Sometime not long ago, an anonymous donor sent me an 8 x 10 glossy of the old President's Residence through campus mail. A small group of people stands on the lawn in front of the home, deep in discussion. Prior to that donation, our only images of the old house were on strip negatives--which are considered, of course, "master" images, but are quite a bit more difficult for patrons to view.
Looking at the photo, you have to wonder what the coterie on the lawn is discussing. The residence became a point of controversy both on campus and in the popular press when former University President Leonard Laster first came to Oregon in 1978. Several of our oral history interviewees recall the episode, in which purchase of the house, promised to Laster upon his acceptance of the position, was denied by the state legislature. While the details are somewhat murky, it's clear that town-gown relations were strained by these domestic arrangements.
Bad feeling had already been generated in the community when the first president, Dr. Lewis Bluemle, decided to sell the original presidential residence, which had been a gift to the university from prominent Portlander Harold Miller. According to some accounts, the home was apparently not to Mrs. Bluemle's taste. The Bluemles subsequently moved into a rented home on Seventeenth and Elm; when Bluemle left and Laster came on, the State Board of Higher Education planned to purchase the home for university use. At the last minute, the legislature refused to authorize the purchase, and the Lasters were left homeless, with a van full of furniture. MaryAnn Lockwood, in her interview, credits the quick work of Board member Lou Perry with finding a suitable abode for the Lasters.
Once settled in to the newly leased house, the Lasters ran into controversy again, this time upon the demise of the washing machine. It being a rented home, the Lasters looked to the university to supply a new machine; a working machine was procured by Physical Plant staff from campus stores. The story hit the papers, and the media spin was that patients were being deprived clean laundry so that the President would not be inconvenienced. Needless to say, Laster's relationship with the media never did improve after that.
Finally, the Lasters moved into another home, one on Montgomery Street, which was subsequently donated to the University. It then became the longtime residence of President Peter Kohler, during his twenty-year tenure. The home now stands empty, since President Robertson has opted to retain his current house rather than move into the official residence. We'll all need to stay tuned to see what happens next...