Principia College’s mansion, Eliestoun, will be torn down if donors fail to raise $100,000 in pledges by the end of December.
This past June, College President Jonathan Palmer and the board of trustees concluded that Eliestoun, having no promising donors and no “compelling use,” is a liability issue for the College. A group fighting for its preservation, however, argues that it is an asset, both historically and educationally, that should be saved.
The building has been obsolete for nearly 20 years and needs extensive renovation due to water damage, updated fire safety codes, and a large amount of asbestos and lead paint throughout the building. In its current condition, Eliestoun could prove dangerous to students, faculty or staff members who come into contact with the building.
“We’re not going to put Principia money into it. But if [donors and supporters] think there’s another way to do this, I want to give [them] the opportunity to do that, and so does the board,” Palmer said.
The upcoming deadline is intended to jumpstart the “organizational infrastructure” and begin raising the $2 million that is needed for the entire project to be completed.
Principia is unwilling to fund the rebuilding of Eliestoun, as there are many other costly projects that are more relevant and important to the community, according to Palmer. Such projects include the rebuilding of Voney Art Studio, which Palmer said “hasn’t been treated in decades.” Unlike Eliestoun, which is a remote and currently unused building, Voney is home to over 30 art majors and multiple staff members who use the building on a daily basis.
Other proposed renovation projects include Morey Field House which is unused – aside from the dance studio – and is located behind Davis Music Hall and Hay Field House. Its location and structural style make it a potentially useful building for the performing arts departments, including dance, music and theatre.
Palmer mentioned another costly, proposed project is putting air conditioning in the four Maybeck dorms – Brooks, Buck, Howard and Sylvester – that don’t have air conditioning.
However, some are speaking out in favor of saving Eliestoun. Thus far, several academic departments – including art, business administration, biology and natural resources, educational studies, English, mass communication, and sustainability – have expressed interest in using Eliestoun as a supplement to students’ studies.
Friends of Eliestoun, a group formed this past January by alumni, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rebuilding and maintaining Eliestoun as a historically significant building with potential to enhance Principia’s academic experience. For many graduates, the house served a memorable role in their college experience. Currently, the organization has roughly $50,270 in pledges.
For Principia alumnus Julie Williams, the house is a gem worth saving. Williams, along with Friends of Eliestoun, sees the house as a unique educational opportunity. She argued that it “doesn’t sound practical right now, but it didn’t sound practical to dig up mastodon bones and put them back together, either.”
Beyond its academic potential, Eliestoun is the most historic building that Principia owns. While the first Maybeck buildings were constructed in the 1930s, Eliestoun was built in 1889 and was owned by the Ames family, one of the original families of Elsah.
Two of Principia’s current employees are spearheading the project. Helen Wills of the registrar’s office serves as the president of Friends of Eliestoun, with web director Jonathan Hosmer serving as vice president.
Wills shared that the group has thought of having a student-run business operate out of a renovated Eliestoun called “Events at Eliestoun,” a group that runs events by providing food, music, and entertainment at the house. Any money raised from the event, such as a wedding, would be added to a fund to maintain Eliestoun.
“My hope is that [the renovation of Eliestoun is] not going to take away from Principia,” Hosmer said. “It’s going to make it more complete.”