The main window in the upstairs front hall of the Paul House over­looks Hillsdale Street. Sarah Schutte | Courtesy

I shouldn’t have grown so attached to it, and now it’s slipping away.

It used to smell musty after a long, hot summer. The rooms stood in semi-darkness from poor lighting, but it hid the torn and dented wall­paper quite well. Fur­niture clut­tered the upstairs, and the kitchen cab­inets over­flowed with dishes left behind by long-gone res­i­dents. But I made the best of it then, and now as a senior res­ident assistant, I struggle to imagine living any­where else.

The Paul House sits grace­fully between the yellow Sigma Chi house and the empty lot on Hillsdale Street. The best view is from the front porch swing, where one can wave to friends walking into town, see pro­fessors driving to work, and predict the ailment of every person treading wearily into the Ambler Health Center. Others might say the view is better from the tower set primly atop the house, by far its most dis­tinctive feature.

But to truly under­stand the house’s per­son­ality, which one of her res­i­dents terms as “moody,” let’s take a walk.

I noticed those paint traces my second year living in the house. Before coming to the porch, go find them at the end of the walkway. They speak of bygone days when the house held Hillsdale’s fourth sorority.


Yes. Alpha Xi Delta lived in the house until the early 2000s when their charter was revoked. My little room near the back was an addition for the house mother during those days, and I wish she had reminded the builders to put some insu­lation in during con­struction. Old sup­plies stowed in the basement and fine china in the cab­inets also speak to this era.

Besides the tower, the second most striking feature is the house’s deep blue door. Noto­ri­ously dif­ficult to open, the bottom right corner is scarred and dented from the many kicks it has received over the years. The current method involves one’s knee and a prayer to avoid impalement on the fake wreath.

The front door safely shut, vis­itors are greeted by a sweeping, curved stairway and a front hall papered in blue and roses.

“The wall­paper was what made me want to live here, junior Caitlin Lowry said . “We wan­dered in one day, and that was the first thing we saw. We applied right after that.”

The most dra­matic feature in the room hangs just to the left: an ornate wooden panel, set with a mirror directly cen­tered. I use it to admire the effect of my thrift-store President’s Ball dress, but my more prac­tical friends con­tem­plate the worlds that could be reached if they could only step through it.

Built in the late 1800s, the house has seen many people in its halls. According to old Col­legian articles, the grand­father of former pro­fessor Lillian Libby Rick was Lorenzo Dow, sec­retary-trea­surer for the College. He pur­chased the Vic­torian house around 1918 and lived there until the Paul sisters bought it in 1948, five years after Dow’s death.

When the college bought the house, the college offi­cially named it the Dow House to pre­serve the legacy of Lorenzo Dow and his con­tri­bu­tions to the school.

Now take a right, and the glass-paned French doors lead into the front room. High ceilings and three tall windows let the natural light pour into the gray-hued room. Orig­i­nally hung with wall­paper, recent remod­eling found not one but two layers of the material during removal. That huge mirror on the front wall is much too heavy to move, but after close inspection, the observer will be rewarded with a glimpse of both papers. I love recounting to lis­teners the horror wall­paper has instilled in my 17- year-old brother after he spent close to a week scraping it off those main rooms.

The best sur­prise of all waits in a small, unpainted rec­tangle in the northeast corner of the living room. Faint lead pencil marks over the bumpy plaster tell the name and company that hung the paper, and they even left a date: Sept. 1, 1920.

Still, however bright and inviting the inhab­itable parts of the house may be, it is the basement that monop­o­lizes people’s attention. Finding the entrance is tricky. Addi­tions and remod­eling over the decades have bequeathed current res­i­dents with a ver­i­table rabbit warren of oddly con­nected rooms, a staircase that would make a midget claus­tro­phobic, and at least two sealed doors.

But here is the basement now, so pull hard on the door. If it won’t open, just keep pulling.

Musty scents of worn wood, old stones, and stale water greet the nose, and thin wood steps creak underfoot. Look up. Mid-19th century car­pentry mixes with more recent wiring and modern water pipes, cre­ating a strange pattern of eras. A chill comes off the sur­rounding solid stone foun­dation.

This is where the tunnel is rumored to be. Its intended original use is still a mystery, with some saying it shel­tered escaped slaves during the Civil War. It may have even been used during the Pro­hi­bition. Reality dic­tates its use as a ser­vants’ tunnel when the same family owned both homes, but the house shouldn’t be begrudged a little romance in its old age.

After a fruitless but enjoyable search of the lov­ingly nick­named “dungeon,” the journey back to the surface begins. On the way up to sun­light and fresh air, those who remember toss stories to the new­comers of a long night spent in that damp, stone-enclosed space, waiting out tornado warnings and wor­rying about homework on a recent wild spring day.

Every house has a story to tell and many that will never be known. Its age lends mystery and majesty to the Paul House, but that doesn’t inhibit the numerous young women who have called it home from cre­ating some of their fondest mem­ories within its walls.

For me, it holds all the moments I spent painting its walls with my family, intense con­ver­sa­tions with friends while sitting in the kitchen, and days huddled around spaces heaters when our boiler died. Those coming after me may never know me or my con­nection to the house, but that matters little. Its walls have the beau­tiful purpose of holding the joy, sorrow, music, tragedy, laughter, and con­tentment that flows through them, and enabling res­i­dents to cherish their time within them.