Long past are the days when sheep grazed on the lawn and ducks flew through the hallways of The Grove, Virginia Tech's presidential residence. Now the stately two-story brick house, which was completed in 1902, is more likely to host elegant dinners for visiting dignitaries, receptions honoring outstanding faculty and students, or luncheons recognizing regional economic leaders—although the occasional bird does make its way inside.
The university celebrates such a gem among its buildings because of the efforts of John M. McBryde, its president from 1891 to 1907, who persuaded the Board of Visitors in the late 1800s to build the 15,147-square-foot mansion. By that time, the forward-thinking administrator had already crafted innovative plans and proceeded to change the certificate-granting, industrial-type school known as Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College into a degree-granting college, spurring the Virginia General Assembly to add "and Polytechnic Institute" to the name in 1896. McBryde and his son, also named John, developed trappings to reflect the college's new identity: a seal, a motto, and a coat of arms. The Grove became one of those trappings, an elegant home for the president that spoke volumes about the college's emerging status in higher education.
McBryde was the first president given nearly free rein in planning the physical footprint of Virginia Polytechnic Institute (VPI). During his tenure, VPI's first native-limestone-clad, neo-Gothic-style building, known as the Chapel, was constructed on the site where Newman Library stands today. However, it was one of McBryde's successors, Joseph D. Eggleston Jr., the president from 1913 to 1919, who fully embraced the neo-Gothic style of architecture that made the visual statement that VPI was a real college. Then again, Eggleston also holds the distinction of using sheep to "mow" the lawn of the presidential residence.
The Chapel, destroyed by fire in 1953, and The Grove are among the most impressive of the 67 buildings constructed during McBryde's presidency. The Grove survived an attempt to convert it into a residence hall and nearly two decades as an office building, a period when it slid into disrepair. Fortunately, a Virginia Tech first lady sparked the renovation that returned The Grove to its original use as the home of presidents.
In 1899, McBryde had a presidential residence in mind when he suggested that the Board of Visitors convert the house where he was living—Tech's first presidents' home, now part of Henderson Hall—into an infirmary and build a new home for presidents. The board members concurred, resolving that the house "be of brick and in such plans as the president and executive committee may adopt." They selected the Southern Colonial Revival style of architecture for the house, whose dominant portico, according to Charles E. Brownell, et al., in "The Making of Virginia Architecture," "signaled the fact that a person of importance dwelled there."
Following McBryde's retirement in 1907, four presidents and a non-president lived in the residence, originally named the "President's Home in the Grove," before a major renovation commenced. One of those four, Julian A. Burruss, president from 1919 to 1945, suggested that the house be converted into a dormitory for women. Although the Board of Visitors approved a motion to undertake the conversion and to erect a new executive residence, nothing came of the board's action, perhaps because the first female students, who matriculated that same month—September 1921—either lived with their families in Blacksburg or had found housing in private homes.
When the last of those four presidents, John R. Hutcheson, became too ill in 1947 to continue in office, the Board of Visitors named him chancellor, a first for the institution. In another unprecedented move, the board allowed Hutcheson to continue occupying the presidential home as his residence. He lived there for two more years, while the new president, Walter S. Newman, who had begun working at VPI in 1946, remained in housing assigned to him on Faculty Row, a street of on-campus residences provided for faculty and administrators.
The first major renovation commenced in 1949 after Hutcheson had vacated the house. It was completed in 1951, adding two more years to Newman's residency in the Holden House on Faculty Row. His wife, LizOtey (the spelling used by her family), played a major role in the renovation and said later that the additions of bathrooms and closets were her primary achievements in remodeling the house.
Newman, perhaps more than his predecessors, was aware that entertaining could benefit the college, telling the Board of Visitors, "The administration has recognized the need for the college to participate to a greater extent in providing entertainment for visiting dignitaries and organizations." The board authorized an annual expenditure of $1,000 for official college entertaining, which was usually held in the presidential residence.
Following Newman's retirement, his successor, T. Marshall Hahn Jr., lived in the president's home for nine years before building and moving into a house off campus. When Hahn left the university in 1974 to accept a position with Georgia-Pacific, the company's foundation purchased the house and donated it to the Virginia Tech Foundation. Hahn's successor, William E. Lavery, lived in the Hahn House throughout his 1975-87 administration.
After Hahn had moved off campus, the former presidential residence began a marked decline. Remodeled in 1972 to serve as an office building, the once glorious venue where presidents had feted governors, actors, and other dignitaries acquired the inauspicious name "Building 274." In 1983, when its first office occupants had vacated the building, an administrator inspecting the space was met by a duck flying down the stairway, through the reception hall, and into a room that had originally served as the front parlor. Work began shortly thereafter to prepare the building for other offices.
Meanwhile, the ever-increasing entertaining began creating problems for Peggy Lavery, wife of President Lavery, and she successfully recommended renovating the house and returning it to its original purpose. Her husband resigned before the renovation was completed, however, making Lavery the only president since 1902 not to live in The Grove.
The $1.2 million renovation updated and restored the presidential residence, which was officially named "The Grove" during the work. The first resident after the completion of the renovation was James D. McComas, president from 1988 to 1994. Promising that The Grove would be used as the "front door" to the university, McComas and his wife, Adele, opened the mansion to numerous guests, entertaining more than 10,000 people there during the first year alone.
Two more presidents have lived in The Grove since McComas, and a major mechanical renovation and extensive maintenance work were completed before the current president, Charles W. Steger, and his wife, Janet, moved in. Like their predecessors, the Stegers entertain a wide variety of guests.
Thanks to the cordiality of all first families who have lived in the presidential residence, The Grove has served Virginia Tech well, establishing a gracious tradition of hospitality and shining proudly as the face of the university.
Produced by University Relations