Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable, Helen Keller, the Dalai Lama and Eddie Vedder. Those are just a few of the VIPs who have walked through the doors of Eastcliff.

As the official home to the University of Minnesota president, the Georgian Colonial house has hosted a long list of luminaries. But maintaining the 1920 home, which serves as the U's welcome mat and a private residence for its presidents, has put it in crosshairs, with a rising chorus questioning the cost.

At a time when the future of one of the most visited public residences in Minnesota is at a crossroads, Karen Fults Kaler aims to preserve its past.

In her recently released book "Eastcliff: History of a Home" (University of Minnesota Press; $29.95) she sets out to document the estate's history, the architecture behind it, key moments in which Minnesota made history there and the families that have resided at Eastcliff, which turned 100 years old last year.

As the U's first lady when her husband, Eric Kaler, was its 16th president, Fults Kaler knows a thing or two about the St. Paul estate. She and her family lived there from 2011 to 2019, and hosted events on the grounds several times a week. Fults Kaler decided to pen the book after learning there had never been one dedicated to documenting the historic 20-room house overlooking the Mississippi River.

"There are so many wonderful stories over such a span of time that I wanted people to know about and I wanted to make sure that the true story was recorded," said Fults Kaler, whose resume includes 30 years as a graphic designer and author of a children's book.

Setting the record straight

For her research, Fults Kaler interviewed those affiliated with Eastcliff, from family members of the original owners to university officials and grounds staff. To confirm key events — and see if the stories that had been passed on for generations — were true, Fults Kaler dug into newspaper archives as well as university regents' minutes, newsletters, alumni magazines and more.

"The details can get a little exaggerated or changed over time," she said. "I tried to get multiple sources and the most trusted ones."

It's true, she confirmed, that the neighborhood was once home to infamous gangsters. (John Dillinger and his crew had a weapons depot in the Town and Country apartments three blocks away, while Ma Barker and her sons rented an apartment two blocks away). But she debunks rumors that Katharine Hepburn spent the night, with or without Clark Gable, at Eastcliff.

The research also allowed Fults Kaler to learn about the story behind her favorite spaces, such as the Art Deco-style Peacock Room. Adorned with gold leaf, secret panels and whimsical wallpaper, the room was built in 1931 as part of a remodeling.

"I loved showing it to people. Someone told me they learned to drink in this room, and I heard all of these Prohibition stories," she said. While it might have been used for such purposes over time, "it was built really as a powder room."

Famous faces

From the beginning, Eastcliff has had prominent names affiliated with it.

Built in 1922, lumber magnate Edward Brooks Sr. commissioned architect Clarence H. Johnston Sr.'s firm (Walter Library, Northrop Auditorium, Glensheen Mansion, Minnesota State Prison) to design the home where he and his wife raised their four children. While Johnston's firm incorporated trademarks of Georgian Colonial architecture, they also took creative liberties with the style, such as placing the front entrance and main floor windows off-center.

After the lumber magnate's passing, his wife, Markell Brooks, donated the home to the university. In 1961, O. Meredith Wilson became the first U president to reside there, ushering in the era in which Eastcliff would begin to play super host on behalf of the college.

In the book, Fults Kaler compiles a famous guest list, including Ann-Margret, Carol Channing and Peter Graves, as well as sports legends Herb Brooks and David Winfield and politicians such as Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey Jr.

The Kaler family hosted their fair share of A-list guests, starting when Eric was the incoming president and hosted Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

"The thing I remember most is when Eric gave him a present on behalf of the university," she said. "He took a long scarf off his neck and gifted it to Eric."

Then there was the time when Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder attended an Eastcliff event in 2014 to bring awareness to the rare skin disorder epidermolysis bullosa and as the co-founder of the nonprofit EB Research Partnership. "Wonderful research was going on at the university in that area and he was there supporting the research," Fults Kaler said. "He was such a nice man and asked if he could play the ukulele for children at the hospital."

But for Fults Kaler, gatherings to honor scholarship winners, recognize outstanding achievement by alumni and faculty and thank donors were just as gratifying.

"To greet people and welcome them to your house allowed the university to entertain guests in a very personal way," she said. "To have that honor, to do that, there was just nothing like it."

A family home

In researching the book, Fults Kaler connected with members of the Brooks family who have retained their connection with the university and Eastcliff residents. That led Fults Kaler to conclude that Eastcliff was as much a family home as it was a public space. While the main floor of the 10,000-square-foot house was home to public gatherings, the upstairs served as the family quarters.

"We had our own furniture and all of our things up there … our family pictures and artwork," she said. "When you get to hang your own pictures on the walls, it makes you feel like you're at home."

Fults Kaler also enjoyed hearing how Eastcliff, with its sprawling, manicured grounds, has played host to weddings and receptions and other special family moments. During their eight years there, the Kaler family built fond memories of their own.

Their son, Charlie and Sam, were present on the day their dad was inaugurated. It was also the day Sam met his future wife on the U campus.

A few years later, "Sam proposed to her in the backyard," Fults Kaler recalled. "By the time we moved out, both our sons were married and we had a grandchild. To see our granddaughter run down the halls here, it was so fun."

Present and future

Fults Kaler also records major remodeling and renovations to the home, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

The hefty price tag of maintaining the house and grounds — and whether it's worth the cost — has long made headlines. In 1988, U president Ken Keller's resignation was propelled, in part, by soaring costs and secret reserve funds for a $1.7 million renovation of Eastcliff and his office. Eastcliff has also been the site of protests, as recently as April 2021 when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) held a sit-in on the front lawn to rally for police accountability on campus.

More recent discussions have addressed whether the U should sell Eastcliff and continue to require U presidents to live there as a condition of employment. A task force assembled last fall estimated it would take up to $400,000 per year to cover Eastcliff's operating costs. Construction costs — for structural repairs, window replacement and catering kitchen renovations among them — over the next decade would require an endowment of $15 million to $20 million.

"The University will honor its lease agreement with the State of Minnesota and will use this time to further study and determine the best long-term future for Eastcliff," a U spokesperson stated in an email response to the Star Tribune.

For now, Gov. Tim Walz and his family are taking up temporary residency at Eastcliff and paying $4,400 in monthly rent through September 2024, while the governor's mansion takes on extensive renovations.

Whatever the future holds, Fults Kaler is glad she was able to offer a closer look at such a well-known house that holds a place in state history.

"From the outside, it looks bigger than it is, sort of imposingly large," she said. "Then when you walk in, it's very family-friendly and it's really just a lovely normal-sized house. It's also an exceptionally gorgeous house."