The President’s Home, est. 1932
The President’s Home History
The President’s Home at Concord University, Athens, W.Va.
by Tom Bone III, Class of 1976
- The Basic Facts
- The Early History, from Idea to Construction
- An Amazing and Generous Funding Mechanism
- Becoming a Home, and a Showplace
- The Stewart Years
- The Second Marsh Administration
- The Freeman Years
- The Beasley Years
- The Third Floor
- The Grounds
- Renovations Completed
- More than a Building
For 81 years, the President’s Home at Concord University has been a place where people feel at home. The stately brick structure has hosted governors, celebrities, and Concord students and faculty, in addition to providing living quarters for seven presidents of the institution and their families.
For decades, the home has been a focus for the social life of the community, and a place where thoughtful discussions and earnest negotiations sometimes followed luncheons or dinners.
The President’s Home overlooks the intersection of Plymouth Street and Vermillion Street at the eastern town limits of Athens. The street address is 600 Vermillion Street.
The structure is 37 by 52 feet, consisting of 6,375 square feet.1 It comprises a basement, two full-sized floors and a smaller third floor in the “attic.”
The construction is a variation of New England Georgian architecture,2 with red brick exterior walls that became a standard for Concord University architecture for decades. The single chimney is in the west wall, slightly offset from center.
The front porch includes four white modified Doric columns, non-fluted, with simple tops (capitals), at the front edge of the porch. Two matching “engaged” half-columns are against the front wall of the home. A black metal railing encloses the flat top of the porch.
The larger windows are a typical 12-pane arrangement. The white wooden shutters contain a cut-out silhouette of a pine tree in a base, apparently an homage to the white pines that became a symbol of the University after being planted in 1915.3
As early as 1919, Concord President Christopher Columbus Rossey had envisioned the need for a permanent president’s residence.
Dr. Rossey wrote to his supervisors, the State Board of Control in Charleston, “... I asked for an appropriation [from legislators] to build a President’s home. The State Board of Public Works thought this unwise, and therefore did not recommend it.”4
The letter went on to say that he was buying a lot “on the main street” in Athens and asked if the State “will give me permission to tap the [water] line for personal use.” No response is recorded in the archives of the University.
Three years later, he presented his board with a detailed rationale for the construction. He wrote, “Close touch is necessary in order to help protect school property (and) to be near in case of sickness or other emergency at dormitory or at building.”5
He continued, “For the good of the school, the President should often entertain at his home, persons who are interested in the future of Concord. He sincerely regrets that this is an impossibility at the present time.”
Noting that he was living “about a mile from the school on a side street,” Dr. Rossey also advised, “A modern home with proper surroundings would exercise a greatly needed influence in the town of Athens.”
With a change of president at Concord State Normal School in 1929, construction became possible. In his 16 years as Concord’s leader, Dr. J. Frank Marsh, Sr. coordinated an extensive improvement in the physical plant, including the construction of two residence halls, a gymnasium, and the library that came to bear his name.6 He, also, saw an immediate need for a president’s home.
Dr. Marsh and the State Board of Control purchased property from Dr. Uriah Vermillion in October 1931,7 across the street from the main campus — which had been established on a portion of the extensive Vermillion family farm in 1911.8 The family name was later attached to the street, which was (and is) known outside the town limits as the Red Sulphur Turnpike.
Events then happened quickly. On Jan. 11, 1932, Dr. Marsh wrote to the Bank of Athens, “I am making an assignment of all my interests [in the property and any buildings to be built there] as security for loans to be secured for the erection of the residence.”9
With the Great Depression in full swing across the United States, J. Frank Marsh added in his letter to the Bank board, “The president’s residence, with the land and the improvements, will have a conservative value of from $15,000. to $20,000., and will represent a first class personal investment if for any reason, which I cannot imagine, the state fails to complete payments on the residence.”10
The arrangement authored by Dr. Marsh called for the state to pay a sum each month, and that he would personally pay a monthly sum as well, to retire the loan.
