The $4.3 million Special Events House, erected by University of Alabama Chancellor Finnis St. John as a showcase venue for entertaining and housing political officials and dignitaries, held just five actual events in its first year, most of which were dinners attended by St. John and the UA Board of Trustees, records show.
Superintendent Bryce’s house, which was renovated last year, has seen very little use since its completion last August. The historic mansion is part of the Bryce Psychiatric Hospital campus, purchased by the university, and has been extensively renovated for educational purposes. But the superintendent’s house became a campus controversy when St. John’s had trustees move it under the control of the University of Alabama system office and voted to spend millions to create what many current and former employees described as a “party house ” for my self.
As two Pinehurst mansions were renovated to provide permanent quarters for members of the UA Board of Trustees, the office of St. John wanted to make the “Super House”, as some officials called it, a place where pre-match parties could be held on football Saturdays and the rich and powerful could be wooed.
St. John’s notes to the board show that his plan was closely related to existing football rituals.
“We also proposed using the Superintendent’s House to host key business, educational and political figures important to the interests of the System (not limited to UA interests and not strictly limited to advancement goals). Examples of this would be:
“• Selwyn [Vickers] and key national members of its Board of Visitors
“• Mayors of important cities in Alabama
“• Important business or political figures from the home state of the visiting teams
“• Strategically selected groups affiliated with UAH, UAB, or UABHS
“• Alabama business or political leaders important to the current interests of the System.
“The trustees will be involved and we will have those guests attend the previous 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 made on July 15, asking for the names and hours of the organizations that used the house, anyone who stayed overnight there and any future events planned, was answered on August 16. It did not indicate that anyone was staying in any of the four large bedroom suites created during the renovation, but provided a list of nine activities and functions that took place or will take place later this semester .
10/26/21 — Alabama Department of Mental Health Tour;
11/3/21 — UA Board of Trustees Meeting Dinner;
12/1/21 — Bryce Main Discussion and Review Meeting with UA Construction Administration;
12/6/21 — Partlow Family Tour;
1/25/22 — Used as Boy Scouts of America video shoot location;
3/25/22 — St. John’s Hosted Chancellor’s and President’s Meeting;
4/1/22 — Used for groundbreaking ceremony for Bryce Main Restoration and Randall Welcome Center;
6/8/22 — UA Board of Trustees Meeting Dinner;
06/14/22 — Southeastern Conference Communicators Association Annual Meeting Dinner.
So far, two future events are planned for the house this semester:
9/22/22 — United Way of West Alabama Alexis de Tocqueville Society Event;
11/18/22 — Meeting of the Board of Visitors of the College of Continuing Education.
Last summer, multiple employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said work was being done on the house around the clock in a frantic effort to have it finished before the start of football season. The MoU signed on January 22 last year seems to support these claims as it says: “The project will be completed and the property will be fully available for possession, use and enjoyment by UAS no later than August 30, 2021.” ”
Additionally, in a memo dated Nov. 4, 2020, St. John’s identified the need for such a facility as stemming from the decision to convert the two Pinehurst mansions into housing for members of the UA Board of Trustees. Although custodians are not supposed to be compensated for their services, they have routinely received free jewelry, plane travel, hotels, food, alcohol, police escorts and campus housing, according to current and former employees familiar with their benefits.
One of the Pinehurst houses had previously been used as the chancellor’s residence, but former chancellor Bob Witt decided not to live there, and this house and another were extensively renovated to provide permanent accommodation for the trustees.
“Following the conversion of the Pinehurst properties from a Chancellor’s residence, there is no suitable facility for hosting and entertaining functions and guests of the System and the Board. During trustee meetings and game weekends, the Pinehurst properties are used to host trustees,” St. John wrote as he lobbied trustees to give his vision for the superintendent’s house the go-ahead.
It’s unclear whether the controversy over St. John’s and the UA Board of Trustees spending $4.3 million to create a party venue for themselves caused plans to change, but the house has not been used for gatherings before game last season and there seem to be no current plans to use him that way this season.
System Office officials say there was never a formal plan for the Superintendent’s House before the UA Board of Regents voted to turn it into a special event venue last year, but a 2015 article from the University of Alabama News Center says it is planned to be used for graduate studies. Although it has never been confirmed that the House has been redeveloped from being an academic facility to serve its new mission of hosting dignitaries and politicians, a document created in December 2021 detailing the renovation costs is curiously titled , which reads “Graduation Hall”.
That document lists more than $99,000 spent on furnishings for the house, including nearly $40,000 for window treatments. Furnishing costs were $21,000 over budget.
St John’s office withheld blueprints of the community building last year, citing security concerns. Lagniappe was able to obtain them from another source, revealing the creation of four-bedroom apartments on the second floor.