To tell the story of Carr’s Hill, we should start with the murder.

On June 25, 1906, New York celebrity architect Stanford White, he who had redesigned the Rotunda after the fire and closed off the Lawn with Cabell, Rouss and Cocke halls, took his usual seat for the rooftop show at that era’s Madison Square Garden. He had designed that place, too.

As the women in the chorus line performed their finale, swords drawn as they sang, “I challenge you to a duel, a du-u-el,” Harry K. Thaw, the husband of 21-year-old actress and advertising model Evelyn Nesbit, walked toward the architect. Nesbit had told her new husband that White had drugged and raped her five years before. Thaw stopped at arm’s length, drew a pistol, and shot White three times, aiming for his eyes.

Stanford White (left) and the man who gunned him down, Harry K. Thaw Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Continuing the account from Michael MacDonald Mooney’s 1976 book Evelyn Nesbit and Stanford White: Love and Death in the Gilded Age: “Stanford White half rose … then pitched forward across his table, taking the edge of the tablecloth with him. Silver scattered, and a wineglass crashed.”

The music stopped. A few nervous and confused laughs from the audience broke the silence. A woman screamed.

Police collared Thaw before the doors closed on the down elevator. Next came a trial of the century—two of them, actually—and Thaw got whisked off to a hospital for the criminally insane. There’s more, including an escape to Canada. Suffice it to say, White’s demise did nothing to simplify life for Harry K. Thaw.

But it did for Bessie Alderman, wife of Edwin A. Alderman, the University of Virginia’s first president. She and White had clashed almost from the moment White accepted his next UVA commission, design of an official residence for the Aldermans. Then, less than two months into the planning, Thaw removed the chief impediment to Bessie Alderman’s getting her way. The ricochet of events from a New York chorus show altered the character of one of UVA’s most storied landmarks, the president’s house on Carr’s Hill. It allowed Bessie Alderman to add a taste of New Orleans to the local neoclassical landscape, and more than a dash of the assertive leadership style that would come to typify the Alderman era.

Now reopened after two years and $13.9 million in long-deferred repairs, renovations and updates inside and out, Carr’s Hill rejoins University life. The roof structure completely rebuilt, the systems and the décor completely updated, and the grounds completely re-landscaped, the place resumes its dual purpose as family home and public venue, as private retreat and center of the action.

Front elevation architectural drawing of Carr’s Hill
McKim, Mead & White’s design for Carr’s Hill resembles a house the Aldermans likely fancied in New Orleans. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Seat of Power

The 1909 manse has served as the home to all of UVA’s nine presidents. It has also hosted at least four American presidents—Carter, Reagan, Bush I and Clinton, according to a book commissioned for Carr’s Hill’s 2009 centennial. Robert M. O’Neil entertained a veritable majority of the U.S. Supreme Court during the law professor’s 1985 to 1990 UVA presidency, at various times having over to the house justices Rehnquist, Burger, Brennan, Powell and Scalia. The Gorbachevs slept there, Mikhail and Raisa, the former Soviet Union’s former first couple, guests of John T. Casteen III (Col ’65, Grad ’66, ’70), UVA president from 1990 to 2010.

And then there are the uninvited guests, most famously the May Days 1970 antiwar protesters, an angry but well-mannered mob that first lady Eleanor Shannon turned back by telling them they’d wake her daughters upstairs.

As a business operation, Carr’s Hill has averaged 165 events and as many as 14,000 visitors a year, a figure that more recently declined to 11,000 only because a final exercises event had outgrown the venue, according to information from Margaret S. Grundy (Col ’06, Darden ’15), the president’s chief of staff. An annual fall open house for first-year students dates to John Lloyd Newcomb (Engr 1903), UVA’s president from 1931 to 1947.

But it’s the small events where Carr’s Hill, as a place of power, can be its most effective. Former President Teresa A. Sullivan and husband Douglas Laycock, a UVA law professor, remember a pivotal dinner that set in motion the forerunner to UVA’s new School of Data Science, nailing down both the framework and the lead gift.