Dr. Marsh’s son, Joseph F. Marsh, Jr. (who served as President from 1959 to 1973), recalled, “He borrowed money from the Bank of Athens and personally built the house on state property. My father paid rent to pay back the debt ... $50 a month.”11
The younger Marsh said that obligation was finally paid it off in his father’s last year in office, 1945.12
Concord President Emeritus Jerry Beasley, in a newspaper story in 1997, said about Dr. Marsh’s handling of the financing, “It always represented for me the noble sacrifice ... of what it means to be a teacher, educator, public servant. In the true sense, you are measured by what you give, not the perks you have.”13
In a personal interview in 2013, Dr. Beasley said he always saw the construction of the home as “a powerful symbol” of dedication. “Not only did they not benefit from public employment ... but they gave to the cause that they were involved in.”14
At one point, a note from Dr. Marsh states that the construction timeline should be kept moving along expeditiously “in order that we may make best use of ERA labor,”15 a reference to the federal government’s Emergency Relief and Construction Act that put unemployed people to work.16
On March 1, 1932, Virginian Brick delivered 73,500 “common brick” and 450 “face brick” to the site for $1,043.45.17 On March 24, Virginian Supply in Princeton, W.Va., provided pine flooring, nails, “lath, etc.” for a cost of $246.03.18
Bids were sought in May for a pair of 9-foot wooden driveway gates, “Colonial style.” Dr. Marsh wrote a personal check for the gates, to Georgia Lumber Company of Bluefield, W.Va., for $73.63.19
Labor was paid to a W. Cook to assemble and install those gates, taking 16 hours at 50¢ per hour, for a cost of $8.20
Joe Marsh recalled in 1997 that his father “brought in craftsmen, [including] a number from Pennsylvania.” He noted, “The woodwork is very elaborate [and] beautifully crafted.”21
Dr. Marsh, his wife Florence Keller Marsh, their son Joe and one Nellie McClung moved into the building on August 29, 1932.22
Joseph F. Marsh, known to his friends as “Joe,” once said, “The house was a social center of the area ... the official residence for entertaining.”23
Future President Beasley, who had a long friendship with Joe Marsh, said, “You can see in the archives, some of the evidences of the teas and the receptions, with formal calling cards, and engraved place-names for dinner parties that they held there.”24
Regarding overnight guests at the residence, Joe Marsh said, “In the ’30s and ’40s, when you had distinguished visitors to the college, there was no place, no hotels or motels, to stay in, and visitors stayed in the president’s house.”
The Marshes kept a guest book that chronicles visitors of all walks of life through the 1930s and 1940s, and again during the first years of Joe Marsh’s presidency that began in 1959. Those two guest books, one bound with a wooden cover, provide tantalizing glimpses into the life that flowed through the doors of the home.
Famed aviator Amelia Earhart, the first woman to pilot a plane across the Atlantic, visited on Jan. 14, 1936.25 Joe Marsh, then age 11, remembered Earhart as “a lanky person” who wore a gown for an address to the college students and public in the early evening.26
J. Frank Marsh and Florence invited “a group of women students for a social” after that speech, Joe Marsh recalled. He said Earhart “sat on a short stool and talked with a group gathered around her on the floor.”27
Lowell Thomas, a famous radio host and author, signed the guest book with a large scrawl on March 4, 1934. The poet Carl Sandburg signed in as a guest on Nov. 29, 1939.
Writer, historian and philosopher Will Durant, author of an 11-volume work, The Story of Civilization, signed in on March 18, 1937 — at the bottom of a page listing 21 members of the Sigma Sigma Sigma sorority that had visited the home about a week earlier.
The home had many other visitors besides celebrities. There is a reference to a “play practice” in 1933, and later in the year a faculty reception that drew 70 attendees. There was a notable “FootBall Party” with the coach and team members in 1934, and a visit by the Concord Commanders instrumental music group in 1939. A committee of the Concord Interfaith Chapel Foundation, begun by J. Frank Marsh, met there off and on for decades.
Notations in the guest book include a poem in French, one man’s signature in Chinese, a woman’s home address in Italy, and documentation of a 1961 luncheon in honor of “The Rt. Rev. Thomas H. Cashmore, The Lord Bishop of Dunwich, The Church of England.”
There is also this compliment from a June 1937 Commencement guest William A. Shimer: “One of the few first-visits on which one feels at home.”
An entry on Dec. 8, 1939, probably in Florence Marsh’s handwriting, detailed the color and arrangement of Christmas decorations for a gathering that was “very festive — lots of fun and all declared it was the best ever.”
