Eastcliff History

High upon the cliffs of the nation's greatest river stands Eastcliff, the official residence for the president of one of the country's premier institutions of public learning, research, and service—the University of Minnesota.

The University first offered a residence to its president in 1911, when George Vincent became its third president. The home was located at 5th Street and 10th Avenue Southeast, and had been given by John Sargent Pillsbury, a 3-term governor and regent of the University for some 38 years. It was one of his many generosities to the University. Minnesota was still a territory when Pillsbury first became involved with the institution that was to become the University. As owner of a hardware store on Main Street in St. Anthony he played an instrumental role in saving the University from bankruptcy and preserving 30,000 acres of the territory's original land grant of 46,000 acres. He and other members of the Board of Regents saved Old Main from foreclosure; rid it of squatters who used its classrooms and hallways to raise turkeys, store hay, and split firewood; and defeated a proposal by the legislature that it be converted into a hospital for the insane. In the early days, a day seldom went by when Pillsbury didn't visit the University's president, and he would walk the campus at night to see that lights in the buildings had been turned off.

In 1922, Edward Brooks, a local businessman in lumber, commissioned C. H. Johnston, Sr., an architect of record for the University, to create a home for his family. The resulting two-story, 20 room manor reflected the Brooks' understated taste and love of assorted wood. Walnut, ash, cherry, cypress, knotty pine, and bleached oak were utilized in the construction and detailing; the unusually thick and wide, white clapboard siding was custom cut; and the home could be warmed with the nine fireplaces burning wood from the Brooks' lumberyards. Because of its perch atop the eastern cliffs of the Mississippi, his family began calling the home Eastcliff—a name still fondly used to this day.

In 1958, the Brooks donated their majestic home to the University. Today, surrounded by a white, wooden fence, Eastcliff occupies approximately two acres and serves as a living laboratory for the University. Faculty in design and architecture assist with renovations and improvements for the home. University of Minnesota Landcare staff design and meticulously care for native perennials, specimen plants, and exotic trees in the gardens. A carriage house, summer house, pool, and terraces enrich the estate and provide additional vantage points from which to further appreciate the home's beauty.

Artwork and some of the furniture within the residence are on loan from University of Minnesota collections, including the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum and the Goldstein Gallery. Among the gardens, sculptures from University artists further accentuate the estate. In 2000, as a nod to one of the finest examples of 1920s Colonial Revival architecture, Eastcliff was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Eastcliff is now almost 10,000 square feet and it has 20 rooms.

The home's creator, Johnston, Sr., had been the University architect of record and had designed all but two of the University buildings constructed between 1904 and 1936. He carried out the long-range building plan of renowned architect Cass Gilbert (U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., the Woolworth Building in New York, and many others) for the Minneapolis campus and particularly the buildings lining Northrop mall and the nearby engineering buildings. Johnston, Sr. designed Glensheen, the former Congdon Mansion in Duluth, which also belongs to the University. Typical of his style of architecture is the denticulated molding (a row of evenly spaced box-like "teeth") at the top of walls, in concrete near the roof on the mall buildings, in dark wood in the foyer of Morrill Hall, and throughout the first floor of Eastcliff. Johnston, Jr., designed the Bell Museum, Nolte Center, Williams Arena and several other campus buildings.

The family's lumber connections are apparent inside and outside Eastcliff. The white clapboard siding is thicker and wider than usual, and some of the black shutters have parrot cutouts in them. A variety of woods were used in paneling: walnut and cherry in the exposed beams and paneling in the den, and cypress, bleached oak, and knotty pine upstairs.

Brooks was a strict disciplinarian with the children (three sons, Conley, Ted, and Dwight, and daughter, Markell), or at least with the boys, as they recall. Through early childhood and adolescence, the boys were required to swim laps every morning without fail, from early May to mid-October, unless ice formed on the pool. He expected the brass handrail for the swimming pool steps to gleam. So, one of the boys polished it every day. It took two of them an hour and a half three times a week to roll the gravel tennis court. There were pranks, too, of course. A dumbwaiter disguised behind a false door beside the living room fireplace was used to draw logs up from the basement. For a while, one afternoon, it also moved baby Dwight up and down.

Among the well-known dignitaries who visited or stayed at Eastcliff as guests of the Brooks family were Katharine Hepburn, Helen Keller, Joe Louis, Serge Rachmaninoff, and Clark Gable (who had worked for more than a year pulling logs in the family's Oregon sawmill). Edward Brooks died in 1954. With the children established in homes of their own, Mrs. Brooks decided to approach President James Morrill at the university. In December of 1958 the regents formally accepted Eastcliff as a gift.

The Pillsbury residence had remained the home of University presidents until 1960, when the University's ninth president, O. Meredith Wilson, moved to Eastcliff. Linking the old with the new, two crystal chandeliers and the dining room set from the Pillsbury home were installed at Eastcliff.