Sunlight pours in the refurbished entryway Todd Wright

An Affront, Around to the Side

The need for a president’s house arose from the embers of the October 1895 Rotunda fire. It was the chaos before and after that made it increasingly obvious the University had outgrown management by faculty committee and needed to recruit a strong chief executive. As important, the task of rebuilding created a relationship with New York’s McKim, Mead & White. It brought Stanford White to Charlottesville to reimagine the Rotunda and the South Lawn in the Beaux Arts-influenced University Beautiful style that was sweeping the country.

White made a distinct mark on UVA. Still, it wasn’t a happy association. As UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson wrote for the Carr’s Hill centennial, “So poorly run was the University that the architects were glad to be rid of the place when the [Rotunda and South Lawn] work was completed in March 1898.”

The Aldermans came onto the scene in the fall of 1904, having completed tours as president and first lady at the University of North Carolina and Tulane University. Forged of experience, Edwin knew how to rule an academic institution, and Bessie knew the requirements for where lies the head that wears the crown.

To signal the arrival of strong leadership, Edwin Alderman purposely chose to live not in a Lawn pavilion with the faculty as a first among equals, but high above them on Carr’s Hill, which UVA had purchased after the Civil War. Alderman bypassed the ongoing bidding process to prevail upon McKim, Mead & White to return to the Grounds and design both his house and the companion project of a new dining hall, Garrett Hall, current home to UVA’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the top of the amphitheater.

Edwin Alderman offered the firm the job May 1, 1906. Within a month, Bessie Alderman and Stanford White were butting heads. She informed the architect she fancied a house she knew from when they lived in the New Orleans Garden District, several blocks from Tulane. White pushed back—“I feel it very strongly,” he dictated in the firm’s letter of response. He dismissed a sketch Bessie Alderman had presented to the firm as “a semi-detached city street villa.” He went on: “[I]ts whole arrangement was that of a house without the balance and dignity which it seems to me that the President’s house, of the University of Virginia, crowning its noble hill, should have.” A covered coach entrance tacked onto the side of the house seemed to exasperate him most.

Then White died his spectacular death. The firm reassigned the UVA account to a more junior architect, William Mitchell Kendall, close associate of name partner Charles McKim. The design of Carr’s Hill entered its “Yes, ma’am” phase.

So it is that Carr’s Hill bears a striking resemblance to the New Orleans house at 5603 St. Charles Ave., which continues as a private residence today. Look around to the west side of the UVA president’s house and you find a rebuff to White in the form of a jutting brick porte cochere.

A vintage postcard of the Aldermans’ designer house, replete with porte cochere to the left. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

William A. Lambeth (Med 1892, Grad 1901), whose other duties included teaching in the medical school, serving as UVA’s first de facto athletic director, and heading up facilities management, supervised the project for UVA, a role ordinarily filled by the outside architects or its general contractor. “[E]nabling us to superintend the construction ourselves,” Edwin Alderman explained in his May 1 letter, would save “the contractor’s profit on the sub-contracts.”

That tiny percentage of savings, on a project that UVA historian Philip Alexander Bruce in 1922 reported to have cost $28,837.13, would have six-figure ramifications in the present era. Under UVA’s do-it-yourself construction supervision—self-governance, we’ll call it—the roof structure was badly botched, both for Carr’s Hill and Garrett Hall.

Lambeth was the point person in dealings with McKim, Mead & White, and in that role he didn’t hesitate to invoke the higher authority of Bessie Alderman, according to correspondence in the New-York Historical Society’s McKim, Mead & White archives. On insisting on the use of direct hot-water heat (radiators), for example, he wrote the firm, “I have talked this matter over with Mrs. Alderman who agrees with me.” He added a postscript that she wanted the downstairs radiators incorporated into the woodwork to create built-in seats.

