What is today the President’s House was constructed in 1850 by Mount Vernon banker William Hamilton, because he enjoyed the view. The house was referred to as Hamilton’s folly because it was not only isolated but difficult to heat due to the wind on the hill. In 1861, after his daughters Maggie and Alice had reached their teen years, Mr. Hamilton sold the house to a farmer named Peter McDowell and moved his family to Iowa City. Both of Hamilton’s daughters had attended the preparatory school at the college, and as such, the building was a part of the college’s early history.
Around 1864, President William Fletcher King was looking for a place to call home for himself and his new wife. While they had purchased a house down the hill from the college, the old Hamilton house had caught King’s eye, and in a move made hasty by another bidder, King exchanged his house and land for the old Hamilton house, in addition to paying McDowell a hefty $3,000, which King borrowed from friends and family. Although it took King nearly 15 years to pay back the loan, he knew it was worth it, as he wanted the house to remain with the college. After King’s retirement, he gave the house to Cornell, with the stipulation that it be used for the housing of college presidents, and that he be allowed to live there until his death. Since then, the “White House” has played host to almost every college president since 1864 and undergone several renovations.
The original house was 4,384 square feet, with a tower that immediately catches the eye when approaching the house. Most 1850 architecture at the time did not use towers like the one gracing the president’s house. It is possibly part of an addition that occurred in 1855 and is quite likely the work of Cass Chapman, the architect who designed King Chapel and Bowman-Carter Hall, as the structure of the tower is very similar to those buildings’ towers. As Hamilton was fond of chess, the tower was mostly likely built to be Hamilton’s game room owing to the excellent views of the countryside and the way the breeze would cool the tower during the hot summer months.
In 1922, President Charles Wesley Flint (1915-1922) added screened porches on the west side, enclosed a summer kitchen to be all-season, created a private dining room from the former kitchen, and added a bathroom to the guest room to make hosting easier. Under the Burgstahlers’ presidency (1927-39 ), the third floor was renovated to create three more bedrooms, a bathroom, luggage room, and a hallway. The rooms were home to six girls who would receive boarding and a college education in exchange for an hour of housework a day. In the early 1940s, Mrs. Magee, wife of President John B. Magee, enclosed the front porch to enlarge the living room and moved the location of the front door to where it sits today. The Cole presidency (1943-1960) completely re-did the kitchen, added windows overlooking the campus from the dining room, replaced the crystal chandelier in the dining room, and planted a rose garden. Arrola B. Cole famously said that she would wait for faculty and staff to have a salary raise before she would take money to redo the house, which was in desperate need of repair, and the Board of Trustees was able to make the necessary salary adjustments in time for Mrs. Cole to have her new kitchen.
The most recent set of renovations, completed in 2012, added an additional 4,853 square feet to the house. These renovations began during the tenure of President Emeritus Les and First Lady Katrina Garner (1994 to 2004), and were made possible by the leadership and generosity of the Board of Trustees. Lead donors for the project were John McGrane ’73 and Martha (Marty) Benson McGrane ’73. The renovations addressed a long-standing issue with the plumbing and pipes freezing during the winter, allowed the house to be made ADA accessible, created space for college catering, and helped with the overall flow of space within the house. Along with the addition of the Garden Room and catering space, the renovations also reinforced the original structure, adding in steel supports and re-building the floor of the iconic tower. During construction, crews demolished 2,389 square feet of the existing house before making the additions. The house now stands at 6,848 square feet, allowing Jonathan Brand, the current president, and his wife, Rachelle LaBarge, to continue the tradition of entertaining students, faculty, and distinguished guests to the campus in what is truly a campus landmark.