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A look inside the Maxwell Mansion

Photos: Connor McCourtney (above), Megan Bannister (below)

Most homeowners would find the prospect of entertaining 1,000 guests in one year overwhelming. For Drake University President David Maxwell and his wife Madeleine, the feat has been routine for almost 12 years.

Many university presidents reside only on the upper floors of their homes. Not the Maxwells, who have turned their 106-year old house into a private residence.

“What’s remarkable about it is that obviously, it wasn’t built as the president’s house,” Maxwell said. “A lot of houses on college campuses are built for that purpose.”

Madeleine said the couple made changes to the interior design of the home after moving in, so that friends wouldn’t be intimidated by the home.

“Once I put pink polka dots and greens in (the sunroom), it drew people in, and it was friendly,” Madeleine said. “I like that because it could be just a big imposing house.”

The Maxwells said that many visitors don’t realize the ground floors are actually a private residence. Sometimes people will walk in without ringing the doorbell, thinking it’s a university building. While the Maxwells are not largely offended by such assumptions, they jokingly acknowledge that some dinner guests have been more brazen than others.

“We’ve had people ask if they can take a mug home that, you know, we bought three dozen of,” said Madeleine. “And I’ll say, ‘Yeah. Can I come to your house and take one of yours, too?’”

“It had possibilities”

As the Maxwells speak, the pair has a tendency to interrupt each other, in a manner that is not rude but the mark of two people who have spent an extensive amount of time together.

“There is nothing nicer on a cold winter night than being in that basement with a fire in the fireplace,” said Madeleine. “There is nothing more beautiful – ”

“Yes there is,” David interrupts. “Being in Hawaii.”

“While we’re here,” said Madeleine, with emphasis, though not at all perturbed. “Nothing is more exquisite than a Sunday afternoon when it’s all blanketed in snow and reading poetry in the reading room off the bedroom.”

The house wasn’t always so comfortable.

“We saw the place when it was very cold and empty,” Madeleine said. “When David and I came out for a campus visit before the job was offered to him, it was a really gross, disgusting day, and I told him I would leave him if he thought about taking the job.”

The house became the focus of extensive planning as the pair prepared to move in during May, 1999.

“It was very stark at the time, but it had possibilities,” Madeleine said. “And I thought it was a great house, but it was the people that made us move here, not the house.”

“Almost everything in here has a story”

A spacious front entryway opens into the main living room where two cream-striped sofas teeming with pillows face one another, separated by a coffee table covered in large hardcover volumes.

Over the years, the Maxwells have acquired a number of other valuable items. Signed baseballs from legends Mickey Mantle, Yogi Bera and Tony Kubek line the mantel in David’s study beside a baseball glove cradling a snapshot of Drake’s president during his Little League years.

A snapshot in a gilded frame sits on a table in the front hall. It pictures, in grainy black and white, a man in round spectacles holding an open book in one hand while the woman next to him dons a large feathered hat. Although many guests assume the photo is of the couple’s grandparents, the image is actually David and Madeleine, taken in a theme photo booth at a work function.

“Almost everything in here has a story,” David said.

“This house is exciting, isn’t it?”

Although the changes made to the interior of the house over the past 12 years are numerous, each change has been carefully calculated to consider cost and necessity. Madeleine bought the tile for her kitchen counters from eBay. Shelving and curtains for the basement-catering closet were purchased at “Tuesday Morning,” a discount department store, rather than through an expensive contractor. The two small rooms off of the spacious kitchen, one a breakfast nook and the other the home of the family pets, are painted a soft yellow, a project Madeleine undertook herself.

The third floor of the Maxwell home used to function as a ballroom. The Maxwells now use a bedroom off of the space as a retreat from the tribulations of daily responsibilities. Madeleine has her art studio in one corner of the room, while musical instruments and workout equipment occupy the rest.

Although David jokingly refers to the exercise area of the ballroom as the “torture chamber,” he spends most mornings on the treadmill listening to his iPod and reading the CNN ticker.

David, a runner of 30 years, has participated in Ragbrai, an annual seven-day bicycle ride across Iowa, three times and is preparing for a Mt. Kilimanjaro climb with his two sons.

He also enjoys playing one of his seven guitars when no one else is in the house, or when Madeleine is far away. He said he frequently uses backing tracks.

“I put those on the stereo through the giant speakers, crank it up and play lead guitar and pretend I’m Eric Clapton,” Maxwell said. “That is, until the notes come out of the amplifier, and I realize I’m not.”

“It just comes alive with people”

In the president’s home, the phrase “if these walls could talk” takes on a new meaning. Notables such as Nick Kristof, Salman Rushdie, Jane Goodall and Tim Russert have eaten dinner with the Maxwells.

“It just comes alive with people,” said Madeleine.

Ten thousand visitors passed through the president’s home the first decade the Maxwell’s lived at Drake. The help of an extensive staff, with as many as 10 individuals working in the kitchen at once, ensure that events run smoothly.

The pair shared stories of students whom Madeleine fed chicken soup while they lived at the house to recover from mono and of Jane Goodall greeting one nervous student with a traditional chimpanzee hello.

“I wish I had the foresight 12 years ago to just make one of the walls blank and have everyone who came in sign the wall,” Madeleine said. “We’ll tell the next people.”

As can be expected in a 106-year-old house, the ceiling occasionally leaks, the plaster walls buckle and crack from cold Iowa winters, and the intermittent bat escapes from the depths of the basement.

“As Madeleine has always semi-jokingly said, ‘The doublewide in Arkansas is going to be really tough when we retire,’” said David, referencing the home’s size and grandeur. “Which is not exactly true, but this is a really wonderful place. When it’s just the two of us and the animals, it feels like home. When there’s 100 people in the house, it feels like that’s what it was made for, and that’s an incredible combination.”

The Maxwell pets

George, a large orange and white feline, came to the Maxwells on George Washington’s birthday. He often falls asleep in David Maxwell’s lap. Bluto is an aging Westie named after the bully in Popeye. Gus (below), a playful golden retriever and poodle mix (a golden doodle), enjoys playing fetch, but does not always bring the ball back.

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