At Home with University Of Miami President Donna Shalala
Written by: Daphne Nikolopoulos
" Warm" and "vibrant" are
not words typically used to describe university presidents' residences.
More often than not, presidential homes tend to have the sensibility
of high-brow academia-that is to say, they are serious, orderly
Not so with the University of Miami president's residence.
Donna Shalala, who has occupied the Gables Estates house since
she assumed the president's post in 2001, has fashioned for
herself a sophisticated environment with a clear sense of home-
and an unexpected sense of humor. "So many presidents' houses
look like doctors' waiting rooms," Shalala says. "I
wanted this to be my house. I wanted to be able to put my feet
up anywhere in the house and feel comfortable."
There were, of course, other requirements. As the U.M. president,
Shalala frequently entertains faculty, students, trustees and the
community. The house had to be equipped to handle crowds ranging
from20 to 2,000 and events ranging from intimate dinner parties
to commencement ceremonies. And at the end of the day, it had to
be cozy enough for the president to relax and feel at home amongst
familiar objects and tropical surroundings.
A tall order, perhaps- but not for interior designer Phyllis Taylor.
Taylor, whose modus operandi is to create living environments for "real
people with real lives" by building a layered look, took
several factors into consideration. First, there was Shalala's
A woman of Lebanese descent, Shalala has a number of important
family heirlooms and a penchant for all things ethnic. She has
also amassed an impressive collection of art and objects during
her high-profile career in academia and political administration.
She is perhaps best known for her eight year of service as Secretary
of Health and Human Services under the Clinton administration.
Another key factor was the university's heritage. The president's
residence is more than a venue for entertaining; it is also a showcase
for and projection of university pride.
From the vibrant color scheme incorporating dressed-up versions
of the school colors- orange and green- to the display of art by
students, past and present, the house seems to echo a cheer: C-A-N-E-S-
Taylor began by making some architectural adjustments. The three-story
Colonial house, which was built in 1965 and gifted the University
of Miami in 174, needed updating, inside and out. "The façade
was red brick," Taylor says. "Normally, I would have
left it. But because Donna was starting a tropical life, I had
to override my own sensibilities and paint the exterior."
Inside, Taylor added or enhanced moldings and millwork, reworked
lighting to illuminate what tends to be a dark house, and updated
the house for ADA compliance. Because Shalala was particularly
sensitive to the needs of the handicapped, Taylor added ramps,
refitted a downstairs bath, and raised the coral rock floor of
a sunken porch.
The next step was to give the house a tropical ambiance, thereby
creating a sense of place. To achieve this, Taylor covered walls
with various manifestations of grasscloth, imbuing spaces with
texture, warmth, and a distinct South Florida character.
For all its tropical undercurrents, the house still had to be dignified
enough to suit an academic's lifestyle. And it had to reflect
Shalala's well-travelled life and Mediterranean roots. Taylor
achieved this by layering period furniture, family heirlooms, museum-
quality art, and unusual tribal objects.
In the living room, for instance, a 19th century British library
cabinet houses a 52-inch television. In front of the cabinet is
a seating arrangement that is generous enough to accommodate a
crowd, yet intimate enough for one. "You can be alone in
here and not ever feel overwhelmed by the scale of the room," Shalala
The living room also houses items of personal significance to Shalala.
There is a 15th century tray table from Srinagar, Kashmir that
she brought during a trip to the Himalaya; a Bhutanese textile
that was given to her by a member of Bhutan's royal family
; and a sketch of her likeness, rendered by Susan Kapilow, the
artist who painted Shalala's portrait for the White House.
Beyond the living room is a porch that helps handle the overflow
during large parties. In front of a glass wall that overlooks the
pool and lawn, guests can relax in Mediterranean- style comfort
in overstuffed rattan seating or a Spanish Colonial daybed. The
porch can also be converted into a dining anteroom when the circumstances
dictate. Shalala and Taylor purposefully kept the furniture arrangement
simple and flexible.
With some simple maneuvers, the porch can accommodate another round
table for dining," says Shalala. "It was very important
to me to not have to move anything on this floor. The crew used
to have to go up and down the stairs with furniture every time
there was a party."
In the dining room, an enormous table with three bases comes apart
handily to create different dining arrangements. Each of the bases
can be topped with a round, creating three tables of eight. Or
the table can remain intact for a formal banquet.
While dining, guests can also feast their eyes on such extraordinary
objects as a Pesian samovar Shalala bought while serving in the
Peace Corps in Iran; an 18th century French sideboard; various
gifts from ministers and heads of states, and a collection of Oriental
art from the university's Lowe Art Museum.
Shalalas's collected treasures range from the priceless to
the amusing. Pieces like an antique Syrian desk, inlaid with mother-of-pearl,
and authentic tribal rugs co-exist with Clinton-era political cartoons
and Shalala's milk moustache photograph, shot by Annie Liebowitz
for the Got Milk" campaign.
Adding to the eclecticisms are various junk- shop finds, like a
vanity stool, which Taylor refinished for the Powder Room and a
of twin beds, which she dressed up with a canopy made of bamboo
blinds. That layered, collected look is an important facet of the
design of this house. "It's really not a created image, "Taylor
explains. " Building layers does take a bit longer, but it
always gives a house a sense of home. It was important to me that
donna accepted this as her home."
And Shalala does . "This is a wonderful, viable place, thanks
to Phyllis," she says. "She kept working at it and
refining it until it was right. For me, everything is in the final
polish. Refining is what makes it extraordinary."