A maroon and gold flag flies outside an immense white house on the east bank of the Mississippi River — just a couple miles from the University of Minnesota. That’s Eastcliff.
In addition to his current $610,000 salary, Eric Kaler’s contract requires him, as president, to live there.
“It was donated to the University specifically to be the resident of the president,” said Lyndell King, who chairs the Eastcliff Technical Advisory Committee.
But Eastcliff is more than that, she said.
The basement, the main floor and the grounds are public and function mostly as a place to display the University’s art collections and entertain students, faculty and special guests — like when the Dalai Lama visited in the spring. On average, Eastcliff hosts 5,000 guests annually, King said.
But Eastcliff doesn’t give out open invitations; a student’s best bet to gain entry is high achievement, awards or other presidential recognitions. Some years, graduation receptions are also held at the mansion.
A curving staircase in the bright foyer leads to the second-floor apartment with bedrooms and a galley kitchen: the home of the president’s family.
Eastcliff was built in 1922 by Edward Brooks, a prominent Minnesota lumberman. For its design, Brooks commissioned C.H. Johnston, Sr., who also designed nearly all of the buildings built on the University campus from 1904 to 1936.
The 10,000-square-foot mansion was the home of Brooks, his wife, Markell, and their four children, according to a report by the Marbrook Foundation, which the family started as a charitable organization in 1948.
The family donated Eastcliff to the University in 1958 — four years after Edward Brooks’ death. Ever since, it has been home to the families of presidents James Morrill, O. Meredith Wilson, Malcom Moos, C. Peter Magrath, Kenneth Keller, Nils Hasselmo, Mark Yudof, Bob Bruininks and now Eric Kaler.
Because it is University property, Facilities Management carries out most of Eastcliff’s maintenance — its lawn work and basic upkeep. Money for renovations usually comes from a combination of private funds, but University funds sometimes kick in on big projects.
Amid talks of tuition hikes, wage freezes and layoffs over the summer, a $550,000 renovation to the summerhouse and family kitchen used $215,000 in University funds. The timing was unfortunate, King said, but the renovation had been on the books for seven years and the advisory committee tries to stage renovations during presidential transitions.
In 2000, Eastcliff was added to the National Register of Historic Places. As a condition of that status, historic review processes now dictate its renovations, though the advisory committee asks for input from presidents’ families when it’s appropriate.
“We try to bring it back to what it could have looked like when it was built in the 1920s,” King said. In the past, that’s meant tearing out orange shag carpeting and staining the dining room floors dark.
Eastcliff is a dog-friendly mansion. The Kalers’ Spanish water dogs, Mo and Lida, aren’t the first to run amuck on the grounds.
“The Brooks family dogs’ graves are out here,” King said, gesturing toward three unassuming wooden headstones on the edge of a garden bed. “It was a condition of the donation that they not be disturbed.”
A fuzzy green dog toy sat abandoned in the backyard.
The historic summerhouse
Pool parties are not unheard-of at the home of University presidents.
Behind Eastcliff is a matching summerhouse — replete with changing rooms, showers and a small entertaining area — and a pool.
“Some presidents actually used the pool for exercise and have swum here a lot,” King said, noting that the Kellers and the Hasselmos were avid swimmers.
Eastcliff also hosts paintings, sculptures and photographs from the Weisman Art Museum’s collection.
The art changes with the presidents, King said. Where the Bruininks were fans of 1920s-era pieces, the Kalers favor eclectic artwork, she said. Many of the works they selected have engineering, design and architectural themes.
“Most of the rest of the art that’s here from the Weisman has not been at Eastcliff before. The Kalers wanted a new look.”
But one piece that’s been a staple in the house is “Nelly” — a portrait of a portly lady.
“Somehow, she seems to have found her place at Eastcliff in the dining room,” she said. “Every president seems to love Nelly. Mrs. Kaler said she looked like her grandmother, so she was especially eager to keep Nelly here.”
The first-floor breakfast nook is decked with the Kalers’ personal rooster collection. Before coming to the University, Kaler served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Stony Brook University in New York, where the mascot is a rooster.
Down a small staircase is an entertainment room, decked in rich woods and red hues. It feels like a family TV room, but is part of the public function of Eastcliff.
“The Yudofs had a historic pool table here,” King said. The Kalers opted for a TV.
“They imagine they will be inviting possibly donors or others here to watch sports events on the TV,” King said.
Originally a screen porch, the garden room now has four walls of glass windows looking out on the estate’s two-acre grounds.
An enormous glass-encased Eastcliff dollhouse filled with tiny, ornate furnishings sits against one wall.
“I think it’s supposed to be the furnishings the way they were when the Brooks family was here,” King said.
The Peacock Bar is what King called one of the “funny little spaces” on Eastcliff’s first floor.
What appears to be a closet door off the dining room opens to a tiny peacock-themed room. Inside, mirrored walls outlined with orange peacocks reveal a liquor cabinet.
Karen Kaler has suggested that the unsuspecting bar might have something to do with the house’s Prohibition-era construction, but King couldn’t confirm the idea.
Either way, it’s a nod to the ’20s, with its plume-shaped light fixture and peacock tail door interior. It still serves as the bar for some Eastcliff functions.
“At the turn of the 20th century, the peacock theme was very popular,” King said. “The dining room was once peacock-themed [too].”
In an entryway under the curving staircase that leads to the Kalers’ private quarters is a tiny telephone room.
“It was considered to be absolutely the most up-to-date thing in 1922 when this house was built, because telephones were not all that common in every house,” King said.
The tiny room still houses a phone, but it’s modern, with buttons and a pigtail cord. According to King, it doesn’t get much use.
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