Portraits in Leadership

Jan 15, 2021

Presidents Hall sketches the University’s story.

 Old Main’s Grand Hall has an updated look, a new name and a fresh purpose.

The spacious entrance to the University President’s office suite has been transformed into a portrait gallery dedicated to California’s former leaders.

Renamed Presidents Hall, it showcases paintings of the principals who led South-Western Normal College – the forerunner of Cal U – and the presidents of California State Teachers College, California State College and California University of Pennsylvania. A small plaque summarizes the career of each leader.

Most of the paintings previously were displayed in the Grand Hall and the adjoining Dome Room, a reception area outside the University president’s conference room and private office.

“Before we moved to remote operations, visitors and students often would stop by to see the portraits,” says University President Geraldine Jones. “They tell a story about our school’s history and heritage. With an updated setting, I thought we could tell that story even better.”

So during the spring and summer months, painters from the Facilities Management Department removed outdated wallpaper and repainted the room’s walls and stately columns. Carpenters took down the painted moldings that surrounded the hall’s unique stained-glass windows and replaced them with custom-crafted wood trim.

The four tall windows, created by former Cal U art professor Leslie Parkinson, depict Pennsylvania wildflowers. Like the portraits, they shine more brightly in the refreshed setting.

“I am very proud of the work our shops are capable of performing,” says Mike Kanalis, director of Facilities Management.

“A project that brings life back to a portion of a historical room is amazing to witness. We were able to maintain the historical look and aesthetics while still transforming the room. This finished project is a testament to the type of work that members of the Facilities Management Department do on a daily basis.”  

Latest additions

A recent addition to the art collection is a portrait of Dr. Angelo Armenti Jr., who served as University President from 1992-2012.

First gentleman Jeff Jones, an accomplished photographer and artist, created the digital artwork based on a 2004 photograph by Greg Sofranko, Cal U’s creative services director.

The hall’s older paintings, in the moody “Rembrandt style,” provide little context, Jeff Jones explains. But more recent portraits, including Armenti’s, place the subject in an environment that helps to tell their story.

He used that contemporary style to create a digital portrait of his spouse that now hangs in the gallery.

“At first we considered hanging only the presidents’ portraits in this space,” says President Jones, the seventh person in California’s history to hold that title.

“But those normal school administrators made important decisions that shaped the history of this institution. They set California on a path that brings us to where we are today. They belong here too.

“And with the addition of President Armenti’s portrait, as well as my own, we’ve brought the collection up to date.”

Presidents Hall is one of the oldest rooms on campus, in use since Old Main was completed in 1871. The high-ceilinged hall has served as the school’s library, a lecture hall and, most recently, a place for meetings, banquets and receptions.

President Jones remembers taking an audio-visual course in the room during her undergraduate years, when the space was utilized for classrooms and offices. More recently, she’s hosted holiday receptions for Cal U employees and quarterly breakfasts for community leaders in the hall.

She is pleased that her portrait has been added to the collection. As the first woman and the first person of color to hold Cal U’s top leadership post, her image speaks volumes about how the institution has changed over the decades.

“It’s not about me,” President Jones insists. “It’s about the history of this wonderful University. I’m proud to be a part of that history.”