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Campus mansion? Presidents decline

Stately presidential residences are great for fundraising. But for a cozy home, leaders are looking elsewhere.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO- VAN SICKLER
Published July 3, 2006


TAMPA - Judy Genshaft doesn't live in the University of South Florida's presidential home, because she prefers to raise her two school-age sons in a real neighborhood where they can ride bikes with other children.

University of Florida president Bernie Machen and his wife Chris want more privacy, so this summer they will trade the president's house for a home nearby - making Machen the first UF president not to live in the two-story colonial since it was built in 1953.

"I feel like I live in the pit stop on the turnpike," Machen said of the home's prominent location along University Avenue, the main drag leading to UF's Gainesville campus.

The tradition of university leaders living in a stately campus residence dates back decades.

Today, the homes are both a job perk and a prestigious venue for money-raising and entertaining.

But for a variety of reasons, from privacy and security concerns to changing family needs, state university presidents in Florida are following a national trend in forgoing the official home.

They want more than a reception hall with bedrooms.

"Lifsey House is a fabulous entertainment venue," Genshaft said of USF's presidential home. "But I like having my own home, where I can play with my sons."

Even presidents who enjoy an official residence concede it's not for everyone.

"When you have a week with five dinners and two luncheons, it can start to feel like you're running a bed and breakfast," said University of Central Florida president John Hitt.

According to the American Council on Education's most recent study of university presidents, taken in 2001, just 32.5 percent of nearly 2,600 presidents lived in an official presidential residence as a condition of employment. That's down from about 40 percent in 1998.

Current and former Florida university leaders say the decision often comes down to personal preferences about privacy, child-rearing and even the homes' design.

With people waiting longer to marry and have children, presidents are more likely than in decades past to have school-age children when they take the helm of a university - a situation not always reflected in the design or location of presidential homes.

"The child issue, I think, can be a deal-breaker in residing in these public homes," said former USF president Betty Castor, who lived in USF's house with her husband Sam.

And as colleges focus more on private fundraising, the residences see a constant stream of dinners, brunches and holiday parties.

Factor in security concerns and desires for weekends with privacy, and suddenly the official residence isn't so alluring.

"The prototypical university president has changed from what it was," said Patsy Palmer, wife of former Florida State University president Sandy D'Alemberte. "There is a tension between needing that house as a space that is public and accessible, and the need to provide a space of sanctuary and retreat for someone whose job really never turns off."

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Presidential homes have always served multiple roles. In part, they connect presidents to the student body.

Palmer has fond memories of unexpected visitors to FSU's original president house, now used by the alumni association. One night a student showed up in a T-shirt and cutoffs, holding a bow tie. He wanted D'Alemberte, who always wore a bow tie, to show him how to put it on.

Students picnicked on the grounds, located across from campus, while Palmer swam in the pool.

"It lends a sense of security and comfort to people, knowing the president is right there," said Mark Bertolami, director of facilities planning at Florida State University, where a new presidential home is under construction. "When you see the president walk out the door in the morning to walk across campus to the office, that's kind of nice."

But today more than ever, the homes also are venues for fundraising. UCF's decision to build a home came as officials prepared to launch their first capital campaign, which is about to close with $350-million raised.

"We would never be able to do that without the home," Hitt said.

USF's Lifsey House hosts more than 50 events a year, including faculty receptions, a holiday open house and fundraisers.

"It adds prestige for potential donors to be able to visit the president's house," said Castor, who preceded Genshaft as president.

Castor was the first resident of Lifsey House, completed in 1993 with $1.7-million in donations.

On weekends, she and her husband rode bikes around campus. Her office was a short walk away.

"So I knew everything that was happening, but then again I never got away from it," Castor said. "I felt like I couldn't just leave and get a quart of milk without looking very proper."

Visitors showed up at all hours, often thinking it was a welcome center or alumni center.

"It really is a fishbowl," she said.

Some fishbowls give the fish places to hide.

UCF's home, carefully laid out by Hitt and his wife Martha, is big enough to entertain 200 or so guests. But it also features a large master suite, family room, private kitchen and cozy dining nook where the Hitts can relax.

Florida Atlantic University's sprawling two-story home features a self-contained second-floor apartment with kitchen, laundry room, family room, living room and master bedroom. President Frank Brogan and his wife turned a small office into a nursery for their son Cody, almost 17 months.

"There are days when we have no need to go downstairs," Brogan said. "The entire structure is a house. But upstairs is a home. We are very fortunate."

USF's Lifsey House, on the other hand, is considered an example of how not to build a presidential residence, Genshaft said.

The 9,000-square-foot house is a boxy structure with soaring ceilings and lots of tall glass windows and French doors. There are few windows in the front. The house backs up to busy Fowler Avenue and faces the campus library.

There is one industrial-sized kitchen and a laundry room downstairs, as well as a formal dining room, living room and breakfast nook. The private quarters upstairs feature bedrooms and offices. But there is no private living room, and no small kitchen that would allow the president's family to prepare food or even get a glass of soda without passing through the public areas.

"When I got here it was simply a house that wasn't, in my mind and in my husband's mind, appropriate for a 3- and 6-year-old," said Genshaft, who instead bought a home in Tampa Palms. "I might have a reception from noon to 4 and then a formal dinner after that, and how would we make the boys a meal?"

Still, her sons look forward to visiting Lifsey House, with all its rooms and closets and long hallways.

"When the kids are there," Genshaft said, "they love to play hide and seek."

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3403 or svansickler@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 3, 2006, 05:53:13]


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