The Presidential Pad: An inside look at Pelton's mansion

by Xakota Espinoza / Beacon Staff • September 8, 2011

Construction workers, their clothes covered in tile dust, trudged up the first-floor staircase as President M. Lee Pelton sat back on a beige sofa in the reception room of the college’s newest property buy.

The 7,300 square foot brick mansion on 2 Spruce Street, one block from Boston Common, was purchased this summer for $4.925 million after the board of trustees voted to acquire a permanent residence for future presidents of Emerson College.

Pelton, who came to office this summer, moved in July 7.

The president is still settling in, unpacking seemingly endless stacks of books and dodging workers as they complete the final touches on the administrator-in-chief’s new pad.

A grand staircase divides the narrow five story structure, with one room on either side of each floor. As Pelton sat down for an interview with Beacon reporters in the first-floor reception room, sunlight filtered through the tall bay windows facing the street. Two coffee table books, A Century of Eloquence: The History of Emerson College 1880-1980 and American Watercolors, are on display.

Pelton said the dwelling will have many purposes and functions, ranging from dinners with student government representatives to receptions for newly tenured and appointed faculty. He said he plans to host events for local civic leaders, with the intention of turning his new home into a hub for engaging the Boston and Emerson communities.

“My persona is to be open and accessible,” said Pelton, who was forced to pause every few moments during the interview due to the overpowering hum of construction taking place throughout the home. “It’s important for a president to be visible and present on campus and to represent the ideals and hopes of the institution.”

The president said the location of the property, a six-minute walk from campus, was one of the initial draws of the dwelling. By surrounding the Common with Emerson buildings, Pelton said he hopes students will begin to think of the green space as an extension of the campus.

Moving into an official residence was nothing new for Pelton. He lodged in a designated dean’s residence at Dartmouth College and, most recently at a mansion during his presidency at Willamette University in Oregon, which Pelton said was similar but slightly larger.

But, despite the decrease in square footage, the president’s abode remains far from humble.

“[The house is] too grandiose,” Pelton said, laughing. “But that’s just my perspective.”

And grandiose it is.

The walls of the aforementioned first floor are covered with Pelton’s varied and extensive collection of art and two giant crystal chandeliers hang in both the foyer and formal dining room.

On the second floor, there is space to hold various group functions. On one side of the staircase is another community room, home to a baby grand piano and dark burgundy walls lined with bookshelves. The other side of the staircase leads into the office, containing countless boxes overflowing with even more books, followed by the president’s private quarters.

The third and fourth floors consist of bedrooms and bathrooms, and the basement, also intended for public use, contains the kitchen and another large room currently undergoing the bulk of construction to make it wheelchair-accessible.

“Can’t you picture students hanging out here in the winter and eating chips and salsa?” said Pelton, surveying the empty, garden-level room.

James Harness, a junior journalism major, visited the mansion as part of a resident assistant scavenger hunt requiring RAs to knock on the president’s door and take a photo with Pelton. He said Pelton explained to the RAs earlier in the week that he wanted the house to be a public domain where students could come to chat and do homework.

“He was very welcoming and let us in,” said Harness. “He held his promise: we showed up, and it was awesome.”

According to Andrew Tiedemann, vice president of communications and marketing at the college, the board of trustees had been considering purchasing a residence over a period of a few years.

“When President Liebergott announced her retirement, the board thought it would be the right time to acquire an official residence for the college,” Tiedemann said in an interview.

Tiedemann said past presidents have lived in their own private homes, however many other college presidents live in official school-owned residences used primarily for hosting.

“Being a college president today is a 24/7 job,” said Tiedemann. “This is a communal space.”

Tiedemann said that despite the cost of the property, the college did not make any cuts to programs such as financial aid, of which $27 million was given away this year. He said the college plans to use money raised through various functions at the house to eventually pay for the house itself.

“The college is dedicating the majority of its open resources to students and faculty who are here now,” said Tiedemann.

For Pelton, living in an often-public and semi-private setting requires balance, he said. After more than two decades of living in similar residences, he said he has accepted living in a home that is not entirely private as part of the job.

“I just love my job and love being with students and faculty,” said Pelton. “It’s enormously energizing.”