Williamsburg, Va. — WHEN the new president of William and Mary College arrived on campus recently, he moved his family into a historic, 252-year-old landmark house furnished with superb antiques valued at more than $1 million. It seemed an appropriate homecoming for Dr. Paul R. Verkuil, who in 1961 was graduated from the college with a degree in English literature. His wife, Frances, is also a William and Mary graduate. They came to the Williamsburg campus from Tulane University in New Orleans, where Dr. Verkuil had been been serving as dean of the law school. The Verkuils' campus home is a three-story red brick house, described as ``perfect Georgian'' in style. It's the oldest presidential home on any American college or university campus. And the Verkuils are having no trouble settling into such a historic setting. For years they've collected antiques of their own and have acquired an appreciative eye for the quality of the superb pieces chosen by the Committee to Furnish the President's House.
For their 18-year-old daughter, Tara, who's a junior at William and Mary this fall, the move meant taking over the self-contained guest cottage in the garden as her own domain. For seven-year-old Gibson, it means spreading out in a big bedroom of his own, plus staking out his turf in a large playroom in the basement.
Does an active secondgrader know how to handle valuable antiques? ``Gibby does,'' his mother says. ``He has always had the run of the whole house and he understands that all furniture -- not just antiques -- has to be treated with care. No parking of feet on any piece, please, and no putting down of wet glasses on polished tabletops. He knows, too, that the main part of the house is off limits for the dogs,'' she explains.
One of the most prized antiques in the presidential house is a Queen Anne bureau cabinet, circa 1710, attributed to London cabinetmakers G. Cozed and T. Worster. Valued at $175,000, it was given to the furnishing committee by Mr. and Mrs. Neil Sellin of New York.
Other treasures given as gifts include 18th-century brass candlesticks, fine Persian carpets, Bavarian china, an English William and Mary period burl writing table, a James I oak side cupboard, a George III tripod table, and a George II walnut partner's desk with leather top, made in England about 1740.
The home's refurnishing surge began back in 1977 when Thomas A. Graves Jr., the college president at that time, and his wife, Zoe, invited Clement E. Conger to chair the Committee to Furnish the President's House. Mr. Conger came to the job well qualified, since he was curator of the White House and the Diplomatic Reception Rooms at the State Department.
The Graveses were convinced that such a historically important house deserved more-fitting furnishings, ideally a permanent collection of antiques that would reflect the history and culture of the house, the college, and the commonwealth of Virginia.
Word of the new project went out and alumni everywhere were alerted. An organization called the President's House Friends came into existence to help raise funds. Various members of Conger's committee contributed their own treasures to the president's house.
``Everyone began to look for things for us,'' says Conger, ``and both restricted and unrestricted gifts and bequests began to flow in.'' Gradually, under Conger's guidance, fine English and American antiques and decorative arts of the Queen Anne and Chippendale styles have been replacing the drab blend of ``miscellaneous things and reproductions'' which were found in the house at the outset of the project.
``Our budget was zero,'' Conger recalls, ``so we have had to seek out donors of pieces or the money with which to purchase them.'' He and his committee are convinced that the stately president's house can, if properly furnished, not only please the stream of current visitors, but also provide a lasting educational and cultural lesson to benefit future generations. Faculty and students from the college come by regularly, as do more than 5,000 other visitors.
The project is about three-quarters complete, but Conger hopes never to disband the committee as long as objects are needed or improvements can be made.
The Committee to Furnish the President's House has now been invited by Verkuil to extend its work to include the Brafferton Building, a duplicate of the president's house, across the college yard. The new president will locate his offices there.