This Old House
If the house at 709 College Street in Beloit, Wisconsin, could tell its own story, it might want to mention that its life was nearly cut short. The President’s House almost burned down when a student prematurely dumped fireplace ashes in the basement during seventh College President Martha Peterson’s tenure there.
And what about some of the people who have crossed this threshold? They include politicos like President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, writers like Ursula Le Guin and Carolyn Kizer, and many artists, activists, scholars, musicians, and legendary faculty going back to Beloit’s beginnings.
What was long known as the “Chapin House” at the corner of College and Chapin Streets could also make a claim about its own impressive longevity. Built only five years after the college was founded, it is one of the oldest residences in the city of Beloit. The elegant Georgian-style home has accommodated a long line of college presidents and several interim presidents and their families—despite the occasional rumor among students that the president doesn’t actually live here at all.
Granted, the living arrangement seems a bit of an anachronism, and maybe that’s what fuels student skepticism. The idea that any organization’s CEO would live in the midst of the workplace action, instead of heading home—far away—at day’s end, seems like a quaint idea from another era.
But College President Scott Bierman, and his wife, Melody, not only live in the centrally located historic home—as their predecessors also have—they love living here, and they want to make sure the home is accessible and welcoming to everyone.
A Changing Abode
With its views across Beloit’s front lawn to Middle College, the President’s House was built in 1851 by first College President Aaron Lucius Chapin, who vowed to live across the street from campus.
Except for a span when members of Chapin’s family lived there after his death, this dwelling has always served as the home of a sitting Beloit College president. In addition to President Chapin, eight college presidents and several interim presidents and their families have taken up residence here since the house was given to the college by Chapin’s daughter in 1937.
Originally designed in the Federal style, the home had indoor plumbing long before most residences could claim such a luxury. President Chapin cites the malfunctioning water closet, or “WC,” in his diaries as the reason he was frequently late for classes.
In the late 1800s, the house became almost unrecognizable when it was completely remodeled in the Victorian style, reflecting a trend that also brought wholesale renovations to Middle College, Beloit’s granddaddy of historic buildings.
In the late 1930s, the house was once again thoroughly renovated, inside and out, to its current Georgian style just before fourth President Irving Maurer (class of 1904) and his family moved in.
Today, the first floor of the roomy two-story has three fireplaces, a flowing floor plan, a generously sized kitchen perfect for entertaining, and a small, bookshelf-lined study where current President Scott Bierman likes to work at President Chapin’s desk.
Here’s to Entertaining
Besides making this gracious old five-bedroom house their home, college presidents have simultaneously opened it up to a wide range of guests for events of all kinds. From elaborate to casual, intimate to expansive, the events that have occurred at the President’s House have also added to college lore.
One of the most notable people to visit came in 1978. At the time, George H.W. Bush had just completed his tenure as director of the CIA and was about to throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for U.S. president.
During a visit to campus, Bush stayed overnight at the invitation of President Martha Peterson. Later, he wrote to Peterson about his “cozy room,” the tasty food, and his positive impressions of Beloit, experienced in no small part through his stay in the historic home. The following year, Barbara Bush was an overnight guest, too.
Ninth president Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. and his wife, Linda Smith, regularly filled the house with guests and good food and, at one point, their 110-pound dog named Max.
“We thought it was the people’s house,” Ferrall says of the home. “It was a wonderful, happy time and we enjoyed every minute of it.”
Ferrall and Smith frequently hosted informal, often spontaneous gatherings that included Sunday dinners with faculty regulars like the late Professor John Wyatt and his wife. They extended invitations to artists and visitors to campus, like musicians Bobby McFerrin and Branford Marsalis, and politicians of all stripes. Former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson once joined the couple for a meatloaf supper, served casually, right in the kitchen.
Ursula Le Guin, who held Beloit’s Mackey Chair in Creative Writing in 1991-92, visited the house during Ferrall’s tenure. “I think of you and those terrible bells,” she later wrote him, referring to Eaton Chapel’s distinctive bells, which mark every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.
In 2010, Secret Service agents scoured the home prior to political advisor David Axelrod’s visit to campus as Commencement speaker. Though he did not spend the night, Axelrod, a Beloit parent, was expected at the house for breakfast the morning of the big event. Agents visited ahead of time, asking for floor plans and quizzing the Biermans about how well they knew the rest of their guests.
Much of what happens at the President’s House is less dramatic than visits from the Secret Service, celebrities, and literati, but arguably everything that happens here is important, emanating the spirit of the time and the warmth and hospitality of an entire college.
Since they moved into the house in 2009, the Biermans have made a point of hosting events that encourage conversation and exchange among their guests. These gatherings include small groups of students, retirement dinners, openings of the school year, Distinguished Service Citation alumni breakfasts, young alumni gatherings, and trustee dinners, among many others.
They say they hope guests will be comfortable in the house, enjoy themselves, and maybe even learn something from someone they end up sitting next to while visiting.
“Bringing people together is important, but it’s also fun,” says Melody Bierman who has cheerfully helped raise the bar on college hospitality through happenings at the President’s House and by way of the disarming décor that often greets visitors in the front yard. (Among the recent whimsical touches were topiary peace signs on the house’s exterior over the holidays, turtle-riding garden gnomes at the end of the front sidewalk, and an array of turtle statuary, mostly left by students in the front garden.)
