URBANA – Earlier this spring, media reports about the state's deteriorating Executive Mansion and its leaky roof, sewer backups and peeling paint in Springfield caught the attention of administrators at the University of Illinois.
"This is why we will work on the President's House," Randy Kangas, an associate vice president at the UI, wrote in an e-mail to Walter Knorr, the UI's vice president of finance, and other top administrators. "It is an asset like any other, and we need to treat it that way."
The UI has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to remodel the house, following up on plans several years in the making to spruce up the exterior and interior.
In addition to redecorating the basement recreation room – outfitting it with a 58-inch plasma television, for example – and remodeling upper-floor bedrooms in 2006 and '07, the university most recently spent about $600,000 to replace the house's original slate-tile roof and update the main floor's drawing room, according to documents obtained through the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.
Work on the house at 711 W. Florida Ave., which ranged from replacing hot water heaters to reupholstering furniture to installing a $42,000 hand-woven rug, was funded by a mix of private gifts and university money. No state funding, tuition money or student fees were used to pay for the recent renovations, according to Kangas.
UI spokesman Thomas Hardy said much of the work constituted "basic maintenance of a university asset."
Built in 1932 at a cost of $207,239, the three-story Georgian-style mansion has a replacement value of $3.8 million, according to the university. It's the fourth structure to serve as a president's house, dating back to 1896.
More than 5,000 people visit the President's House each year, including major donors and visiting dignitaries, Hardy said. It's used for alumni events, donor receptions, football pregame parties, faculty and student receptions, holiday open houses, and a reception for graduates on commencement day. Guests through the years have included Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Roger Ebert, governors, Supreme Court justices and international ambassadors.
"The house is more than a residence for the president. It's a symbol, kind of a nexus for the university community," Hardy said.
Indeed, when it was conceived in 1928, the UI Board of Trustees agreed to provide a residence for the president that would also serve "as official headquarters of the University for various public affairs."
That didn't stop one state representative at the time from criticizing "lavish expenditures" on the new mansion, including a $1,500 rug.
Public debates about presidential houses and housing allowances have cropped up in recent years at the University of California and the University of Tennessee, which recently put its presidential house up for sale. New UI President Michael Hogan was criticized at the University of Connecticut for choosing not to live in the president's house there because his wife was allergic to mold that was discovered in it. Last year, the president of North Dakota State University resigned after concerns and criticisms raised about a costly renovation at the presidential house there.
"Spending state money on the president's house is one of those things that will draw attention or interest," Kangas said.
Earlier this spring, university officials from the UI and other state institutions were grilled by legislators about not only tuition increases but also housing and housing allowances provided to top administrators. State Sen. Martin Sandoval, D-Chicago, called out the Western Illinois University president for living in a university home that came with a $20,000-a-year maintenance allowance.
To cover the cost of the work on the UI President's House, the university set aside money, what it calls institutional funds, for the projects a few years ago.
"Institutional funds can be from a variety of sources," Kangas said, such as money from grants and contracts, private and unrestricted gifts made to the university, royalties as well as education and administrative allowances.
However, annual maintenance of the house, such as utilities and grounds upkeep, is paid with state funding. During fiscal 2009, the total of state-funded costs for the president's house was around $333,000, according to UI documents.
With exception of the kitchen and dining rooms, which are used by the president and his family, the first floor of the house is used principally for meetings, dinners and other special or official functions. There are six main rooms on the first floor, including a kitchen, dining room, library, office and two meeting rooms.
The second and third floors feature bedrooms, a study and storage areas.
Much of the recent remodeling work was long overdue and was initiated by former UI President B. Joseph White when he took office in 2005, Hardy said. An outside consultant had surveyed the house in 2001 as part of a larger initiative to trim the UI's backlog of deferred maintenance. That study, and another one in 2004, identified replacing the roof as the top priority among $1.7 million worth of "infrastructure deficiencies," according to UI documents.
Rather than shut down the house to do all the work at once, White decided to tackle it in phases, Hardy said.
"President White preferred to live in the house and use it for the purposes for which it was intended: a community center, a place for the University of Illinois community to gather."
At the time the university was also preparing to launch its Brilliant Futures fundraising campaign, and White anticipated entertaining donors there.
Documents show four categories of work at the house since 2006:
– Roof replacement: The original slate-tile roof, which dated back to the house's construction in 1932, was replaced this summer.
"We had been looking at re-doing it knowing the roof was 80 years old and there were leaks," Kangas said.
The replacement cost was estimated at $670,000, but because of a slow construction environment the university was able to get it done for $497,000, Hardy noted. The new roof is expected to last another 50-plus years.
– Third-floor renovations: Four bedrooms on the third floor were renovated in 2006 and 2007 for about $70,000 so that they could accommodate overnight guests. Previously, they were in such poor shape that they were only being used for storage, Hardy said.
The Whites hosted many overnight guests during their tenure – trustees, alumni and major donors providing millions of dollars to the university, Hardy said.
"You think of any major donor you've heard about in the last four or five years, and they probably stayed at least one night in the house during that period of time," Hardy said.
– Basement renovations: This area is used mostly to entertain guests, and it was outfitted for about $10,000 with couches, a television, plus a full-size billiards table paid for by the Whites, Hardy said. They left the billiards table behind when they moved out, he added.
– First-floor renovations: The UI also spent about $70,000 on updates such as reupholstering furniture and replacing window treatments for the drawing room, the main room on the first floor. The work, funded by private and university money, was finishing up when the Whites moved out last year, Hardy said.
The room hadn't been redecorated in 20 years, and other rooms hadn't been touched in 30 years, he said.
"It's going to start to look worn out, particularly when you've got 5,000 people a year visiting that building," he said.
The "aesthetic centerpiece" of the new room, Hardy said, is the $42,000 rug for the drawing room.
The rug was paid for by the Chester Fund, established in 1980 by the Chester family and held by the UI Foundation, the university's fundraising arm. Proceeds from the fund are to be used for artwork and other enhancements for university buildings, Hardy said.
The Chester fund has dispensed $4.4 million since 1980, about $3 million of that for the Urbana campus. Most of the money has funded artwork at the Krannert Art Museum, but it's also been used to pay for sculptures at Willard Airport and rare books at the UI Library, Hardy said.
About $100,000 has been used for the president's house, and almost half of that was for the new rug, he said. Former UI President Stanley Ikenberry also tapped the fund to purchase an antique rug in 1989, he said.
Close to $1 million of the Chester Fund has been used at the UI's Chicago campus, including a Tiffany lamp and a bookcase at the Hull House Museum, Hardy said. The fund's current balance is about $2 million.
"There's a very specific purpose for this fund, and this rug falls within that," he said. "This is what I would consider a piece of floor art," he said.
Repairs totaling $155,000 were also made to the house in the 1980s, all funded with private gifts.