by Liza Roberts
photographs by Catherine Nguyen
A little over a year ago, newly elected UNC President Margaret Spellings walked for the first time under the monumental portico of the 1907 Neoclassical house on Franklin Street that serves as the President’s home. As then-President Tom Ross and his wife Susan showed Spellings around, she realized she’d been offered a treasure. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity and honor to live in such a beautiful and historic home,” she says. With a dose of her vibrant, informal charm, respect for tradition, and some budget-minded ingenuity, it has quickly become her own. To be sure, the 18th UNC President has had far more than her house to work on in her first year – she has stepped into a massive job leading the 225,000-student, 16-campus university system, navigating protestors and the controversial HB2 law as she traversed the state to get to know UNC’s students, its leaders, and its needs. She has backed tuition reform and spoken out in favor of access and diversity.
Now that some of the dust has settled, Spellings says she’s settling into Chapel Hill. “It’s a small town,” she says. “You see the same people at the farmers market every Saturday … and people are very neighborly. I’ve enjoyed it.” Regular morning walks along Gimghoul Road, meals at restaurants like Lantern, Med Deli, and Acme, and a handful of thoughtful new friends have all conspired to plant her feet in the Tar Heel soil, she says.
Needless to say, the house doesn’t hurt. The 8,800-square-foot President’s House, a campus landmark, was designed by Washington architect Frank P. Milburn, who designed a dozen other buildings on campus between 1898 and 1914. Unlike the others, the house was paid for by the state’s escheats fund, not with state-appropriated funds. It is a grand place, designed to showcase the University and the State, and ideal for entertaining. Spellings’ cosmetic changes, which she finished just in time for her October inauguration, have been paid for by the UNC Foundation. Individual donors including the Goodnight and Kenan families also contributed. “We were very careful with our budget,” Spellings says.
At home in Chapel Hill
On a recent early winter morning, Spellings greeted guests to the historic house, freshly decorated for the holidays. Cradling Davie, her eight-week-old Australian Labradoodle (named for University founder William R. Davie), who arrived from a breeder in Greensboro just one day earlier, Spellings walked through gracious rooms that now feature her own furniture among the house’s existing antiques. Her collection of art brightens every room. Gathered over the years in the places she’s lived – including her home state of Texas, where she most recently ran the George W. Bush library; in Washington, D.C., where she served as U.S. Secretary of Education; and on her travels – the collection is comprised largely of female artists. It also now incorporates a beautiful array of North Carolina pottery.
In addition to her art, paint and upholstery have lightened up her surroundings; the rearrangement of antiques and other furniture has opened up rooms; the house’s event space has become an off-duty family room, and the kitchen has been reconfigured.
Now, “it looks like her,” says her daughter Mary, a Davidson graduate visiting for the weekend from her home in Washington, D.C., where she works at the U.S. Federal Reserve. (A younger daughter, Grace, is in graduate school in Texas.)
A fleet of expert Raleighites helped. A runner from Betty Nelson of Eatman’s Carpets now graces the stairs; antiques were reupholstered by Chuck Bullock of Raleigh’s Rainbow Upholstery; curtains in the living room were made by Beth Pierce of Raleigh’s Pierce Designs and installed by Raleigh’s Lewis Midyette; wallpaper was installed by Robert Dubuque; faux finishes on furniture and on frames for the dining room’s historic murals were created by Raleighite Matt Mahler; and flowers and holiday decorations were created by Steve Taras of Raleigh’s Watered Garden.
“Lots of locals,” Spellings says. “They all took such pride in working on the house,” adds Gincy Carosi, Spellings’ interior designer, who has also helped Spellings with houses in Washington and Texas. Carosi and Spellings also give special credit to Jeff Hill, who works on the staff at UNC, for serving as a hands-on maestro for all of the work.
Through it all, Spellings says she was careful to honor the history of the house and to do as much as she could with what was in it. Fine antiques – like a valuable Queen Anne highboy, for instance – were moved to new spots. Other pieces were discovered in University storage and brought into the house to serve reconfigured needs. A lantern from an upstairs hall was moved down to a spot where one was needed; a set of charming painted chairs were brought up from the basement; historic murals in the dining room were given new frames to set them off as works of art.
“We don’t want anyone thinking we’re coming in and ripping Scarlett O’Hara’s velvet drapes down,” says designer Carosi. “We repurposed almost everything.”
Small totems of Spellings’ career are evident throughout the house. In an upstairs sitting room, a “love note from the end of the administration from my former boss,” George W. Bush, reads, in part: “You have left your mark in history … Godspeed, my friend.”
“You, yes you” reads a discreet painted sign on a shelf. Framed Texas botanicals from the Bush library line a guest room wall; Bush family Christmas cards from several years decorate a wall on an upstairs landing. “Well behaved women rarely make history,” attests a little sign off the kitchen.
It all looks and feels like Spellings. But the house’s history and her predecessors are never far from her mind. She credits the Rosses for overseeing the addition of the indispensible event space at the back of the house, for instance, says she loves entertaining with Meredith Spangler’s Herend china, and is grateful for the other donations over many years that have helped make the house a showplace – as well as a home she is delighted to share with daughters Mary and Grace when they visit. Spellings has already begun to welcome the community in as well, hosting Sunday salon suppers including an evening that featured N.C. Central jazz musicians. Student government groups, faculty Senate leaders, and others are all slated for events in the near future. “I really want to use the house to feature wonderful things about the University,” she says. “I love to entertain. I want to get to know people, and I want them to get to know me.”