President Sullivan hosts thousands of new students for an ice cream party following Opening Convocation in 2016. Photograph courtesy of Stacy Smith.
Life at the President's House
Through the generations of presidents and changing times, Carr’s Hill has served presidential families remarkably well without major alteration. President Edwin Alderman and Mrs. Alderman insisted on touches that helped make the house what it is today – the University’s foremost site for social gathering. The beautiful gardens meet the needs not only of entertaining but also of the presidential families who have lived at Carr’s Hill.
The Aldermans had a clear idea of the house that the University needed for its presidents. With his new authority, the first president of Mr. Jefferson’s University of Virginia pressed McKim, Mead & White until he got what he and Mrs. Alderman wanted: a center hall colonial revival house. McKim, Mead & White had their say in the smaller structural and decorative details: the length and width of stairways, columnar order—Doric instead of the Alderman’s choice of Ionic order for the portico—placement of doors, woodwork, and other interior detailing.
The Foremost Site for Social Gathering
The house that the Aldermans built was from the beginning assiduously planned for receiving guests. Mr. and Mrs. Alderman’s insistence on the wide covered front portico, the sheltered carriage entrance, and the large entrance hall surrounded on all sides by public rooms resulted in a house that today is the University’s foremost site for social gathering. Approaching the hundredth anniversary, Carr’s Hill has changed, as has the University. As the student body, the faculty, and staff have grown, the number of social engagements held at the house has multiplied. During the school year, cheerful streams of guests file up the garden staircase and into the president’s home. What follows is a description of how the house has changed over the past century, and how the complicated mechanism of entertaining hundreds of guests each year actually works for the Casteen family.
Before the house was completed, there were a number of changes or additions made to its plans. The McKim, Mead & White architect W. M. Kendall decided that the radiators installed were too tall and replaced them with more appropriate hardware. The arch of the door from the vestibule to the hall was changed to follow the curve of the door from the vestibule to the portico. Colored glass for the window over the stairway was at issue in several letters between McKim, Mead & White and President Alderman. Mr. Kendall explains that the glass “will sufficiently exclude the light, and at the same time give a warm color effect.” Whether colored glass was ever installed in the window above the staircase is not known; there is now clear glass in this window.
Also altered were the pocket doors to be installed in the entryways to the library/living room, reception room, and dining room. Originally, they were to be solidly wood, eight feet six inches in total height. Instead, a large expanse of decorative glass replaced wood panels in the upper three-quarters of the doors. The top of the glass was seven feet from the floor, making a light, glazed effect for the heavy wooden doors.
The Completed House
When the house was completed in 1909, Mr. and Mrs. Alderman were satisfied, and most of the house’s early critics were mollified. Through the generations of presidents and changing times, the house has served presidential families remarkably well without major alteration.
In fact, it was not until 1954 that any renovations to the house were carried out. Even then, during the Darden administration, the changes were few. The kitchen and plumbing were updated, and the bathroom ceilings were lowered, perhaps to make cleaning easier.One of the earlier changes to the house was the removal of the pocket doors in 1959. Although grand and unique, the heavy doors must have been difficult to operate. They were replaced with conventional side-hinged doors, and for the last sixty years the glass doors have been in storage at Carr’s Hill.
The Shannon Family
The removal of the doors was part of a much larger renovation project in preparation for the Shannon family occupancy of Carr’s Hill. Fifty years had passed since its construction. Time had its way with runners, bolts, cabinets, and plumbing, which were rusting, bowing, and breaking. The doors were replaced, and so was the outdated kitchen; the doors between the entrance vestibule and the front hallway were removed; a door was created between the pantry and the patio; bookcases were added to President Alderman’s reception room, by 1959 known as the “sitting room.” Installed also was a second doorway between what is today called the library and the back hall.
At the west entrance, a curved railing and rounded stairs replaced the original square-shaped stairway. The bottom stair was removed and the road grade was raised almost six inches, thus expanding the porte cochere to accommodate larger vehicles. Perhaps also at this time, two china cupboards dating from the construction of the house were removed from the dining room and placed in the attic hallway, where they remain to this day. Additionally, a quasi-octagonal porch was installed over the original rectangular one on the east side of the house. Upstairs, a wall was added to the front bedroom, dividing it into two rooms, and a bath was divided in two to serve two bedrooms.
Renovations of 1960
In 1960, renovations continued. The first floor of the northwest porch, now used to hang coats during large social events, was enclosed, and a powder room under the stairway was added. Plans show that the lavatory originally was located across the side entry hall. That powder room was converted into a coat closet. Decorative legs from a second - story location were installed under a new lavatory sink and crown molding was added for further ornamental effect. Plans dating to 1960 indicate that the current guest house was used then as servants’ quarters. These plans also show a place for a slide, swings, a sand area, and perhaps a shallow pool, where now there is a kitchen garden.