Even so, the house bears the touch and discernment of one of the country’s most prominent architectural firms. Brian Hogg (Col ’83), senior historic preservation planner in the UVA architect’s office, calls the New Orleans similarity no coincidence, but rejects that McKim, Mead & White, of all firms, would completely roll over for any client. He says, “They were just too good and too important a firm.”

University Architect Alice J. Raucher puts it this way: “It’s a collaboration, like any architectural project is a collaboration between the architect and the client.”

7 Br, 8 Ba, Good Schools 

However you apportion the design influence, the historic McKim, Mead, White & Alderman house on the hill comprises 13,700 square feet; seven bedrooms, not all used as such; eight bathrooms, if you include the one in the basement; a professional kitchen updated in the last several years; nine working gas fireplaces; and proximity to good schools, like Architecture and Arts & Sciences.

The interior’s most striking, if un-Jeffersonian, feature is the grand staircase. More understated are the orange-and-blue accents in the carpet. Todd Wright

The floor plan is remarkably similar to the New Orleans house and an unattributed crayon sketch Lambeth may have included in the 1906 bid documents. You enter the house from the front portico, past four giant two-thirds fluted Doric columns, into an entrance hall. The living room, originally designated as a formal library, is to the right, leading to a Jeffersonian semi-octagonal dining room behind it. On the left of the entrance hall is the reception or sitting room. Past that on the left is the grand staircase beneath a protracted segmental arch, one of the house’s most striking features and, according to architectural historian Wilson, decidedly un-Jeffersonian; he liked to hide the stairs in his designs. Betsy Casteen and her bridal party processed down the stairs when she married then-President John Casteen in 2003.

Continuing down the left side of the entry hall, next comes a library, originally intended as a president’s study and now more of a family room. To the back of the house is the modern kitchen and, connecting to the dining room, a butler’s pantry with rows of glass-front cabinets stacked with gold-rimmed china with the University’s official seal. Upstairs, and closed to visitors, are the bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting areas making up the private residence.

The conversation piece of the renovation is the restored set of leaded-glass pocket doors and matching cabinets. One double-wide mahogany door rolls into place to close the living room from the hallway, and a pair of opposing single doors come together to divide the living room from the dining room. They had been relegated to the garage attic since sometime in the 1950s, presumably when their metal runners broke. With relatively minimal rehabilitation, they’re back in place. So is the set of built-in dining room cabinets, which continue the same leaded-glass pattern of the doors. These, too, had to be rescued and reinstalled, having been removed to the third floor. 

Artisans rescued and reinstalled the leaded-glass pocket doors and matching dining room cabinets. Todd Wright

The brighter, lighter new décor gleams in the sunlight from the hilltop windows. A metaphor for the public-private duality of President James E. Ryan’s (Law ’92) official residence, the designers used commercial-grade home fabrics. What makes them commercial grade? Glavé & Holmes Associate Director of Historic Preservation Susan Reed (Col ’92, Arch ’01) explains that the fabrics are certified for up to 110,000 rubs (if the Ryans are counting). The materials are also stain-treated, not just for the public but for the Ryans’ two dogs, El and Gracie.

Glavé & Holmes interior designer Leah Embrey describes the new, less formal look as “a fresh take on classical design, respecting the history of the house while bringing it more into the 21st century for the younger generation of students, while respecting the older generation of alumni.” 

For example, the former wallcovering in the dining room, an elaborate silken mural in the round depicting a Parisian scene, is gone; a subtle cloud toile woven into the new drapery pays homage. In the sitting room, a lighter color palette has replaced the dark emerald walls, a 1990s look Embrey politely calls “very much a moment in time.”

The theme of restraint is carried into the entry hall carpet, light blue-gray mixed with rough orange, “our subtle nod to University of Virginia colors without beating you overhead with it,” Embrey says.

Clockwise, from top: Detail of the refreshed staircase moldings, the mantel in the more simply decorated dining room, and orange Rotunda art interplayed with blue fabrics in the living room Todd Wright

Bearing the Load

That’s the pretty part of the project. Then there were the repairs. Chief among them was addressing a congenital structural defect in the roof. Under Lambeth’s supervision, or escaping it, the original workers failed to direct the weight of the massive slate roof to load-bearing walls.