In the same handwriting is this note on May 29, 1945: “Our Social Regime in the President’s Home closed with this happy occasion. This was our 23rd Wedding Anniversary.” There is an added reference to leaving the home on August 31, 1945, with the notation, “These 16 years as head of Concord were good to us.”
The new president, Dr. Virgil Stewart, arrived from a long tenure as an educator in the Wyoming County, W.Va., school system, along with his wife Lena, two daughters and two sons — and a different approach to living in the home.
Stewart’s daughter Nancy Stewart Belcher recalled that no one catered the receptions or dinners. “We were all expected to work,” she said. “We’d have ham and biscuits, and the biscuits were all freshly made.”28
Shielded by a hedge on the back of the property was a flower garden with snapdragons and iris, and a vegetable garden. “We had beans, corn, tomatoes, all that,” Belcher said. Any excess would be canned in the kitchen.
Lena Stewart had her daughters pick flowers from the garden and taught them to do floral arrangements to brighten up guest bedrooms and reception areas. The children also dusted the house.
Some family relatives traveled from Wyoming County and enrolled at Concord, and some roomed with the family. Belcher recalled two cousins who “had a long room in the attic, with cots to sleep on.”
Two elderly family members were housed for some time at the home, and passed away there, Belcher recalled. There was also one marriage that took place there.
Belcher recalled that when the Stewarts held picnics for the students and their parents, college employees would place a canoe onto the lawn and fill it with ice. Soft drinks and salads would be kept cool in it.
The president’s wife “would decorate the whole house at Christmastime,” Belcher said. The exterior decorations included a Santa Claus figurine that appeared to be climbing up a chimney, and strings of lights on the bushes in front of the home.
After J. Frank Marsh died in 1949, Florence Marsh continued to live in Athens, in a house that the Marshes had built across the street from the President’s Home. Belcher said her mother and Mrs. Marsh became friends and that Lena Stewart sought advice from the late president’s wife.
Mrs. Stewart and her children were expected to carry groceries in from the family automobile, parked along Plymouth Street, across the back yard to the kitchen door, Belcher said. Lena Stewart asked her husband to have a driveway paved to the door, but the project did not materialize. Belcher said that one day, her mother drove the car up to the back door and back several times, wearing “two big ruts” into the yard. Her father was not pleased to see this, Belcher said — but the driveway got paved.
When President Stewart needed to make telephone calls to Charleston or other long-distance locations, he, like all Athenians, would use his crank-operated phone to ring up the switchboard operator for the Athens telephone company, Mrs. Maston, and recite the number to be called. Once she had made the connection, “she’d shout back,” Belcher recalled, and the call would proceed.
When the Stewarts hosted dinners, Lena Stewart made sure that an extra plate was prepared, and one of the children would be dispatched immediately to deliver the meal to Mrs. Maston, who lived in an upstairs apartment in the middle of town — near her switchboard.
Dr. Stewart left the presidency in 1959 for a job in the state department of education in Charleston, and Joseph F. Marsh Jr. was named to succeed him.
Joe Marsh, who never married or had children, entrusted his mother Florence Marsh to be, once again, “the First Lady of Concord.” Also, with the new bachelor president in charge, the vegetable garden in the back yard disappeared.
Dr. David Bard, an emeritus professor of history who was hired by Concord in 1966, recalled that Joe Marsh believed in “pomp and circumstance.”29
Joe Marsh hosted a number of receptions and dinners each year, Dr. Bard said. Those included a dinner welcoming incoming faculty, and a reception “in the fall, usually around [the time of] the first football game.”
Dr. Bard said, “Then, of course, at Christmas, that was a big, big deal, the Christmas party. It was a required social event. Division chairs let you know, you were expected to be there ... and you were expected to be there in [tuxedo with] tails, or formal gowns.”
“He knew that it was an imposition, the coat and tails, the tuxedo and the floor-length dresses. But, you know, he had high expectations. And I wish all of our presidents had that kind of high expectation for the behavior of the faculty.”
Each faculty or staff member was given an invitation with one hour designated for his or her appearance.
Dr. Bard said, “Everyone thought — although I’m not really sure, I think it’s more of an urban myth than it was reality — they thought the hour that you were invited for indicated your status. The later on, the higher the status.”
