Estate of Mind
Debbie Wagner makes Emory’s presidential residence her own

By Paige P. Parvin ’96G

In the formal living room at Lullwater, one wall is lined with shelves that hold an eclectic assortment of bric-a-brac: a collection of jade pieces that Emory President Jim Wagner brought back from Thailand is displayed near Oriental ginger jars and china vases belonging to the house, while a marble sculpture of a horned Moses that has also been at Lullwater for years shares space with the hammered brass sailboat recently arrived from the Wagners’ former home in Cleveland, Ohio. The objects are illuminated from above and reflected in mirrors behind the shelves–a new design element that brightens the entire room.

When she came to live at Emory’s presidential residence last spring, Debbie Wagner had to find ways to blend her old world with her new one. She has approached life here much as she arranged the shelves in her living room (left)–by treasuring the best parts of her past, embracing the unique qualities and quirks of her new home, and adding her own touch to the merging of the two.

Mrs. Wagner’s transition from Cleveland to Atlanta began many months before she walked through Lullwater’s doors for good. After her husband was appointed Emory’s nineteenth president in the summer of 2003, Mrs. Wagner and their younger daughter, Christine, stayed on in Cleveland so Christine could finish her last year of high school while President Wagner lived at the Clairmont Campus from September until early last year.

But even from a distance, Mrs. Wagner prepared for the move by working closely with Beth Royals, former manager of interior design in Campus Planning and Facilities Management, to update and reconfigure the interior of Lullwater, planning for the integration of her own beloved belongings with those already in the house. The result of this confluence can be seen and felt throughout Lullwater, which over the past year Mrs. Wagner has gradually come to call home.

Despite her diminutive size, when she opens Lullwater’s tall, heavy front door to greet guests on a summer morning, she fills the foyer with an air of easy graciousness that speaks of comfort and hospitality. Naturally warm and friendly, Mrs. Wagner has a bit of the South in her: she offers all her visitors iced tea–sweet or unsweetened–or, of course, a cold Coca-Cola.

As the wife of the president, entertaining guests will be a central role for Mrs. Wagner, and it’s one she embraces. A home economics major at the University of Delaware, Wagner enjoys cooking and creating a welcoming atmosphere for visitors.

“My parents entertained a lot when I was a kid,” she says of her childhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, where her husband grew up as well. “I’m not afraid of entertaining, I don’t find it intimidating. When we had breakfast with President and Mrs. Carter, the first time was a little daunting. . . . But I just try to be myself, that’s how I’ve always lived. Most people like it when you are genuine.”

Already, Mrs. Wagner has welcomed dozens of guests to her new home, including the 2004 Richard Ellman lecturer Salman Rushdie; the editors of the student newspaper the Wheel; former presidential couples the Chaces and the Laneys; and the University’s Administrative Council.

In Cleveland, Mrs. Wagner worked in Christian education at their Presbyterian church and devoted time to raising her children. Before that she taught school for several years. She has not yet decided to take a job in Atlanta, nor have the Wagners decided on which church to join.

“My job was hard to leave,” she says. “But the cool part about this move was that I had a whole year to transition. This one has been fun.”

Taking the advice of a former University president’s wife, Mrs. Wagner has decided she will not take on any significant commitments, such as serving on boards or heading committees, during her first year at Emory. She is instead allowing herself a “discovery year” to get to know Emory, its people, and its work.

Each day starts with a walk around Lullwater, where she meets dozens of other walkers, joggers, mothers with strollers, and dogs. That’s about the only consistent part of her schedule, which might include a tour of the libraries one day and a luncheon with the Emory Woman’s Club the next. “I don’t really have a typical day yet,” she says.

But one part of her life is certain: both she and President Wagner have expressed a desire for what he has called a “continuum” of personal life and University work, in which the two are almost seamlessly joined.

“I feel I am an ambassador for the University, and I will look to what I can do for Emory,” she says. “Emory is our first focus, that’s why we’re here. Of course, it’s important to do other things too–but Emory has to become part of our family. The amount of time you have to give as a presidential couple means it has to be a labor of love.”

