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Englesby Gets a Face-Lift

UVM's presidential abode loses its ivy and '70s kitsch


Published May 9, 2012 at 11:05 a.m.

It feels a little voyeuristic taking a pre-renovation tour of Englesby House, the 9000-square-foot mansion on Burlington’s South Williams Street that will soon be home to incoming University of Vermont president Tom Sullivan and his wife, Leslie. University presidents are the closest thing to crowned royalty in higher education. Accordingly, the masses always enjoy a peek behind the French doors to see how the sovereigns live.

Englesby House, which was built in 1914 for Burlington physician William Englesby, was willed to the university by his widow, Maude, upon her death in 1956. For two years the house served as a dorm for 27 women, before it was given over to the university president in 1958.

Today the house, which sits on 1.1 beautifully landscaped acres on the southeast corner of College Street, is in dire need of upgrades and repairs. Most have been deferred because the house hasn’t been used as a residence for more than a decade. In the interim, it’s served largely as a booze-and-schmooze venue for official ceremonial functions. Perhaps that explains the jumbo, subterranean hot tub. More on that later.

The last UVM president to live in Englesby House was Judith Ramaley, who served from July 1997 to June 2001. [Correction: Ed Colodny and his wife Nancy moved in after Ramaley and occupied the house for the year Colodny served as interim president. UVM President Dan Fogel and his wife Rachel resided there for almost a year — June 2002 to March 2003 — while they built a house in Colchester.] Ramaley resigned after just four years in the Queen City in the wake of a national hazing scandal involving UVM’s hockey team. One legacy of her tenure: an old pair of women’s ice skates hangs in a corner of the basement.

When President Dan Fogel and his wife, Rachel, arrived on campus in July 2002, they chose to forgo living in Englesby — or anywhere on campus — and opted instead for the university’s $1800-a-month housing allowance. There was plenty of grumbling about the Fogels’ decision, even though the estimated cost of overhauling Englesby was then $2.4 million.

Sullivan, like the four candidates he beat out for the job, agreed beforehand to live in Englesby if hired. However, he won’t be treated to a full, multimillion-dollar home makeover. At its meeting in February, the UVM board of trustees allotted a mere $875,000 from the university’s general fund to get the house up to snuff, with some additional living-quarters upgrades financed by private gifts.

Robert Vaughan, UVM’s director of capital planning and management, is overseeing the project. He says the leaner budget is still enough to make the house quite comfy.

“Hopefully, when we’re done, we’ll have a nice, clean look aesthetically and structurally,” he says.

One already-noticeable change is the complete removal of ivy from the building’s exterior. Although creeping vines lent Englesby House a certain Ivy League gravitas, Vaughan explains that said gravitas had also poked its way through the masonry and was growing into a second-floor bedroom. As evidence of how quickly ivy can recover, within days of its removal, new shoots were already laying siege to the recently erected scaffolds.

One of the bigger-ticket renovation items, Vaughan explains, will be replacement of the leaky asphalt roof with a new slate one — made from Vermont gray slate — along with new copper flashing. Vaughan can’t say which of his predecessors decided to put asphalt shingles on a Colonial Revival house. Suffice it to say the decision was the architectural equivalent of installing aluminum siding on a stone chimney.

Other improvements: Water-damaged exterior wood and wrought iron will be scraped, repaired, replaced and repainted, as will all the trim, soffits, shutters and lower cornices; a brick walkway to the front door, buckled by the shallow roots of a maple tree, will be repaired.

The other major exterior work is masonry repair. Some of the home’s original brickwork that rises above the roofline now leaks, Vaughan explains, and will need to be removed and rebuilt; two chimneys also need remortaring. However, unlike most chimneys on campus, these won’t be sealed, allowing the Sullivans, who hail from Minnesota, to build fires on chilly winter nights.

Aside from replacement of the entire heating system and unprecedented installation of an air-conditioning system, most of the interior work will be cosmetic, Vaughan says. The current kitchen countertops, which were designed for holding catering trays and martini glasses, will be swapped out for smaller, locally sourced marble counters.

In the living room, French doors once led onto a screened porch but were removed during Fogel’s presidency; these will be reinstalled. The porch itself will be descreened, returning it to its original 1914 design and introducing the Sullivans to the state insect, the mosquito.

Fortunately, the home’s vintage hardwood floors barely need to be touched. “They’re 100 years old and look as though they were installed last year,” Vaughan notes. The floors should hold up well for many years to come — assuming the Sullivans keep their Australian shepherd’s nails trimmed.

Visitors climb a wide staircase — with a beautiful, polished-wood banister — to the second floor, where Vaughan walks us through the four bedrooms, interspersed with several bathrooms. There’s no record of when the last renovation took place, he notes, but judging by looks, the bathrooms haven’t been updated since Eisenhower was in the White House. The silver light fixtures have a funky, art-deco feel, but the pastel-colored tiles look passé and worn.

“So we’ll end up with three modern bathrooms on this floor, and it’ll look the way it should for the president and his wife,” Vaughan says. Also headed for the landfill: the once-white carpeting that runs throughout the second-floor living area.

Despite some dated décor, Englesby House has plenty of classic features that don’t need to be replaced or updated, including built-in wooden bookshelves and solid-core doors with original hardware and beveled mirrors mounted in them. Unfortunately, some of the decorative woodwork and trim has been painted over. And one bedroom closet is so shallow, you couldn’t hang a pair of socks in it without turning them sideways. Evidently, people in 1914 were much thinner than they are today.

Some of the house’s most outdated features are found on the third floor. There, Vaughan shows us a room that smells like a nursing home and looks like Greg Brady’s party pad, with a vaulted ceiling, maroon shag carpet and vertically striped wallpaper.

“We’re going to refurbish this entire floor. Everything’s going,” he says, to a collective groan from our group. “I joked about keeping this room as is. But you get a laugh just once.” In its place, Vaughan’s people will install new HVAC systems and build a study for the president and an office for his wife.

The highlight of the tour comes when we descend to the basement. Vaughan points to a workout room containing a ballet barre — with requisite floor-to-ceiling mirrors — and a ’70s- or ’80s-vintage Jacuzzi big enough to contain the entire board of trustees.

“Is this neo-Colonial, too?” the photographer jokes.

“I’m not sure which president put that in,” Vaughan says, “but it’s all coming out.”

Like many Vermont basements, this one gets water inflow, he adds. On the university’s limited budget, a new sump pump will suffice to mitigate the problem — though not solve it. In the meantime, sensors on the floor alert Vaughan’s staff whenever the tide comes in.

The Sullivans are due to arrive on campus in mid-July, but they won’t be able to move into Englesby House until mid-September, when the work is expected to be finished. That should give the couple plenty of time to pick out their color schemes and decide which personal touches they plan to leave behind for future generations to enjoy, or snicker at.