New era begins for Oakland University's new president's home, art collection

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Settling into her new home on Oakland University's campus earlier this summer, Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, OU's president, met a student from the college's maintenance department who'd been sent to haul away her empty boxes.

A 12-piece image by Cuban American artist Maria Magdalena Campos Pons makes a striking statement in the foyer of Sunset Terrace, the president's home at Oakland University in Rochester. The piece is part of President Ora Hirsch Pescovitz's vast art collection which she's loaning to the university during her tenure there.

Inside the house, the student paused in front of a provocative framed photograph hanging just to the left of the foyer. It was of a nearly nude man, part of Pescovitz's impressive art collection.

"He said 'I know that's not likely that you'd have a Mapplethorpe but is this a Mapplethorpe'?" he asked, referring to photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Pescovitz was delighted. It was an affirmation of both the university she'd come to lead and her art collection, which is vast and covers a variety of mediums and artists.

"I was just blown away by this kid," said Pescovitz. "I asked where he went to school and he said, 'Oakland.'" 

Pescovitz's art collection is now at home in Oakland's Sunset Terrace, the former retirement home of auto heiress Matilda Dodge Wilson and her second husband, Alfred Wilson. Earlier this spring, Oakland officials finished a major face-lift to the 12,587-square-foot house, the biggest since it was built in 1953, installing new mechanical systems, flooring and a roof. They also renovated the kitchen and made other improvements.

"It was mostly to make it inhabitable," said Pescovitz.

Now it's not just livable but teeming with art and culture, thanks to Pescovitz's collection and her furniture. The furniture is from her previous home in Indiana, which she has since donated to the university so future presidents can enjoy it as well. The art is on loan.

Pescovitz said it was important to her to make Sunset Terrace feel like a welcoming place for the entire Oakland University community because it belongs to the entire community. 

"It's the university's house," said Pescovitz, who was tapped last year to lead Oakland. "It belongs to Oakland University and we're a public university. I view it as a university asset in the same way as all of other buildings are assets. And I want it to be accessible."

In August, Pescovitz, who shares the house with her significant other, Dr. Dan. Walsh, provided a rare behind-the-scenes tour of the university president's home. She also plans to host a series of open houses at Sunset Terrace to welcome students, faculty and community leaders this fall.


Sunset Terrace was built because the Wilsons, especially Alfred, wanted to downsize from Meadow Brook Hall, which spans 88,000 square feet just down the road. 

“Alfred Wilson especially wanted them to have a smaller and more modern home that they could use more efficiently without as much staff,” said Meadow Brook curator Madelyn Rzadkowolski.

It was designed by William Kapp of Smith, Hinchman & Gryllis, the same architect who designed Meadow Brook. It’s called Sunset Terrace because of the stunning views it offers of Oakland’s landscape in the unique circular-shaped living room.

The couple lived there for nine years until Alfred suffered a heart attack in 1962 and died. Within months after his death, Matilda, who’d always preferred Meadow Brook, moved back to the big house and stayed there until she died in 1967.

“She had put so much into Meadow Brook and and she loved the design and had so many happy family memories there,” said Rzadkowolski. “...She had just so much invested in (Meadow Brook) and Sunset Terrace missed the mark for her emotionally.”

After the Wilsons left, the house served a variety of purposes but was mostly used by the university’s various presidents as a place to entertain. President Sandra Packard restored it as the official residence for the university’s presidents in 1992. Its longest tenant was Oakland’s fifth president, Gary Russi, who lived there from 1996 until 2013.

Still, by the time Pescovitz was named to lead Oakland last fall, the house was dated and it wasn't inviting.

Scott Kunselman, Oakland's chief operating officer, said most of the changes were done to address deferred maintenance. They replaced the entire HVAC system with a much more efficient system that divides the house into nine zones for heating and cooling that can be monitored and adjusted remotely.

But they resisted the urge to do too much, he said. The kitchen, for example, still has the original custom-fitted Geneva steel cabinets that were in place when the Wilson lived there. The quartz counters are new. 

"It’s a love-hate (with the cainbets) but we thought it was important to maintain them for the architectural integrity of the house," said Kunselman. "Those were something that Matilda specifically picked out. We thought 'Let's keep them and deal with them.'"

Still, Pescovitz had no idea that her furniture -- much of it custom-made for her former home in Indiana -- would fit so well in her new home. 

"It took me a little while to think about exactly where everything would go but after a little while, I did imagine it," said Pescovitz. "And I have to give credit to my partner, Dan, who said, 'You'd feel a lot more at home in that house if you brought your art and furniture.'"

"He thought everything would fit beautifully and it does," she said.

Curved custom-made sofas upholstered in ultra suede in the living room offer ample space for entertaining and the round dining room table also is custom made.

Pescovitz said there's a reason she chose a round dining room table and it's not just about prompting conversation among dinner guests. 

"I never wanted there to be a head of the table," she said. "I wanted everybody to be equal so I always like round tables."

Standout art

Still, it's the art that really makes Sunset Terrace now shine. 

Pescovitz, an endocrinologist and the former chief executive officer of the University of Michigan Health System, said she and her deceased husband, Dr. Mark Pescovitz, a transplant surgeon who died in a car accident in 2010, started collecting art at the start of their marriage in 1979.

Their collection includes pieces from renowned artists across the globe, including Chuck Close, Sam Gilliam, even a self-portrait "doodle" by Kurt Vonnegut. And she doesn't shy away from edgy art (as the Mapplethorpe piece shows).

"My children said to me at one point, 'Aren't you concerned about putting that up in the public part of the house?'" she said. "I said, 'It's art, kids. And this is a public university.'"

Indiana artists figure prominently in Pescovitz's collection because of the couple's time in Indiana. And some pieces are very personal, including a large self-portrait her late husband took of himself while he was taking a photography class shortly before his death.

To find just the right spot for each piece of art, Pescovitz worked with Dick Goody, the curator of the Oakland University Art Collection. 

"But I had something of an idea of what might look good where because I've lived with these pieces my whole life," she said.

Her advice when it comes to collecting your own? Only buy pieces that move you.

"We only bought pieces we loved," she said.

And now her art has helped make Sunset Terrace a home.

"One of the things we've tried to do here is treasure our legacy and pay deep respect for our history but also make it welcoming for the present and anticipate the future," Pescovitz said.

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