A home for half of our presidents

Between 1960 and 1988, four University presidents and their families occupied Eastcliff: O. Meredith Wilson, Malcom Moos, C. Peter Magrath, and Kenneth Keller. A number of changes took place during those years. The Wilsons installed a wood-fired sauna in the basement. The Moos family faced the fireplace wall in the basement amusement room with Minnesota split field stone and granite, paneled the walls with weathered wood (once the pig barn on the Faribault farm of Mrs. Moos' cousin, Helen Grant), and remodeled the narrow black-tiled half-bath off the first-floor den.

It became increasingly clear that more substantial changes were needed to keep Eastcliff in good repair and to adapt the house to its dual purpose of serving as a setting for University events and as a family home. The original dining room seated only 12, so for larger dinners, guests were seated in the entry hall, living room, and sun porch. During the Magrath presidency, food for events was prepared at a campus food service and carried to Eastcliff for the finishing touches. At that time, a University-wide committee was formed to recommend changes. Thus, when Kenneth Keller was named 12th president, the problems had been studied and it was decided to move ahead with repairs and improvements, with the architectural firm of Leonard Parker Associates planning and directing the renovation. Included in the assignment were improvement of the kitchen, dining, and other facilities for large functions; preserving family-scale dining and kitchen space; and including "invisible" changes such as upgrading electrical service, adding air conditioning, updating heating systems, and improving insulation.

There were unforeseen structural problems. Hardwood floors on the ground level were birch laid over concrete imbedded with wood "sleepers" to which the floorboards had been nailed. When the carpets were removed it was discovered that many planks were too fragile to withstand stripping and many sleepers had rotted. Still-usable floorboards from the dining room were used to repair the living room floor, and a new floor of birch and fir was laid in the entry hall and dining area. Wall studs rotted at the bottom were replaced and a new ceiling installed in the living room.

The Keller family moved in while the renovation was under way. Since the entire first floor was closed, meals had to be prepared upstairs and dishes were washed in the bathtub for many months. All of the renovations were made within the existing framework of the house, and, when there were changes, an effort was made to match existing design.

In 1989 President Nils Hasselmo and his family moved into Eastcliff. Shortly afterward, a committee was formed, at the behest of the Board of Regents, with the charge to raise private funds for future enhancements to Eastcliff. This committee, the Friends of Eastcliff, initiated the Eastcliff Legacy Fund in 1993. Recent projects that have included Legacy Fund money:

  • 1995: Dining room ceiling restructured to minimize noise in the dining room (plaster replaced with fabric-covered fiber panels; false beams added to 'break up' the smooth surface).
  • 1996: Landscape modifications on northern half of property, including replacing the driveway with a pedestrians-only sidewalk, making the Porte cochere door wheelchair-accessible, and expanding the rear parking lot.
  • 1997: Cosmetic changes to the house's interior to reflect and honor its original appearance (wallpaper and fixtures reflective of the styles of the period in which the house was built).
  • 1998: Renovation of the lower-level entertainment room, including the addition of a powder room and new oak cabinetry; heating updates and the addition of air-conditioning; conversion of a redundant half bath to a kitchenette.
  • 1999: Installation of an irrigation system for the yard, a new roof of fireproof cedar shingles, and the re-insulation of the attic spaces of the house.
  • 2000: Renovation of carriage house and house exterior.
  • 2001: Addition of an elevator to accommodate the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • 2002: Dormer renovation to replace damaged and aged wood and dormer windows.
  • 2003: Security and landscape lighting added to the grounds surrounding the house. The renovation of the second-level bathroom, which had been unusable after the installation of the nearby elevator.
  • 2004: Outdoor dining terrace renovation.
  • 2005: Removal of tennis court and addition of sculpture garden. Conversion of stone paths to brick for ADA access to all areas of the grounds.
  • 2006: Exterior painting of Eastcliff; refurbishing of shutters.

President Robert Bruininks and his wife, Susan Hagstrum, resided at Eastcliff for nearly nine years, from December of 2002 through June of 2011. Under the couple’s stewardship, many University events were hosted at Eastcliff.

Our current president, Eric W. Kaler and his wife, Karen, moved into Eastcliff in July 2011. Prior to assuming the presidency of the University of Minnesota, President Kaler served as provost and senior vice president for academic affairs and vice president for Brookhaven affairs at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, New York. He received his undergraduate degree from the California Institute of Technology in 1978 and his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1982. Karen Kaler holds a B.F.A. in communication design from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. She has founded a design firm working primarily with nonprofits and social service agencies, and has been involved in many forms of volunteer work, including finding sponsors for children in Tanzanian leprosy colonies.