The Wagners are the fifth couple to live at Lullwater since 1963, when Sanford S. Atwood, Emory’s sixteenth president, took up residence there. Originally built in 1925 (for more than $200,000) by Walter T. Candler of The Coca-Cola Company, Lullwater was a kind of woodland retreat situated on 185 acres of virgin forest. The property once included tennis courts, stables, a hunting lodge, a blacksmith shop, a concrete swimming pool and bathhouses, and a private half-mile horse track (where the Veterans Affairs Medical Center now sits).

The 7,500-square-foot English Tudor-style mansion was designed and constructed by architectural partners Lewis E. Crook and Ernest D. Ivey, who went on to design a number of other Emory buildings including Candler Library and the Administration Building. Fieldstone for the house’s stone walls was quarried on the Lullwater grounds.

Lullwater’s natural surroundings remain largely untouched, making the estate to the University community what Central Park is to New Yorkers. Although the home itself is huge and, like any old house, riddled with maintenance challenges, it is also a place of majestic beauty and repose.

“Emory’s Lullwater grounds provide a beautiful park-like setting for the house and are well used by Emory faculty, students, and staff as well as our neighbors in Druid Hills,” says President Wagner. “Runners and those enjoying a weekend picnic are common visitors to the property. What a treat it is for Debbie and me to be able to live in this setting and to be able to invite others to enjoy its beauty.”

The Wagners’ arrival coincided with a time when Lullwater was in need of considerable repair. The manor had suffered significant water intrusion in preceding years, which caused damage and mold problems in various parts of the house. So Emory’s Facilities Management Division took the opportunity to fix the numerous leaks and repair the damage to the structure, and it was determined that the house could use some some general sprucing-up on the inside as well.

Thus began a working relationship between Mrs. Wagner and Royals that proved valuable in the months leading up to Mrs. Wagner’s arrival last June. Relying heavily on the telephone, e-mail, and Federal Express, Royals included Mrs. Wagner in every step of the process, from determining how to configure the rooms to choosing paint colors and fabrics. The house needed new paint throughout, as well as window treatments, reupholstered furniture, and some new wiring and lighting. Many of the old hardwood floors needed refinishing. At the same time, Mrs. Wagner took stock of her own house and sent Royals photos of the pieces she wanted to incorporate at Lullwater.

“I said, we’ll place things, and then the house will talk to you,” Royals says. “It will tell you what it wants and where things should go.”

While the design was highly collaborative, Mrs. Wagner says, she quickly learned to rely on Royals’ talent and instincts. “The biggest thing was just getting a feel for the house, and then letting Beth use her gifts,” she says. “She would convince me of things and they were always right. You begin to trust the person. It was really fun and very intense because we had so little time together.”

After working mostly in academic environments during her six years at Emory, Royals, who previously designed high-end residential interiors, says the Lullwater project was “refreshing.” Her goal, as she put it in a letter to Bob Hascall, senior associate vice president for the Facilities Management Division, was twofold: to “provide the president of Emory with a public space for receiving guests that is warm and inviting, with fine appointments but without being ostentatious and overdone; and to provide a healthy and appropriately furnished private space for the president and his family to live in during their tenure at Emory.”

“It was a privilege and an incredible opportunity to work on a Coca-Cola mansion,” says Royals who has since left Emory. “It was really kind of a dream.”


Walking into the foyer at Lullwater, guests can see, hanging in the stairwell, the silk batik of the estate grounds created by artist Mary Edna Fraser for President Wagner’s inauguration. They might then proceed to the anteroom off the front hall–once a small bedroom, this space is now a sitting room with a specially constructed free-standing “closet” that can accommodate dozens of coats. Two bathrooms, comfortable chairs, and a telephone make this room a useful receiving area for guests. The closet structure, which has a dramatic full-length mirror on one side, is fastened to the floor with a total of seven screws, so that it could easily be removed if future residents wish to reconfigure the room.

Down the hall, the bedroom that formerly served as the Chaces’ den has been made into a guest bedroom and redecorated in Emory colors: rich blue and gold. Several of the objects that are part of Lullwater reside here, including a plantation desk that belonged to Osborne Smith, President of Emory College from 1871-1875. After the desk left Oxford, an Emory alum bought it and gave it back to the University.

“We tried to keep it authentic, to make things look like they fit,” Mrs. Wagner says.

Beyond the guest room and bathroom, a bright “summer bedroom” with windows on three sides has become an exercise room. The adjoining bathroom has a shower, originally fitted with a luxurious ten faucets, and striking olive tile; all the old tile in the eight bathrooms remains, including tile with bright colors, odd patterns, and even inlaid animals and boats.