“It was true to a degree. Division chairs were expected to be there all hours. The dean would be there all hours. But then, senior professors would be invited basically from 10 to 11 o’clock.”
Dr. Beasley said, “The house itself, over the years, has invited protests of various kinds. ... In the ’60s, some members of the Concord faculty picketed the segregated Y in Bluefield, and Joe Marsh defended them — and he did it in a very public way. And the KKK [Ku Klux Klan] burned a cross on the lawn of the house.”
Two developments in the 1960s altered somewhat the home’s use as an overnight lodging place for important visitors and as a site for banquets. The student center on campus, dedicated in May 1963,30 included a stateroom for special dining occasions, and two guest rooms on the top floor for visitors. The improvement of highways in the Princeton area, and the resulting increase in lodging options, allowed people quicker access to and from the area, and thus afforded more flexibility in their itineraries.
Joe Marsh was fired as president in 1973, and the state Board of Regents appointed Dr. Billy L. Coffindaffer as president of both Concord College and Bluefield State College in a “coordinate relationship.” His tenure lasted only about two years. Dr. James W. Rowley served as Acting President in the 1975-76 academic year.
Dr. Meredith N. Freeman then began a nine-year presidency. In addition to many years as a college administrator, he was a sculptor, painter, hunter and fisherman.
His wife Joyce Freeman said that his artistic talents were on display in their new home.
“There were paintings all over the walls in the President’s Home, and sculptures in every corner,” she said.31 “One of the sculptures was a bear. The bear was four feet tall. It took three men to lift it.”
After Dr. Freeman concluded his workday on campus, she said, “He’d go down to the basement. He was always working on a painting, or sculpting something — or both.” The basement, she said, was a “good place” for those endeavors.
In their first days in the home, Mrs. Freeman said that the previous president, Dr. Rowley, came for a visit. “We had our first dinner with paper plates, from the only restaurant in town,” she said, “because the [moving] truck had not come. ... We brought the food home, into the formal dining room, and ate with paper plates and cups.”
She noted, “The house was big enough to entertain.” And so they did.
The Freemans continued some Concord traditions such as a picnic outside for parents of students, and annual Christmas parties to which all of the faculty were invited. (Most no longer wore formal clothing.)
Mrs. Freeman also began a luncheon each April around Secretaries’ Day for that segment of the institution’s staff.
She recalled that she and Dr. Freeman hosted a party each fall coinciding with the last home football game of the season “on the patio in the backyard, near the fireplace. The weather cooperated with us, every year. ... It was beautiful.”
Joyce Freeman was the first president’s wife who was also a business owner. She ran three Taco Hut food franchises, in the Princeton area and in Marion and Wytheville, Va. She also owned a consignment shop beside her Princeton-area restaurant.
This was in addition to raising two daughters, Mary Ann and Dawn, who both graduated from Athens High School.
“It got really, really busy,” she said.
Summing up her time there, she said, “I loved it at the President’s Home. I was really happy there.”
With Dr. Freeman’s retirement in 1985, Dr. Beasley was selected president, and held the job longer than anyone else in Concord history: slightly more than 23 years.
As a freshman at Harvard College in the 1960s, Dr. Beasley got a formal invitation to a reception for students at the president’s residence. He put on “the only suit I had” but was “absolutely paralyzed” by the sophisticated atmosphere and crystal chandelier that he glimpsed through the door, and could not force himself to go in.
When he began his Concord presidency, Dr. Beasley recalled, “I was determined, as a result of my personal experience, to make it a welcoming place for students, and one that wasn't intimidating.”32
After describing several high-profile guests who visited the President’s Home, Dr. Beasley added, “I think, more important, from my point of view, were the ‘VIPs-to-be’ who were there ... generally, students.”
He said that each academic year, he would welcome around 20 student government leaders. “We had at least one if not two informal gatherings there, where we had spaghetti or lasagna, and we would sit on the floor and talk about the year to come — and sometimes, mid-year, talk about the experiences that we were going through and what we needed to be doing, together, about them.”
“That was, at least in my way of thinking about it, was much more important than the celebrity-types that we had.”
“The other thing that’s probably more important than the celebrities, is the ideas that took on life there in that house, or at least were pushed down the road a-ways in the house,” he said.