The Hereford Family
When the Hereford family moved into Carr’s Hill in 1974, bookcases were removed from the west and east walls, and new bookcases were added to the south wall of the library; library sconces were removed. There was an addition to the porch; the partition added to the front bedroom was removed; and a door was added to the closet in the master bedroom. At the rear of the house, a new vestibule and a bathroom were added for use by household workers. In the south vestibule, the two decorative niches were “blanked” (covered up) with drywall, and sconces were installed. From both doorways of the sitting room, the hinged doors were removed; in the front hall a new chandelier was added; sconces were removed in the living room, and in the dining room, sconces were removed and a chandelier added. In 1975, a bathroom and kitchenette were installed in Buckingham Palace.
The O'Neil Family
In 1985, for the O’Neil family, the vestibule and bathroom that had been added to the rear of the kitchen in 1974 were removed, and a sunroom built in their place. In the main hall, a more ornate mantel replaced a simpler one over the fireplace. Sconces were added in the main hall and in the dining room. Most dramatic of the additions, perhaps, was the large Chinese screen that was installed on the east wall of the main hall. In 1988, the guest house roof was replaced.
The Casteen Family
During the many years the Casteens lived at Carr’s Hill, a number of changes were made to the house. In 1990, the McKim, Mead & White balustrade, a threat to the water-tightness of the roof, was removed. A year later, a brick walkway that led to the rear entrance was built. In 1992, the support of Deborah and Eli Tullis, the Fair Play Foundation, and the Alumni Board of Trustees of the University of Virginia Endowment Fund enabled a new terrace at the back of the house, which has proved to be very important for entertaining at Carr’s Hill. During the next year, the powder room was redesigned.
As part of a general effort to restore the McKim, Mead & White decorative aspects to the interior of the house, the niches in the entrance vestibule were “unblanked.” The Carr’s Hill gardens were enhanced in 1996 with the construction of the pergola between the guest cottage and garage, and the construction of the Oval Garden to the west of the house. In 2003, the kitchen was redesigned and modernized, turning a family kitchen into a working kitchen to allow a greater capacity for food preparation. A second powder room in place of the house’s coat closet was added to accommodate more guests.
Decor and Furnishings
The care with which Carr’s Hill has been decorated speaks to the importance of the house as a gathering place for members of the University community. The beauty of its exterior and interior design reflects also an American architectural era not often celebrated at the University, the Beaux-Arts era, 1885 to 1920. The presence of Beaux-Arts architecture on Grounds is significant and has its origins in the office of McKim, Mead & White. Beaux-Arts design is not only evident in Carr’s Hill’s grand portico, entrance hall, and staircase, but also in the grand north entrance of the Rotunda, in the buildings at the south end of the Lawn (Cabell, Cocke, and Rouss), and in Garrett Hall with its lobby’s soaring ceiling. The University owes the optimistic, architectural extravagance at the heart of the academical village to these great American architects.
The Art of Hospitality
There is something Jeffersonian in being entertained at the President’s house. The urbane and eclectic approach to Carr’s Hill cookery and wine service, and the welcoming of large numbers of the University friends, faculty, students, and alumni to Carr’s Hill carries on two-hundred-year-old tradition of cultural refinement and unbound hospitality.
About his work in the Carr’s Hill kitchen, Chef Peter Bowyer wrote, “One of the highlights of working [here is the] insistence on the variety and diversity of the food that is served at Carr’s Hill. In complying with these wishes I have been introduced to many cuisines I might otherwise have never encountered, excellent cuisines such as Vietnamese, Indian, Cuban and Persian. This has broadened my professional horizons and enriched my personal ones. It is a great joy preparing food with such a gallery of flavors to call upon.”
When people speak of a “hard-working house,” they are of course really speaking of hard-working Carr’s Hill staff. Barbara Jett, housekeeper at Carr’s Hill for thirty years (1975–2005), said, “I worked hard, but I got to see the world there.” And the world got to know Mrs. Jett. “Wherever I go in this town, I meet people I met while I was working in Carr’s Hill,” she says. At Carr’s Hill, she had the chance to see notable national figures up close. “I met two presidents and their secret service and their staff there.” Nargis Cross, former manager of the President’s House (1996–2005), also found the hard work at Carr’s Hill to have its benefits.
The staff of Carr’s Hill have over the years played no small role in the University’s mission and history. Betsy Casteen, wife of the University's seventh President, summed up that mission well, commenting on the work she and her husband do together with the assistance of their excellent staff: “We try to build University relationships—with and among students, parents, faculty, alumni, and all kinds of people who believe that the University matters, that it makes life freer and more substantial than it might be otherwise.”