“Once we stripped out the plaster, we could see that, indeed, it was framed deliberately for the roof to bear on these non-load-bearing partitions,” says Jody Lahendro (Arch ’82), the facilities department’s supervisory historic preservation architect. “It was just probably expediency—not knowing any better and expediency.

“Almost immediately, I’m sure, the floors started to warp and ceilings started to move down,” he says, a condition the University has monitored for the past 15 years. Plans to rehabilitate Carr’s Hill date to at least 2006.

The structural repair required erecting a series of giant metal trusses, connecting more than 100 members for each, and made up nearly $400,000 of the costs. It was arguably the most complicated part of the renovation, in large part because of more than a century of structural stress and distortion. Says Lahendro, “When you draw it on a piece of paper or you do it in [computer-aided design], it’s a straight line. There weren’t many straight lines in the house.”

(Garrett Hall, built the same time and in the same way, has the same problem. “They cheaped out on the framing of the roof,” says preservationist Hogg, “and that roof had to be reinforced 15 or 20 years ago.”)

The slate roof (top left), and its weight, figured prominently in the extensive renovation, which included major site work (right), and replacement of all major systems, including the ductwork (below left). Dan Addison

Carr’s Hill’s own roof repairs contributed to the $7.88 million in house renovation costs, according to Lahendro. So did replacement of all electrical and plumbing systems, including building an underground mechanical room and building the new east terrace on top of it. 

The house has been worked on throughout its 110-year history, but piecemeal, not comprehensively, according to the project team. Maybe that explains why, in redoing the wiring, workers found a garden hose inside a wall being used as makeshift electrical conduit. 

Exterior repairs and maintenance, including replacing the slate roof and built-in gutters, added another $2 million, on top of the $7.88 million house renovation costs.

The site, which includes four outbuildings, is now connected to the University’s central chilled and hot water plants, replacing the work of 12 air conditioning systems and window units and helping to make Carr’s Hill more energy efficient and LEED compliant. Site utilities and work on the hardscape (paving, brick walkways, a relocated tent pad for outdoor events) added another $2.86 million in costs.

The underground utilities work, regrading and other ravages of full-scale construction presented the opportunity to redo and unify the Carr’s Hill landscaping. UVA Senior Landscape Architect Helen Wilson (Arch ’89, ’95)estimates that the project incorporated 20 new trees, 500 flowering shrubs, 400 boxwood plantings, 1,500 flower bulbs, 225 perennials, 5,000 square feet of sod, and 250 cubic yards of topsoil and mulch. Combined with work done on Carr’s Hill’s outbuildings, that aspect of the project accounted for $1.17 million.

Left: The sitting room uses a lighter palette to take advantage of the hilltop light.
Right: Restored pocket doors divide the living room from the dining room. Todd Wright

The Current Tenants

El rests comfortably in the family library. With commercial-grade fabrics throughout the house, so can the Ryans. Todd Wright

Staffing for the house remains to be determined. Former President Sullivan started out with seven full-time employees, including a house manager, events managers, housekeepers and a gardener, but she reduced the count. Carr’s Hill also comes with a chef, Peter Bowyer, who since 1991 has catered to University presidents and their distinguished guests. Sullivan fondly remembers cooking alongside him.

Jim and Katie Ryan (Law ’92), eighth-grade daughter Phebe and sons Will, Sam and Ben (each home from college) moved into the official residence over the holidays. President Ryan is quick to remind any listener that UVA greenlighted the multimillion-dollar renovation before even recruiting him.

“The way I can reconcile myself to the fact that this money is spent on a house that I’m living in is to just acknowledge that this house doesn’t actually belong to me,” he says. “And it’s a smart investment to make sure that the house will be in good shape long after I’ve departed.”

Richard Gard (Col ’81) is editor of Virginia Magazine.