The University of Minnesota may sell the historic mansion that has for decades housed its presidents — or seek millions in private funding to cover its costs.

Overlooking the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Eastcliff holds a distinct place in university history, serving as the backdrop for weddings, protests, graduations and a visit from the Dalai Lama.

But the number of events held there decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, and a group tasked with providing recommendations on the mansion's future says the public money spent on its upkeep could be better used on other services.

"There is a huge emotional attachment to Eastcliff, and it's so much part of our fabric of the university," Janie Mayeron, vice chair of the Board of Regents, said in a recent meeting. But, she added, unless they can find another way to cover its expenses, "I think we may be forced to make that really hard decision of letting the property go."

The university spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to run Eastcliff and anticipates the property could need well over $1 million in repairs in the next decade. Selling it could mark a significant departure from a long tradition. Eight university presidents have lived there, including current President Joan Gabel, who is required to "occupy" the mansion as a term of her contract.

The mansion was constructed in the early 1920s for lumber magnate Edward Brooks, who enlisted prolific architect Clarence Johnston to build a family home in the colonial revival style. Brooks and his wife, Markell, entertained a number of famous guests there, including Helen Keller, Katherine Hepburn and Clark Gable, according to records kept by the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1958, four years after Edward Brooks died, the family donated the mansion to the University of Minnesota to serve as a new home for its president. The university's previous presidential home, Pillsbury House, had been constructed in 1877 and was by then in need of renovation.

The University of Minnesota is not the only institution with a home for its presidents — and some university executives are required to live in those homes as a condition of their employment.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the American Council on Education, nearly 40% of university executives reported that their contracts included terms related to a presidential residence, with the number being significantly higher among research institutions that are comparable to the U.

Many public universities' presidential residences are old homes that were historically given to presidents as an "extra perk" in an era when they weren't paid well, said James Finkelstein, a professor emeritus at George Mason University who has studied contracts for university executives. With many of those university presidents now receiving well over $1 million per year, Finkelstein said the homes now seem to be relics of a "bygone era."

"The question is: Is this a benefit that has sort of outlived its usefulness given the economic realities," he said.

Eastcliff has undergone multiple renovations and expansions over the years, with its main house, carriage house and historic summer house encompassing nearly 20,000 square feet combined. Ramsey County property records estimate its current value at just over $3 million.

The university's Board of Regents convened a task force in September to provide recommendations on Eastcliff's future.

The task force estimates it would take between $300,000 and $400,000 per year to cover Eastcliff's operating costs, including custodial and grounds work and utilities, among other things. Anticipating a wide range of construction work would be needed in the next decade — from structural stabilization projects and window replacement to a catering kitchen renovation and others — the task force believes it would take an endowment of between $15 million and $20 million to cover Eastcliff's costs.

The task force "recommends that current public resources used to support Eastcliff operating and capital costs be reallocated to support the implementation of MPact 2025 goals," referring to the university's long-term strategic plan that outlines goals on a wide range of topics, from enrollment to research.

Mike Volna, the university's associate vice president and assistant CFO, said the U typically uses the term "public funds" to refer to a wide range of unrestricted funds, including state appropriations and tuition dollars.

Volna said he is "pretty confident that we would not use tuition dollars to support Eastcliff," and that money more likely comes from state appropriations or returns on investments.

The university's Board of Regents is expected to discuss Eastcliff again at its February meeting. Its decision could require changes for Gabel's contract, which says she has a duty to live at Eastcliff and host events there.

Ramsey County property records show that last year Gabel and her husband purchased a home in St. Paul, about two miles away from Eastcliff. Gabel declined a request for an interview.

University spokesman Jake Ricker said Gabel lives at Eastcliff full time.

"Her family's acquisition of any other property in the Twin Cities would be for personal reasons and outside her role as president," he said.

Staff researcher John Wareham contributed to this report.