The entire first floor of Lullwater is now considered public space for gathering and entertaining, while the second floor is the Wagners’ private space. The Wagners’ daughters, Kimberly and Christine, helped choose the colors for their rooms: a soft blue-grey for Christine and a lighter ice blue for Kimberly. Although the young women are away at college, personal touches (a stuffed Eeyore in Christine’s room, the bed and chest handmade by her father in Kimberly’s) already mark the rooms as their own, as if they might walk in at any moment.

“I imagine Christine will be coming home more than Kimberly,” Mrs. Wagner says. Christine is a freshman at Clemson University while Kimberly is a senior at Miami University in Ohio. “I miss my girls, but they are in good places too. And it’s been easier for me to let them go because I have this whole new life to figure out.”

Also upstairs is a cozy den, President Wagner’s office, and the Wagners’ bedroom. Mrs. Wagner chose a rich, deep red as the primary color for this room, which she says was a departure for her but now she loves. Royals and interior designer Melissa Brown applied a warm, champagne-hued faux finish to the walls themselves and designed heavy window treatments that show off the high ceilings and huge windows while still allowing light to flood in. In many rooms, sheer curtains are the only part of the drapes that can actually be pulled across the windows, offering both privacy and plenty of natural light.

Downstairs, the real showpiece is also the primary gathering place–the thirty-one-foot-long, narrow living room immediately off the foyer. Here a new rug and gold-toned sofa bring the room in line with current design styles while still maintaining the slightly woodsy, hunting lodge atmosphere of the original home. The heavy doors were removed and stored upstairs to create a more welcoming flow. The room has windows at only one end, but Royals managed to lighten it considerably by installing glass, mirrors, and lights in the shelves that line the wall and using them for decorative objects rather than books.

Another change is the raised alcove at the far end of the room. For years, a grand piano resided there, but now a table and chairs form an intimate space for socializing, holding small meetings, or playing cards. The piano has moved into the more formal music room (left) next door.

When the refurbished living room was complete, Royals and Brown were so pleased with the result that, on Mrs. Wagner’s next visit, they asked her to close her eyes before unveiling the finished space. “It just took my breath away,” Wagner says.

Doors at the other end of the living room open onto the dining room, where the reupholstered chairs surround a new, round table of solid mesquite wood. “I love round tables because you can see and talk to everyone so easily,” Mrs. Wagner says. “It supports this sense of community Jim is striving for.”

Off the dining room, the breakfast room offers another touch of the Wagners’ former home: the china closet, sideboard, dining table and chairs are theirs, and the wallpaper is the same as in their previous dining room.

On the basement level, which one reaches by descending stone steps that feel as if they might lead to a dungeon, the billiard room is a pleasant surprise. Its floors are freshly covered with cork, the same material as the original flooring, which had rotted away because of water intrusion and mold.

The house also was wired throughout for Internet access. Mrs. Wagner’s office, where she spends a great deal of time keeping up with correspondence, event scheduling and planning, and household matters, is just off the spacious kitchen.

The restoration process took nearly a year, beginning six months before Mrs. Wagner arrived and winding up around Christmas. In all decisions, Royals and her team sought the right balance of elegance and economy–what she calls the premise of “enlightened frugality.” She also tried to create a healthy environment with natural fibers, allergy-free linens, and superior air quality.

“The best stage of any renovation is when the people you are doing it for are happy,” Royals says. “I was trying to create a home for them that would enable the Wagners to live comfortably and have the lifestyle they need.”

In the formal dining room, above the elaborate European sideboard, hangs a painting that looks as if it were created expressly for the space; its color tones blend with the room perfectly while its lines draw the eye up to the gorgeous beamed ceiling. The painting is a testament to Royals’ commitment to the Lullwater project: calling on the full range of her creative skills, she painted it herself because she just couldn’t find a work of art that would suit.

“You tend to mother homes,” Royals says. “Houses like Lullwater are fragile and historical. I felt we would take better care of it ourselves than an outside design firm.”

Mrs. Wagner agrees. “That’s really the beauty of the whole thing,” she says. “Lullwater became part of the people who worked on it. That’s how it should be, because this is Emory’s house. It was here before we came, and it will be here when we are gone. We are just happy to be able to call it home.”



© 2005 Emory University