The University of Maryland presidents residence will be demolished in… (Mark Gail/The Post )
Soon after being named the University of Maryland’s president in 2010, Wallace D. Loh visited campus and learned that the president’s house was scheduled for demolition. While a university foundation built a new home, Loh and his wife would be living in a donated house near campus.
“Let me just say, I was surprised,” said Loh, who is in his second year in the job. “The first thing that came through my mind was: ‘Wallace, you have a crisis here.’ I knew that once the public heard about this, it would be a firestorm.”
Loh firmly believes that the old home had a long list of costly problems that needed to be fixed and that the new home and events center is “a necessity of the modern presidency.” Private donors will pick up the $7.2 million price tag, and about 20 people have given about $4.5 million so far.
But Loh said he knew that no matter how rational the reasons or the source of the funds, constructing this house would rouse emotions. “To the average person on the street, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Loh was correct in his prediction that the project would cause a firestorm. Although the new house has been in the works for more than a year and has been approved by several layers of school and state authorities, outrage didn’t set in until this month, when the Maryland Board of Public Works was asked to approve demolition of the previous house. Then, the old house fell.
From a public relations standpoint, the construction comes at a complex time, not long after Loh announced that the school was cutting sports programs to address massive budget shortfalls and as Maryland has been asking donors to support students who might have to drop out because they can’t afford tuition.
To give himself “a political cover,” Loh said he turned down use of the donor’s home and purchased a house near campus, where he and his wife pay their own mortgage and utilities. He said he also ordered an “absolute firewall” between himself and the project. Loh said he learned the price of the “University House,” as the structure is being called, from reading the student newspaper.
“I knew the one thing that brings down presidencies is building a new house,” Loh said. “I did not want my presidency to end before it begins.”
Once the house opens in late summer or early fall, the Lohs will make that their primary residence but plan to keep their current house as a “private retreat,” Loh said.
School officials and donors have been working to make it clear that the home is not a luxury but a fundraising necessity. On Tuesday, Brodie Remington, vice president for university relations, sent a mass e-mail to everyone on campus that challenged the media’s characterization of the project as a “mansion.”
When the university’s regents approved the project, Remington said they requested a clear distinction between the two sections of the house: a private residence that will cost about $2 million and a venue for entertaining that will cost $5.2 million. Still, looking at a rendering of the outside of the structure, it’s impossible to see where one section starts and another begins.
“That is a distinction that’s difficult for people to grasp,” Remington said.
The University of Maryland College Park Foundation, a nonprofit organization housed in the school’s University Relations department, is leading fundraising efforts for the project. Remington leads both the foundation and the department.
So far, the foundation has “official, formal, booked commitments” from about 20 donors for about $4.5 million, Remington said. Many of the donors are longtime Maryland supporters who have already given millions to other projects on campus, including athletics and scholarship funds.
One of the project’s largest donors, Barry Gossett, said the new house will be a symbol of the university’s upward trajectory. The foundation is building it at a time when construction prices are lower in preparation for more aggressive fundraising and partnership-building in the future.
“It’s only going to get more competitive, not just for the public dollars but for the private dollars,” said Gossett, who is also a major supporter of Maryland athletics and scholarships.
The foundation plans to meet its fundraising goal in June with gifts from 40 to 50 donors. Originally, it had planned on about 30 donors picking up the tab. When asked what would happen if the foundation could not raise the full amount, Remington said: “One cannot fail. We will keep fundraising until we raise all the money that we need.”
The foundation gave potential donors a color brochure that includes paintings of the University House, floor plans and a list of naming opportunities.