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Sunday, April 30, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Emmerts, reluctant tenants, now at home in UW mansion

Seattle Times staff reporter

University of Washington presidents have for decades enjoyed mansion life on a 1.5-acre estate overlooking Lake Washington.

The UW residence, named Hill-Crest and sometimes called "808" after its address on 36th Avenue East, was bequeathed in 1931. It boasts 11 bathrooms, 12,000 square feet of living space — even a massive, functioning pipe organ. King County property records put its value at $7.2 million, ahead even of the $5 million the state of Washington says the governor's mansion is worth.

But the Emmerts had doubts about ever moving in. "I like a smaller, warmer house rather than a larger, cold house," said DeLaine Emmert. "It needed to be loved."

UW Regents turned down Mark Emmert's request to consider granting him a housing allowance and letting him live in his own home, said board Chairwoman Sally Jewell. That could have forced a sale of the mansion under the original gift provisions and created new costs for entertaining elsewhere.

The Emmerts regularly host top donors, regents, community groups, outstanding students and staff. Maintaining the grounds and home, and entertaining the guests, cost $468,000 in the year ending June 30, 2005, according to UW records.

Emmert said running Hill-Crest is "an expensive enterprise" but ultimately worthwhile.

"There's an ongoing debate around the country about the value of these homes," Emmert said. "It's a question of return on investment."

Before the Emmerts moved in, the UW finished a renovation of the master bedroom and reception rooms. But plumbers ran into problems installing self-flushing toilets and flooded the first floor and basement — prolonging the Emmerts' stay in a $6,000-a-month downtown condo to six months. The remodel itself ended up costing nearly $800,000.

After the Emmerts moved in, DeLaine Emmert and a volunteer committee of 12 socially powerful Seattle women set about creating a cozier atmosphere, with Pande Cameron rugs added inside and a full-time gardener outside to spruce up the grounds. Housekeeping staff were replaced.

Some of the future house renovations will be financed with a $2 million donation secured last year by Bill Gates Sr. The donors, Jim and Jackie Lee Houston, are at the hub of the UW alumni scene in Palm Springs: He's a former football player, and she's a two-time Miss Washington winner.

The Emmerts are planning to spend some of the Houstons' gift this spring to renovate the mansion's outdated kitchen.

The UW, meanwhile, is also keeping its eye on the nickels and dimes. A rule on the books states that when the president and his family aren't conducting university business, they must reimburse the university $8 for each meal and $3 for each snack prepared and served by staff. The Emmerts end up paying for the service about once a week.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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