CCRI president’s house vacant, but bills remain

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – The president’s house at the Community College of Rhode Island is currently undergoing more than $1.5 million in renovations, with officials saying they plan on expanding the building’s use beyond a residence.

The home – built in 1830 and located on the CCRI campus grounds in Warwick – is now vacant for the first time in more than 50 years; Meghan Hughes, CCRI’s current president, decided to continue living at her East Side home when she took the job in January 2016. Alix Ogden, Hughes’ chief of staff, said the president didn’t want to uproot her family.

“President Hughes lives in Providence and her children are in school up there,” Ogden said. “It just made more sense for their family to maintain their house.”

The leader of CCRI had occupied the house since the mid-1960s, when the Knight family donated the home and land to Rhode Island. As part of the deal, the state acquired some 80 acres of land that CCRI is now using, under an agreement that the historic home had to be maintained and used as a residence.

Therefore, despite the house being vacant, the state has had to pay utilities including electricity, heat, cable, internet and even roughly $3,000 a year for an in-ground pool that sits unused. In all, utility bills and upkeep for the home totaled $40,829 in the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, according to records reviewed by Target 12.

Ogden said CCRI officials are exploring the possibility of getting rid of the pool, which was part of the estate before it was donated.

“I’m not sure [President Hughes] would think it would be important that we have a pool in order to be competitive,” Ogden said. “We have this beautiful property here, that we could offer to a future president.”

Bill Flanagan lived in the house from 1966 to 1978 while his father, Dr. William Flanagan, was the leader of what was then called Rhode Island Junior College. He said his father approached a member of the Knight family – which made its fortune as creators of the Fruit of the Loom brand – to discuss purchasing the land for use by the college. But Royal Knight, the great-grandson of one of the founders of the company, “had another idea.”

“He proposed donating the land for free with one condition – that his family’s house and the 10 acres around it be preserved in perpetuity as a home,” Flanagan said in an email. “I know that my father was taken aback by the mandate and tried to convince Governor [John] Chafee to make the Knight house Rhode Island’s governor’s mansion instead. Governor Chafee brushed that off, saying it would be political suicide for him to give himself a mansion.”

The Knight estate was formally donated to CCRI in 1964, and the house was later placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

At the moment, the Knights’ stipulation that the home be used as a residence is not being honored. But Ogden said the property – which had fallen into disrepair in recent years – is now undergoing a major renovation to repair the 7,900-square-foot structure, bring it up to code, and alter it to be a multiuse facility.

“The second floor will be a residence for the president, or we’ve been thinking creatively, like a writer in residency program maybe,” Ogden said. “Then the bottom floor the president could use to invite different parts of our community to use it, whether it’s meetings or conferences or institutional advancement purposes, but really to inhabit the space as part of a center of our college.”

1983 National Park Service photo of a living room inside the Knight House at CCRI

Restoration began in 2014 to replace rotting wood, the balustrade – a decorative railing along the roofline – and the roof itself. Records reviewed by Target 12 showed those repairs totaled $534,018. The next – and final – phase of restoration began in 2016, addressing the interior of the home, and will cost $947,528, including more than $76,000 for architectural and engineering plans. The work should be done by December 2017.

Ogden said the money for the interior renovations is coming from the Rhode Island Capital Plan Fund, which is funded by surplus state tax revenue, and was approved before Hughes took office.

While a presidential residence is not uncommon at four-year colleges and universities, the house on the campus of CCRI is unique relative to its counterparts in neighboring states.

Spokesmen said the community college system in Connecticut does not offer a house for its leader, nor do Bristol Community College, Massasoit Community College or Cape Cod Community College in Massachusetts. But presidents in the Massachusetts community college system are given an annual $18,000 housing stipend.

Ogden said she thinks the house is an important perk when trying to attract top leadership, because CCRI is going up against all institutions of higher education, not just community colleges.

“It‘s a competitive thing,” Ogden said. “It’s something that is offered as packages to presidents of their employment.”

Bill Flanagan’s sister, Ellen Flanagan Polo, said when they lived there, the house was kept in pristine condition by groundskeepers at the college, and her father was a stickler for preserving history.

“Because the home wasn’t ours my father wouldn’t let us paint our rooms different colors or make any cosmetic changes,” she said. “He wanted it preserved.”

Her brother said he thinks the deal the state struck to acquire the 80 acres in exchange for maintaining the home remains a good one.

“It was a bargain fifty years ago and it remains a bargain today,” he said.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook