Living on campus

Dormitory living was something of a novel idea in the first half of the 19th century, and Union Coll

Dormitory living was something of a novel idea in the first half of the 19th century, and Union College president Eliphalet Nott decided to take things a step further: He and his family would share living quarters with the student body.

What the students thought of it we can only guess, but his third wife, Urania Eleanor Sheldon Nott, definitely had her own ideas on the subject.

In 1857, with her husband in his 80s, Urania finally put her foot down and Eliphalet relented. Four years later, in July 1861, the Notts moved out of the South Colonnade and into the President’s House, a beautiful two-story structure near the Blue Gate entrance on the southern side of the campus near Union Street.

“She was obviously a capable woman who had a career of her own, and for herself and for Nott, who was beginning to fail physically, she wanted her own house,” said Wayne Somers, who compiled and edited the Encyclopedia of Union College History. “She also was probably thinking about what was going to happen to her after her husband died.”

Current resident

Today, the building is home to current Union president Stephen C. Ainlay and his wife, Judith, who, in September 2006, moved in from Worcester, Mass., where Ainlay had been vice president at the College of Holy Cross. Ainlay is Union’s 18th president, succeeding Roger Hull, who had lived in the President’s House for 15 years.

“It was vacant a year after the Hulls left. So it needed some painting and papering,” said Judith Ainlay, like her husband an Indiana native. “From what I hear, Roger had the house furnished in a more modern style, with more contemporary paintings, and that’s fine. What we’ve tried to do is appreciate and respect the house and its history, and anything we do from this point forward we’ll keep in mind the period that the house is from.”

The building was designed by Nott’s grandson, Edward Tuckerman Potter, a Union alum from 1853, who followed the plan set by French architect Jacques Ramee. Nearly a half century earlier, in 1813, it was Ramee who had laid out the entire Union campus, an unprecedented undertaking in America at the time.

Although there is a kitchen and a few small rooms in the back of the house, the building is generally made up of four rooms downstairs and four more upstairs, with a wide and ornate center stairway greeting visitors as they walk through the front door. A conservatory, originally a porch, was constructed on the north side of the house in 1916.

Much of the home is decorated with furnishings belonging to the Ainlays, but many of the large portraits and other paintings that adorn the walls are part of the college’s collection.

“There’s no formula or specific set of rules, but basically the college works to make the new president and his family happy,” said Rachel Seligman, curator at Union College’s Mandeville Gallery. “Roger Hull collected a lot of art himself. So over time, he had his own things hanging on the wall and they were much more contemporary than what the previous president had. Now we have a president with a new approach, and it’s been fun to get some of our old collection back into circulation. As a curator, I’m so pleased that we have someone living there who has a genuine interest in art and has the desire to make a connection to the college and its history. Judith has really breathed new life into the house and put her imprint on it.”

Fantastic wallpaper

To the right side of the house as you walk into the front door are the music room and the library, while to the left are a parlor and the dining room, all with 12-foot ceilings. While all the rooms are beautifully decorated, the pièce de résistance has got to be the wallpaper in the dining room. Called “Views of North America,” it was originally made in 1834 in France by the Zuber Co., which is still producing wallpaper. The five scenes depicted by the wallpaper are Boston Harbor, a dress parade at West Point, Niagara Falls, the Natural Bridge in Virginia and the palisades along the lower Hudson River.

It was put up by the wife of Dixon Ryan Fox when he became Union’s president in 1934. Jacqueline Kennedy also used the identical wallpaper to decorate the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House in 1962.

“Mrs. Dixon Ryan Fox did a lot to the house when she moved in, and I like to say how Jackie Kennedy copied us,” said Ainlay. “The colors were a lot brighter in 1934, but I would never think of taking it down. This is something the students always remember about the house, and it’s something all our visitors like to see. I like to quiz people to see if they can come up with the five locations.”

While the Ainlays do much of their entertaining in the parlor and the dining room, many guests can’t help strolling out into the conservatory, a narrow but long room with plenty of natural sunlight and a host of large wicker chairs.

“The house can be a little dark, and it is stiff and a bit formal. So the conservatory is the favorite room of a lot of our visitors,” said Ainlay. “This is where we come when we don’t want to be stiff and formal. It’s such a nice room because of the brightness, and this is where we’ll entertain small groups, or the two of us will just come out here and eat. It was a beautiful addition to the home.”

The conservatory is also being used as an informal art gallery, and currently on display are three colorful masks from the college theater program’s 2007 production of “The Birds” by Aristophanes.

“We can’t put the precious art out here because there’s too much light, but this gives us another opportunity to talk about the college and what’s going on here,” said Ainlay. “We have a great theater department, and this is a great way to showcase some of their work.”

Urania Nott still a fixture

Another item Ainlay hopes to showcase soon is the Thomas Sully portrait of Urania Nott painted in 1853 and currently on display in the president’s office in the administration building next to two of the college’s most prominent graduates, Chester Arthur and William Seward. A portrait of Urania’s husband, painted by Benjamin West in 1839, hangs inside the home in the library.

“Urania’s portrait was restored at Williamstown and when she came back she was put up in the president’s office,” said Ainlay. “I’m sure that wasn’t easy, getting a women’s portrait up in the president’s office. So I’m a little torn by it, but I’d still like to be able to bring her back home soon.”

It would be Urania’s second homecoming, her first coming in August 1842 when at the age of 35 she married the 69-year-old Nott. A Troy native, Urania attended Emma Willard Seminary and immediately went into teaching, landing jobs in Elizabeth, N.J., and then Union Village (now Greenwich), N.Y. She moved to Schenectady in 1830 and for seven years was the head mistress at the Schenectady Female Seminary before being lured away by a group in Utica to start a girls’ school there. She had very likely met Nott while she was in Schenectady, and when his second wife, Gertrude Peebles Tibbets Nott, died in 1840, it was only a year and a half later that Urania returned to Schenectady to become the third Mrs. Nott.

Nott died in 1866 and Urania remained in the house through the administration of three more college presidents, finally moving out sometime before she died in 1886. Like she had done before she married Nott, when he died Urania was back in the work force, serving as the first director for the new old ladies home (now the Heritage Home for Women) on Union Street that opened in 1868 up until her death 20 years later.

“She was still middle-aged when Nott died. So she had another career after that,” said Somers. “There isn’t a whole lot that we know about her, but she certainly wasn’t a typical president’s wife for her time. After he had his debilitating stroke in 1863, there were rumors that she was the one who was really running the college, but I don’t think that’s true. Like any wife would do in that situation, she was just trying to protect her husband.”

Categories: Life and Arts

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