Brown University Cooperative Refectory until it was razed in 1908 to make room for the John Hay Library.
In 1901, a new red brick house was built for President William Faunce at 180 Hope St. The house featured an elaborate central porch and a stained glass image of Brown’s seal. Following the acquisition of the current president’s house, the physics department moved into the building. In 1952, it was re-named Barus Hall and was later razed to allow for construction of Barus & Holley.