Official Residences of Presidents and Chancellors of Universities and Colleges

Why are college presidents, who are typically well-paid, provided with housing? It’s an interesting history, as will be described next. Even knowing that history, it has occurred to me that when you consider the jobs that have traditionally included houses—pastors, ambassadors, governors, presidents of colleges or nations—the spouses (historically, they were typically wives) have been expected to entertain in the home and work for free. The “two-for-the-price-of-one” working arrangement seemed to more than compensate for free housing.

The history of president’s houses (a.k.a. official residences)

The first degree-granting college in the United States, Harvard College, founded in 1636, was committed to the English collegiate tradition in which students board in—eating, sleeping, and studying together. In the English system, faculty lived in residences with their students. Headmasters were allowed to marry, so schools provided houses that would accommodate their families. 

The Harvard president’s house was built in 1655 and was one of the first four buildings on the campus. 

Other colleges in colonial America also followed the English system and provided houses for their heads, and continued to provide houses for presidents even after other faculty were allowed to marry and live off campus.

Source: Hendel, Darwin D; Kaler, Karen F; Freed, Gwendolyn H. (2016). The Lives of Presidential Partners in Higher Education Institutions. Retrieved from the University of Minnesota Digital Conservancy,

Wadsworth House at Harvard

Wadsworth House was built in 1726 for the president of Harvard. It is the second oldest extant building at Harvard. General George Washington slept here in July 1775. Nine Harvard presidents lived there between 1727 and 1846.

The current official residence at Harvard (known as the President’s House, the Oliver-Gerry-Lowell House, the James Russell Lowell House, or by Elmwood for its street location) was built in 1767 and acquired by Harvard in 1962.

The oldest president’s house still in use is at the second oldest college in the U.S., the College of William and Mary. The house was built in 1732/3. In 1781, near the end of the American Revolution, British General Cornwallis evicted college president James Madison (cousin of the future U.S. President) and occupied the house. The college regained the house, and many U.S. Presidents, as well as several welcomed British visitors, including Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill, have visited.

My initial interest in researching official residences

My husband, Eric, and I enjoyed many visits to the official residences at the University of Delaware and at Stony Brook University. In the first autumn of Eric’s presidency at the University of Minnesota in 2011, we were living in Eastcliff, and I met the spouse of the chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, at an APLU meeting. I told her I had been in her home years earlier. (As a student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, I attended a reception at the chancellor’s home in 1977.) The system president’s home was next door. She told me that they didn’t live in an official residence. The university had decided to sell the residences of the chancellor and president, but they were both sitting empty and unsold. It was shocking and sad to think of these grand homes falling into disrepair as they sat almost abandoned.

Source: Knox News, April 29, 2009

In 2020, Vanderbilt University, in my hometown of Nashville, announced plans to sell their official residence, Braeburn, and build a new official residence on campus. (In June 2021, novelist and playwright Frank Strausser bought Belle Meade house for $7.2 million, and plans for the new official residence appear to be progressing.)

I have enjoyed visiting several more official residences in the last decade, so it has been a special honor to welcome visitors into the two official residences where I have lived. Gathered below are photos, and source links, of a few dozen official residences found on other websites.

The former official residence of the University of Southern California sold for $24.5 million; there was criticism when a replacement residence was purchased for about 1/3 of the sale price ($8.6 million).

Source: Los Angeles Times, “USC’s presidential mansion sells for $25 million, a San Marino record,” July 7, 2021

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