The institutional advancements that took shape with the advice of his guests were indeed many.
Wayne Meisel, a fellow educator and administrator, “came with his Macintosh computer in one knapsack and his balled-up wardrobe in the other ... and lived for five days up on the third floor, and wrote a proposal for our first service program, which was HAPIN [Helping Assist People in Need],” Dr. Beasley said.
Project New River, which eventually introduced college-level courses in many of the area’s public schools, “started to take shape in conversations there in the house,” he said.
“Some of the ideas for University Point took place around the dining-room table there,” he said. Faculty and staff talked about creating a Summer Academy and the Scholars of Distinction program, while visiting with Dr. Beasley.
It was a place where “ideas were shaped and were challenged,” he said, “a place where people felt comfortable in sharing those ideas in a very informal, un-challenging kind of environment.”
The residence was not immune to being a focal point of controversy during his tenure, either. A Concord alumnus, veteran, attorney and politician mounted a personal protest at the edge of the property in the 1980s. Dr. Beasley said, “When Jim McNeely was leading the movement to stop the power line coming through this area, he demonstrated outside with a car and a bullhorn, saying that Concord ought to take a stand on the issue.”
Jerry and his wife Jean brought up their three daughters, Heather, Sarah and Leah, in the house. He said, “The girls remember, I think most vividly, visits from the ghost of Amelia Earhart, who was a regular visitor — they claim. Every time there was a mysterious creak in a floorboard, or a window shutting mysteriously, or any inexplicable noise, it was always ‘Amelia.’ ”
“My girls were always convinced that there were probably secret rooms and passageways in the president’s house, because Joe Marsh had a secret passageway in the president’s office [in the Administration Building].” He noted with a smile that they were never able to find those suspected rooms.
He recalled, “There was the growth chart in the basement, on the door jam, that the Freeman girls started. And our girls thought that there must have been giants living in the house before them. But as they grew, they grew to be as tall or taller than the Freeman girls.”
Dr. Beasley’s wife Jean was a former college valedictorian who had earned a juris doctor degree, but did not practice law. He said she “did a lot to make that a home, rather than a house. She had her secret rhubarb patch, in the midst of the flowers, that allowed her to make her strawberry-rhubarb pie. She was really the lead gardener for the place. She had help from the landscape crew, but all of the flowers were hers.”,
“Jean, digging around in the dirt, discovered some of the buried stone walkways around the house.”
“She spent every year at Christmastime, literally a week, decorating the house. The groundsmen would find evergreen boughs and bring a big pile in.” He said she worked with the branches, creating “garlands all over the house, [and would decorate] a couple of Christmas trees that came from alumnus Gene Bailey’s Christmas-tree farm.”
“After she’d done it for about 15 or so years, she said, ‘I’m not going to do it again.’ But every year, when Christmas rolled around, she did it. And it gave the house a warm kind of feel that I think everyone felt comfortable in — and not just family.”
In a newspaper interview in 1997, Jean Beasley said about the home, “The roominess of it is wonderful. It’s very well made … just beautiful. It has touches that you don’t see in houses built today. It has little cubbyholes and closets everywhere. There’s no wasted space at all.”33
Dr. Beasley, in the same interview, said that the family felt like “stewards” of public property. “I reminded the girls [their daughters] that it is owned by 1.7 million West Virginians, and we just happen to be in it temporarily.”
Dr. Beasley has observed that the attic space of the structure has “seemed to be the playground for presidents’ children for several generations.”34
Joe Marsh remembered, “The third floor was my playroom, with electric trains and toys.”35
Dr. Beasley continued, “Every time Joe was on the third floor, he would show [the Beasleys’ daughters] the place on the floor where, once, bare-footed, he got a gigantic splinter in his foot.”
Dr. Beasley also noted, “Somewhere, underneath the insulation that they sprayed in [during the renovation of 2009-13], is a time capsule that Sarah hid in the attic [as a little girl]. That’ll be found someday.”
He also told the family story of the laundry chute. “Heather’s cat was exploring, and we left the door to the laundry chute open.” The curious cat jumped in and “fell all the way through it. … Fortunately, there was a pile of clothes in the bottom to cushion his fall.”
