The story of the President’s House is one of protests, panty raids and a blue jay that liked to hide earrings in the draperies. It is also one intrinsically tied to the university and its students.
The President’s House was originally built as a duplex for faculty with families in 1854, then used as a women’s dormitory until the '40s. In 1952, former USC President Donald Russell and his wife, Virginia Russell, decided to renovate the then-abandoned building into the new President’s House, turning it into the single-family home we know it as today.
One of the “most expensive and rare” items that Virginia Russell brought into the house is a 19th century, block-print French wallpaper called the “Procession Chinoise.” The wallpaper, which depicts a Chinese wedding procession, currently decorates the long wall of the second-floor ballroom.
“She had purchased it from somewhere in upstate New York, but originally we assume it had hung in some château in France,” USC First Lady Patricia Moore-Pastides said.
At the entrance to that ballroom is a Second-Class Relic, a chair made for Pope John Paul II in which he sat during a visit to the President’s House in 1987. After Pope John Paul II was canonized, the Catholic Church sent the university a letter informing them the chair, having held a saintly body, was now a relic.
All of this is detailed in Moore-Pastides’ book, “At Home in the Heart of the Horseshoe.” To better paint a picture of life in the President’s House, Moore-Pastides decided to interview the wives and children of former university presidents.
Donald Russell Jr., the eldest of the Russells' four kids, remembers when the police came to get his father out of bed late one night, citing a “panty raid” going on at the Women’s Quad residence hall.
"I didn't even know what a panty raid was, I thought that maybe the boys broke into the dorm and started stealing the young ladies panties. Well in fact, what I found out, he said, 'Oh no, the ladies would throw their panties out to the boys below. And some of them would have phone numbers on them,'” Moore-Pastides said.
Some women made a joke out of it. They would go down to a five-and-dime store and buy the biggest bloomers they could find to throw out their windows.
Former USC President Thomas F. Jones took up residence in the President’s House between 1962 and 1974, which proved to be a tumultuous time, not only for USC, but for universities across the country.
Following the events of Kent State, students took over the Osborne Administration building on campus in protest of the Vietnam War, toppling files and burning records. The National Guard was called in. First Lady Mary Butterworth Jones refused to leave the President’s House despite the rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown at the building, and The Daily Gamecock called her a “Lioness Protecting her Den.”
Though she instructed all five of her children to keep to the back rooms of the house, Cissie Jones went to one of the front windows and witnessed the confrontation between the protesters and the National Guard troops. When the National Guard began throwing tear gas at the students, Cissie was forced to close the window.
“I just think it was a sign of the times. Look, university communities are a microcosm of what's going on in your society, and this was going on everywhere. Everyone was an anti-Vietnam,” Moore-Pastides said.
The Jones family were also animal lovers, and they brought many animals into the President’s House. Puppies were born in the upstairs bedrooms, a rooster was gifted to former President Jones on Christmas and a blue jay called Vida Blue flew around the house uncaged.
Mary Jones had a cocktail every evening in the library, where she would remove her earrings and relax. Over time, Mary Jones began to notice her earrings were going missing. The mystery was solved when the draperies were taken down to be dry cleaned. The blue jay had been taking Mary Jones’ earrings and hiding them up on the valances.
The Pastides' have their own stories to tell of the President’s House, where they lived for 11 years and are currently residing again. One of the “stranger” moments that Moore-Pastides experienced in her time in the President’s House was when she caught a student relieving himself in her herb garden.
"One of our trustees has passed away, and I'm going to his visitation," Moore-Pastides said. "And I could see a guy over there, standing like in the peeing posture, and I said 'Hey! What do you think you're doing?'"
Student judiciary let Moore-Pastides decide on the student's punishment, and, rather than making him scrub toilets, she decided on a simple letter of apology.
Along with Moore-Pastides herb garden, the backyard of the President's House is also home to a fresco titled, "A Present Past."
After a trip to Italy, Moore-Pastides was inspired to commission a student, alumna Taylor Tynes, to paint her own approximation of the Italian fresco. The fresco features the Roman goddess, Minerva, in honor of the university seal, a pomegranate tree, modeled after one growing in the house’s garden at the time and the infamous kleptomaniac blue jay.
The backyard of the President’s House is also the location of the last remaining kitchen and slave quarters on any campus in the Southeast. The brick building and the names of the enslaved people who helped build or worked at South Carolina College are honored with two plaques on the Horseshoe.
Moore-Pastides' favorite memory of her time in the President’s House was the 50th anniversary of the university’s desegregation in 1963, when she was asked to read a prayer at the luncheon. Moore-Pastides choose "Help Me to Believe in Beginnings," originally written by Ted Loder, which she read again for me.
“So much has happened to us during these whirlwind days. We've known death and birth. We’ve been brave and scared. We’ve hurt, we’ve helped,” Moore-Pastides said. “And now another day begins.”
Though not all university presidents live on their campuses, at USC it is both a tradition and an expectation, according to Elizabeth West, the university archivist at South Caroliniana Library.
"I think it's a gift, to be situated right in the heart of the Horseshoe," Moore-Pastides said. "And I think if you talked to almost all of these people that I talked to, they would've said the same thing."