The House on the Hill

Nick Sasso

Since the early 1960s, Watson House has been the home of several Colgate presidents and their families. Now, Colgate’s 15th president Rebecca S. Chopp will be moving from the traditional president’s home in favor of a private home in the village of Hamilton. The decision came with an ever increasing demand for both an area to entertain Colgate guests and having a purely residential space. The act will change the role of Watson House for the remainder of Chopp’s presidency and could usher in a new era for Colgate presidents in terms of where they live.

Watson House was a gift of Jeanette M. Kittredge Watson in honor of her husband Thomas J. Watson, president of IBM and a key figure in the growth of the information technology company. Built by architect and alumnus Arthur A. Meggett ’36, the house was completed by the end of Everett Needham Case’s presidency of 1942 through 1962, which saw the erection of several new buildings on campus, including the precursor to the new Case Library and Geyer Center for Information Technology.

“Until 1962 the president lived in the Merrill house,” President of the University and Professor of Philosophy and Religion Rebecca Chopp said. “The decision was made to build a small house for the president for him and his family and for small types of entertaining with the understanding that large entertaining would go on in the Merrill House.”

The house atop the hill was designed to have rooms for the president and his wife, as well as separate rooms for the sons, daughters, and infants of the family. The residence was to be wife-operated with no maids intended to help; a thought reminiscent of ideology long past.

“It was assumed that the wife would do all of the cleaning, the entertaining, and the cooking,” Chopp said of the early intentions of the home. Needless to say, such principles have changed over time.

In addition to that change in gender roles, Watson House saw a change in its purpose. As the college grew, the demand to accommodate an increasing number of guests called for more space in the president’s home. The presidency of George D. Langdon, Jr., from 1978 to 1988, was met with the decision to remodel and expand to home to serve larger audiences. The same verdict held true for the following two presidents, Neil R. Grabois, who served from 1988 to 1999, and Chopp’s immediate predecessor Charles Karelis. When Chopp came to Colgate in 2002, she, too, was faced with a similar predicament.

“When I came in there was discussion of [expanding] but I think presidents don’t like to spend that kind of money on the houses,” Chopp said. “It feels like there are more important needs than putting money into a president’s house even though you recognize the importance of entertaining. So we just decided that rather than to try to address the need by making the Watson house larger, the best thing to do would be to really devote it to entertaining.”

President Chopp will subsequently be moving to a home in Hamilton to serve primarily as the living quarters for her and her husband. Watson House, which will keep its furnishings, will become a place to better accommodate audiences such as student groups, alumni, and parents.

“We are seeing more presidents around the country do this kind of thing; separate where they live from the president’s house, but still use the president’s house for entertaining,” Chopp said.

Watson House will now serve the strict purpose of receiving visitors of the president. Chopp made a clear note that the house will not follow the direction of Merrill House, which now houses offices as well as the faculty club. As for the next president of Colgate, it will be up to them to either follow a new precedent set by Chopp or return to Watson House and expand its corridors to meet the demands of a university that continues to grow in repute and honor.