The back yard includes a square concrete pool about 11 feet per side, with a concrete fountain centerpiece dominated by a large bowl and a pineapple shape near the top. Four white cherub figurines have been placed at the corner of the concrete apron.
Jean Beasley once kept goldfish in the pool, and trained them to swim over to her when she whistled!
Two red brick garages are on the west side of the property. A rough stone fireplace, often used for grilling, is located near the southeast corner of the house.
Two old trees, a maple and an evergreen, are also in this area. Two gum trees shade part of the back yard. The hedge at the back of the property was replaced in 2012 with six trees and 11 smaller bushes.
Near the lowest part of the lawn, beside a stone wall, is what is believed to be the only larch tree in Athens. The Director of the Physical Plant, Homer Ball, once left written instructions about the larch tree for the grounds crew. The tree is cone-bearing, but it is deciduous and loses its leaves in the fall. His instructions were, “It is not dead. Do not cut it down.”36
Dr. Beasley said, “The Coffindaffers had basically refurnished several of the rooms inside, the living room, the dining room especially, and the study,” with help from an interior designer. “They installed the red carpet.”
With a keen sense of understanding, Dr. Beasley added, “I think that any work that’s done on [president’s houses] is historically a controversial enterprise. Before we moved into the house, Med Freeman did some things that he thought whoever his successor would be, would not be able to do. … I always appreciated his thoughtfulness in doing that.”
“Once we were in the house, we just felt that, given the other needs of Concord, we could not spend, and have money spent, on the house. Over time, that led to the deterioration of some important parts of it.”
That included “minor problems with the original slate roof,” some water problems in the basement, some leakage from clogged gutters, and “some seepage into the walls in a couple of places.”
In addition, he said, “The furniture was tattered. I mean, it was just obvious. The curtains had been up for three decades, plus. They had been cleaned a couple of times, but they clearly needed replaced.
“Toward the end of our tenure there, we just determined that a new president is not going to be able to do these kinds of things, and shouldn’t be subject to controversy.”
“A number of presidents, across the country, within the first year of their assuming their jobs, got cross-wise with their communities — because they didn’t do any fix-up work, but their boards did, and spent lavishly, and faculty, staff and students were up in arms.”
“We just decided that the [Concord Board of Governors] needed to take the initiative to begin the restoration of the president’s house. At least one person wanted to raze the house altogether ... early on. But the decision was made to restore, and to renovate, and to reappoint the furniture inside.”
Dr. Beasley’s successor in the presidency from 2008 to 2013, Dr. Gregory F. Aloia, and his family did not get to use the President’s Home much in his time in Athens due to the decision to renovate. They stayed in one of the university-owned houses across First Avenue from the property.
Through the Board of Governors, fundraising took place for a period of years. Joe Marsh was a major donor. Contributors included Charles and Laurie Erickson, Donnie Holcomb, H.D. “Bart” Harvey and R.T. “Ted” Rogers.
The Princeton firm of E.T. Boggess Architect, won the competitive bid to handle the renovation plans, under the guidance of Todd Boggess. Fredeking Stafford Construction Company of Princeton went to work with drills, saws and hammers.
The second floor was reconfigured as an addition to the project.
After five years of planning and work, the President’s Home was officially re-opened with an open house on Homecoming weekend in October 2013.
The President’s Home is simultaneously a dwelling place and refuge for the first family of the University, a symbol of the presidency, a means to connect with on-campus constituencies and the surrounding communities, a birthing ground for ideas and discussion, and an integral part of the history of the institution.
The foresight of J. Frank Marsh created the building more than eight decades ago, and it serves as an inspiration to continue the stewardship of the property as a bequest to future generations of Concord leaders.
Dr. Kendra Boggess, President of the University at the time of the re-opening in 2013, said, “Those who have lived in the President’s Home, or have visited there, have benefited from the far-thinking wisdom of J. Frank Marsh Sr. and the stewardship of those who have followed him in the presidency.”
“Through the assistance of loyal Concordians, and with the continued support of the State of West Virginia, I hope the President’s Home will remain an attractive place of history, of welcome, and of comfort for the generations to come.”
The author is indebted to the staff of the J. Frank Marsh Library; to the former presidents and their families for their time and courtesy; and to the Advancement Office staff of Concord University. — William “Tom” Bone III, September 30, 2013