September 29, 2014 | By Jake Weber (photos by David Lawrence)
As he prepared to move into his new home on the Albion College campus, President Mauri Ditzler had only one requirement: that his second-floor study contain an ironing board. “Mauri likes to iron his own shirts,” explains Facilities and Operations Director Don Masternak.
Albion’s summer-long renovation of “501,” the President’s Home at 501 East Michigan Avenue, yielded a glorious historic restoration and a 21st-century asset, all under one roof. From tiny details to major infrastructure, the house was updated to address values held by the College and its new president.
Built in 1910 for local industrialist Harry B. Parker, the house was acquired by the College in 1940 and served as home for presidents Seaton, Whitehouse, Norris, and Lomas before becoming an administration building and, later, a residence for senior-year female students. With a presidential transition, Ditzler’s interest in College-community relations, and an ongoing institutional commitment to sustainability, Albion’s board of trustees found the time right to return the president’s residence to campus. (The College has sold the property at 1620 Van Wert Road, 2.5 miles south of campus and the home for Albion’s presidents from 1983-2013.)
“Putting the puzzle back together was exciting,” said Masternak, who found a personal stake in the project. As a student at Washington Gardner School, Masternak recalls admiring the home’s decorative round and oval windows just across the street. He never saw the windows’ true beauty, however, as they were walled over on the inside.
Gutting the house’s interior walls and ceilings allowed the windows to shine again, along with other architectural details. Fluted oak columns and Corinthian capitals were discovered in the attic; their original second-floor location was identified only by faint shadows on the ceiling. Quarter-sawn paneling was stripped and refinished to show the beauty of old-growth oak.
Masternak also points out details that make the house an exceptional showcase of the craftsmanship of a bygone era. Landscaping was removed from around the house in order to display granite tuckpointing that Masternak calls “incredible.” The brick construction of the house, likewise, “has joints that are very tight and in a very unusual assembly. It required a lot of skill to get the mortar the right color,” he says. “The exterior also has a lot of intricate window framing. We used scrapers that were almost like dental tools, and we burned through a lot of them.”
Making the house sustainable was also a goal and a challenge. The College replaced century-old drains, which required excavation out to the street. Window and door replacements were often custom-fitted to existing frames, which were themselves removed and restored for tighter seals. The historical “holdout” for sustainability are the windows on the second-floor south exposure. “Those windows are curved glass,” Masternak says. “They’d be near impossible to replace.”
Beyond aesthetics, “the President’s Home has an important role to play for the College and the community,” says President Ditzler. “Judi and I are like any couple in a big house–we have a few rooms we really live in, and the campus lives in the rest.”
A veteran resident (at Monmouth College) and visitor in a number of other college president’s homes, Ditzler is enthusiastically appreciative of the home’s increased usability as a campus resource. A commercial-grade catering kitchen, expanded dining room, and wiring throughout the yard and grounds increase the house’s ability and capacity for social functions.
Additionally, “people seem to feel that a president ought to live in a very old house, and in the Midwest that means small rooms,” Ditzler notes with a smile. “This house is unusual with its big spaces. It’ll be much easier to have larger groups in the house. It will easily accommodate a conversation with 25 or 30 people.”
Ditzler is quick to stress that an on-campus president’s home is far more than simply a convenient meeting place. “People like to go over to the president’s house and see what’s inside. If you want to get a group together in a lounge or classroom, half the students will be too busy. If you do it in the president's house, they all come,” he says.
“To make friends, there is nothing more important than eating together and laughing together,” he continues. “I’m delighted that community members come to my office to talk about the future. But it’s a completely different situation to do this in a living room, with coffee after dinner.”
Even for citizens simply passing by, Ditzler envisions the renovated home as a College and community link. “Ann Arbor has places where you’re not sure if you’re on campus or in town. I think Albion would benefit from that model, and Michigan Avenue is one logical place for that overlap,” he says. “It’s important the president's home be inviting on the inside, so community members come in and get used to this space. As people drive by, it needs to be well landscaped so people see the College is taking this ‘overlap’ idea seriously.”
“If I’m not at an athletic event or a concert, or just walking on campus, I imagine sitting out on the front porch and watching the world go by.”