Santa Ono, president of the University of Michigan, only had one request for the renovations being done to the President’s House, according to U-M Senior Architect Tim Carlson. Ono asked for three cherry blossom trees to be planted on the property — a subtle homage to Ono’s Japanese heritage. He left nearly everything else up to the discretion of U-M administration and the interior design team tasked with transforming the oldest building on campus into a contemporary residence fit for the University’s 15th president, his family and their 13-year-old Papillon dog, Romeo.
Located at 815 S. University Ave., the President’s House was built in 1840 and has received four major additions over 183 years. According to Carlson, it is customary for the interior of the mansion to be remodeled during the transition period between presidents. After former University President Mark Schlissel was fired and moved out of the house in early 2022, the Board of Regents approved a $15 million budget for renovations to the residence that May.
Ono, who was appointed as Schlissel’s successor a few months later, has been waiting for the renovations to be completed so he can move into the house every University President has occupied since 1852. After a slew of accessibility, sustainability and aesthetic improvements that took more than a year and a total of $11.5 million to complete, the space is finally ready to welcome Ono home.
The Michigan Daily toured all three floors and 20 rooms in the newly refurbished President’s House alongside Carlson and Geoffrey Chatas, the University’s executive vice president and chief financial officer. While Ono is currently in the process of moving into his new home, here’s a glimpse into what the President’s House looks like now.
The first floor
For as long as University Presidents have been living there, the house’s first floor has been designated for events and public gatherings, while the second and third floors are kept private for the presidential family’s personal use. Traditionally, presidents have held a variety of events open to the campus community at their home — from open houses to ice cream socials.
Carlson said the University hired Detroit-based firm SmithGroup along with Amanda Sinistaj, an interior designer based out of Birmingham, Mich., and her firm, Ellwood Interiors, to design and arrange the entire first floor and several other spaces throughout the building.
At first glance, the first floor appears clinical, complete with a monochromatic color scheme and a surplus of modern lighting fixtures. But upon closer inspection, the floor is full of idiosyncratic details that hint at the building’s historic past. Though most of the furniture is new following the renovation, a 1880 Steinway Model C piano that has been in the President’s House since 2018 remains. This particular Steinway is missing a key, Chatas said, a design quirk he recalls students from the School of Music, Theatre & Dance pointed out when they saw the instrument.
In the library, the shelves are stacked with identical copies of encyclopedias and collections of novels by Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, some of which are already gathering dust. Meanwhile, the walls are mostly barren, covered in a coat of the same “Agreeable Gray” color paint that was used throughout the rest of the building.
The walls won’t be empty for long though, according to Regent Sarah Hubbard (R), who oversaw the renovation work alongside Regent Denise Ilitch (D). In an interview with The Daily, Hubbard said pieces from the University of Michigan Museum of Art will be hung throughout the first floor of the President’s House by the end of the month.
“We’re going to have art in there from the art museum, and hopefully display other objects that represent a variety of interests across campus,” Hubbard said.
The entire ground floor is now hardwood, a big change from the bright red tile that previously characterized the public area of the house. Carlson said while the architecture and design team wanted to make the space feel entirely new, they didn’t want to make any changes that would permanently alter the building’s historic foundation.
“The red quarry tile in each of these rooms dates back to the 1920s,” Carlson said. “We worked with a company to develop a ‘floating floor system’ that would allow us to install the hardwood and still maintain the title underneath. It maintains the history so at some point in the future, you could bring it back.”
There are several nods to the building’s history throughout the space, Carlson said, including the only first-floor fireplace that wasn’t redone, which remains untouched in the President’s study.
“We refer to that as maintaining the historic fabric of the house,” Carlson said.
The second floor
Up the first flight of stairs, visitors to the President’s House find themselves in Ono’s private living space. Aside from the walk-in closet full of clothes and Romeo’s dog bed lying at the foot of the main bedroom, there are few signs that Ono has started living in his new home.
Hubbard said Ono and his wife, Wendy Nakatsukasa-Ono, will be able to decorate the entire floor to their liking. There is already a portrait of the couple and a wooden sign engraved with “The Ono’s” sitting in the kitchen, marking the space as their own.
Down the hall from the main second-floor living area, Carlson pointed out the new elevator and a renovated bathroom, which is one of the two bathrooms in the house that was completely redone to be accessible for those with disabilities. Hubbard said one of the Regents’ main priorities with the renovations was to make the entire house as accessible as possible for anyone who might stop by.
“It was really important to the Board to be sure that this residence could be enjoyed fully by our community,” Hubbard said. “Adding in accessibility features such as the handicap accessible bathroom, the elevator and new entrances to the front and back of the house that are wheel-chair accessible, help give lots of opportunities for people to get in and out of that house, hopefully without any significant barriers.”
Carlson said the entire space has become much brighter since Schlissel lived there, largely because the architect team aimed to let as much light into the house as possible. Even more than the first floor, Carlson said the second floor needed to be “liveable” more than it needed to be “historic.” Still, the design team donated carefully removed pieces of the house’s former wallpaper to the Bentley Historical Library for preservation and strategically left several of the original door handles on closet doors around the second floor — a slightly out-of-place touch of antiquity.
The third floor
The third floor has just three rooms, which remain the darkest parts of the house following the renovations. Carlson said the design and architecture teams did minimal work on the uppermost floor, since it is mostly used to host extended family and other overnight guests.
The scent of fresh paint permeates the air, which is noticeably warmer than the lower two floors. Though not in use right now, the building’s temperature control system, along with the plumbing and electrical systems, were upgraded to be more energy efficient to align with the University’s commitment to sustainability. There are also several newly-installed solar panels on the roof, which Chatas said were sponsored by former University President Mary Sue Coleman to help offset the building’s energy consumption.
“Mary Sue Coleman very kindly donated the solar panels,” Chatas said. “So it’s our first solar installation at the building as part of our sustainability commitment.”
Students who want to take a look inside the house for themselves probably won’t have to wait too long, Hubbard said. With Ono’s reputation for being heavily involved in the campus community, Hubbard said it’s likely only a matter of time before the president takes advantage of his new back patio or massive Kalamazoo grill and finds a way to celebrate his homecoming with the Wolverines.
“I expect there’ll be all sorts of things going on there once everything is ready,” Hubbard said. “(President Ono) and Mrs. Ono love the house. It’s as if it’s brand new, but it has all the historic features and charm and beauty of the older home that it actually is.”
Managing News Editor Roni Kane can be reached at email@example.com.