Inside the Ainlays’ home: Exploring the rich history of the President’s House

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By Matt Olson

 

It is hard to imagine that a 150-year-old building isn’t the oldest on a college campus nowadays. But that is just the case with the President’s House, currently occupied by Union’s 18th president, Stephen Ainlay, and his wife, Judy Ainlay. The two have lived in the house since 2006, but the history of the house spans a century and  a half.

The house was in Joseph-Jacques Ramée’s original Plan of the College, developed in 1813. However, Eliphalet Nott, president at the time, did not want to isolate himself from the students of the college.

“Nott, along with other administrators, actually lived in the dormitories during this time. He wanted to set a good example to the young men he was educating by living in the same quarters as them,” Mrs. Ainlay said.

It was not until Nott married his third wife, Urania, that the house became a reality.

Edward Tuckerman Potter, Nott’s grandson and eventual designer of the Nott Memorial, helped design the president’s residence.

The house was completed in 1861, near the end of Nott’s presidency. He and Urania continued to live in the house until his death in 1866. Following his death, Urania continued to live in the house for another 20 years until her death.

“Feigenbaum Hall’s floor plan is similar to this, because the new president after Nott needed a place to live while Urania still occupied the house,” said Mrs. Ainlay.

It was not until after Urania’s death that college presidents began living in the house again.

The house’s rich history continues indoors. In 1913 President Richmond built the conservatory of the house, overlooking the garden.

In the dining room, the walls are lined with Zuber wallpaper,   the same wallpaper that is in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. And, in the foyer, is Gilbert Stuart’s copy of George Washington’s portrait, the same one that appears on the one dollar bill.

Mrs. Ainlay said, “We fit very well in this house. I feel as though this house needed me because of it being a 150-year old house. It needs to be maintained well.”

Not many people are aware of the Ainlays’ residence within the house, but they put on a lot of entertainment throughout the year to keep the house feeling like a home to them.

But the Ainlays remain an important part of the campus, beyond the limits of the home.

When asked about her favorite spot on campus, Mrs. Ainlay said, “Nothing beats the view from the Nott down the Mohawk Valley looking out beyond West College.”

However, perhaps the most fascinating part of the house is the Ainlays’ dog, Winston (nicknamed Winnie).

As Mrs. Ainlay put it, “Winnie seems to think the garden is his.” Winnie made this apparent immediately after he had been let out of the house; he sprinted from fence to fence in the gardens, establishing his territory.

Although the President’s House is not the oldest building on campus, its solid structure, both physically and symbolically, will remain a staple of continuity over the long history of Union.

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