The $4.3 million special events house, designed by University of Alabama Chancellor Finnis St. John as a showplace for entertaining and housing political officials and dignitaries, has hosted only five actual events in its first year, most of which were St. John and dinners. UA Board of Trustees, records show.
The Bryce Superintendent’s House, which was renovated last year, has seen little use since it was completed last August. The historic mansion was part of the Bryce Mental Hospital complex purchased by the university and has been extensively renovated for academic purposes. But the Superintendent’s House turned into a controversy on campus when St. John’s trustees voted to move it under the control of the University of Alabama System office and spend millions on what many current and former employees described as a “party house” for themselves.
As two of Pinehurst’s mansions were renovated to provide permanent rooms for members of the UA Board of Trustees, the St. John’s office wanted to build a “super house,” as some employees call it, a place where pre-game parties could be held. Football is held on Saturdays, and can be in the court of the rich and powerful.
A memo from St John’s on the board shows that his plan is closely aligned with existing football rituals.
“We also proposed using the Superintendent’s House to host key business, academic and political figures important to system interests (not limited to UA interests, and not strictly limited to advancement goals). Examples of these would be:
“• Selwyn [Vickers] and leading national members of his Board of Visitors
“• Mayors of important Alabama cities
“• Important business or political figures from the visiting teams’ home states
“• Strategically selected groups affiliated with UAH, UAB or UABHS
“• Important to Alabama business or political leaders running system interests.
“The trustees will be involved, and we will allow these guests to attend pre-game at the mansion and sit in the president’s box,” St. John wrote in a June 15, 2021, memo to trustees Stan Starnes and Karen Brooks.
St. John’s office has repeatedly ignored direct questions about the superintendent’s house. But a formal open records request asking for the names and times of organizations using the house, anyone who stayed there overnight and any future events, was answered on August 16. It has not listed anyone as sitting. Of the four large bedroom suites created during the renovation, however, nine activities and functions were provided this semester.
10/26/21 — A visit by the Alabama Department of Mental Health;
11/3/21 — Dinner for UA Board of Trustees meeting;
12/1/21 — A meeting with UA Construction Administration to discuss and review Bryce Main;
12/6/21 — Visitation for Partlow Family;
1/25/22 — Used as video filming location for Boy Scouts of America;
3/25/22 — St. John’s hosts Chancellor’s and Presidents’ Retreat;
4/1/22 — Used for groundbreaking ceremony for Bryce Main Restoration and Randall Welcome Center;
6/8/22 — Dinner for UA Board of Trustees meeting;
6/14/22 — Dinner for the annual meeting of the Southeastern Conference Communicators Association.
So far, two future events are also scheduled for the house this semester:
9/22/22 — United Way of West Alabama Alexis de Tocqueville Society event;
11/18/22 — Board meeting of the College of Continuing Studies Board of Visitors.
Last summer, several employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, said work was going on around the clock in a frantic effort to finish the house before the start of football season. A memorandum of understanding signed on January 22 last year appears to support those claims, saying, “The project will be completed and fully available for UAS ownership, use and consumption after August 30, 2021.”
Also, in a November 4, 2020 memo, St. John’s identified the need for such a facility as stemming from the decision to convert two Pinehurst mansions into living quarters for members of the UA Board of Trustees. While trustees are not supposed to receive compensation for their service, they are routinely provided with free jewelry, air travel, hotels, meals, alcohol, police escorts and on-campus accommodations, according to current and former employees familiar with their allowances.
One of the Pinehurst houses was previously used as a residence for the chancellor, but former chancellor Bob Witt decided not to live there and that house and another were extensively renovated to provide permanent accommodation for the trustees.
“Since the Pinehurst properties were converted from the chancellor’s residence, there is no suitable facility to host and entertain the board’s functions and guests. During trustee meetings and game weekends, Pinehurst properties are used to host trustees,” St. John wrote in lobbying trustees to greenlight his vision for the superintendent’s house.
It’s unclear whether St. John’s and the UA Board of Trustees plan to change the controversy over spending $4.3 million to create a party space for themselves, but the house was not used for pre-game gatherings last season and appears to be there. There are no current plans to use it that way this season.
System office officials have argued that there were no official plans for a superintendent’s house before the UA board’s vote last year, but a 2015 article in the University of Alabama “News Center” said it had been scheduled. To be used for graduate studies. While it has never been confirmed that the House was remodeled from being an academic facility to serve its new mission of hosting dignitaries and politicians, a document dated December 2021 titled “Graduate Hall” detailing the renovation costs.
That document lists more than $99,000 spent on furniture for the home, including about $40,000 worth of flag treatments. Furniture costs were $21,000 over budget.
St. John’s office halted drawings of the publicly owned building last year due to safety concerns. Lagniappe was able to obtain them from another source, revealing that four bedroom suites had been created on the second floor.