Last fall, the Biermans hosted 15 planned events ranging mostly from late August to the end of October. They handle all of the entertaining with the help of a part-time house manager and a small staff, called upon to set up, serve, and clear special events, such as dinners and receptions. One family in particular has been a part of the President’s House staff for three generations.
Staff who work in the President’s House say they appreciate the Biermans’ entertaining style, which they describe as “hands-on.”
In addition to being deeply involved with event planning, the Biermans aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. They’ve been known to do things like help clear tables at the end of a long night, something 10th President John E. Burris also did regularly.
“It’s been wonderful to work in the college President’s House,” says Mary Lynn Cunningham, who is marking her 32nd year as a house server. “All the presidents have their own techniques, and you just roll with the punches. It’s the President’s House, so you want everything to be perfect.”
Throughout time, Beloit College presidents have made a practice of inviting students over for meetings or to mark special occasions.
The Biermans have embraced that tradition but put their own spin on it. In one case, they turned what had been casual pizza parties for seniors into more formal dinner parties with tablecloths and fresh flowers that serve about two dozen students at a time. In part, they see these dinners as a chance for students to practice the kind of business-casual socializing they might encounter when they enter the job market. Inviting students around the table also encourages intimate conversations, and they want to hear what’s on students’ minds.
These days, each Beloit College student receives at least three invitations to the President’s House. Besides the senior dinners, all are invited for a Champagne toast to mark the beginning of their senior year. During Commencement weekend, the Biermans host a festive garden party for about 400 people—graduates, their moms and dads, brothers and sisters—who converge on the backyard for a joyous celebration just before crossing the street to Eaton Chapel for Baccalaureate.
The first time the Biermans hosted this party, they held it indoors, where it was so crowded that guests were flipping the lights off and on accidentally as they brushed up against the walls.
Once, during Reunion weekend, the Biermans noticed an alumni couple intensely checking out the house as they strolled slowly past. The Biermans asked if they had ever been inside. When they replied in the negative, they were invited inside for a tour.
“We love to welcome people to this house,” Melody Bierman says. “It belongs to the college and everyone should have a chance to come in. We’ve felt comfortable here since we first walked in the door.”
Three Generations of Service
Mary Lynn Cunningham remembers scraping chocolate out of a mixing bowl in the old Emerson Hall kitchen, where her mother worked as the college’s head baker in the 1950s and ’60s. Lena Gowman would bake as many as 90 to 100 pies on any given day for Beloit students of the time.
Today, Cunningham, 69, is one of the longest-serving staff members at the President’s House. She is part of an unsung, multi-generational family that has labored behind the scenes over many years to care for the college presidents’ children and keep presidential receptions, dinners, and cocktail parties humming along smoothly.
“It’s hard work sometimes,” she says. “But I love it. Otherwise I wouldn’t do it.”
At her mother’s behest, Cunningham served her first college event at age 15 during a conference hosted by sixth President Miller Upton. Later, the caterer operating in the house at the time offered Cunningham a part-time job, and now she works directly for the college, on call for special events throughout the year in addition to working as the registrar for Beloit Memorial High School.
Laura Appel, Cunningham’s first cousin, also serves part-time on the house staff, in addition to holding a full-time job. As a younger woman, she recalls slipping in the back door of the President’s House and heading up the stairs to visit her mother, Helen Carroll, who would be looking after the son of eighth College President Roger H. Hull. Carroll is the sister of Lena Gowman, the baker, and Cunningham’s aunt.
Carroll served as a nanny during about half of Hull’s college presidency, followed by 18 years as a server for special events at the President’s House, spanning the presidencies of Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. and John E. Burris, and interim presidents Ed Hoerr’57 and Dick Niemiec’65.
Today, when Carroll’s daughter Laura Appel works an event at the President’s House, she is often joined by her son, Toby Appel, and his girlfriend, Allison, representing the third generation of servers from the same family. Carroll retired in 2009 at the age of 79.
To talk to three generations of this hard-working Wisconsin family is to witness an awe-inspiring work ethic that can trace some of its roots to a dairy farm 12 miles from Beloit.
Helen Carroll and her husband worked on that farm until they finally sold their cows in 1986. Looking for a part-time job at that point, Carroll spotted a classified ad for a nanny post at Beloit College. Although it was advertised as 30 hours per week, the job wound up being much more than that, but she didn’t mind.
“You learn how to work at a very young age on a farm,” Carroll says, “and it never goes away.” She still keeps in touch with President Hull and his son, who spent a lot of time at the Carroll’s farm as a child.
Caring for the child of a Beloit College president may have required long hours, but it was not without its perks. Carroll recalls being able to travel with Hull and his family to New York and also to Barbados, where the family of Hull’s wife had a home.
“It was a long way from milking cows and bailing hay,” Carroll says of being in the Caribbean.
Over the years, college presidents have shown their gratitude to house staff in many ways. Tenth president John Burris and his wife, Sally, turned the tables on the servers, inviting them to dinner prepared by the college chef at the house, where they were served instead of serving others.
Melody Bierman says that the President’s House staff work without a lot of recognition as part-time, occasional employees of the college, even though they bring a high degree of professionalism and discretion to their work.
“I’m sure they have many stories,” Bierman says. “But they don’t tell them.”
The Other House
Most will remember the house at Chapin and College Streets as the Beloit College President’s House. But a different house was home to three college presidents before it became a barracks during World War II.
You Are Cordially Invited…
A sampling of invitations to parties held at the President’s House over the years.