How Dormitories Have Evolved

How have residential spaces for college students changed? An art historian discusses her new book on the topic.

March 5, 2019
 

Beyond classrooms and laboratories, dormitories are where college students spend most of their time, and not just when they're sleeping. These spaces have a history that many overlook. Enter Carla Yanni, a professor of art history at Rutgers University, and her upcoming book Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (University of Minnesota Press), in which she explores these dwellings as places crucial to the student experience and the development of campus architecture.

Yanni answered some questions about her book by email.

Q: You cite many examples of how dormitories were intentionally planned to exclude certain students. Can you give examples of when that occurred, and does this practice translate today? What lingering effects of that exclusion are present in contemporary designs?

A: One of the main questions for Living on Campus is a simple one: Why do American educators construct purpose-built structures that we call dormitories? Why have we believed for so long that housing students is essential to educating them? It is worth pointing out that the ancient universities of Europe did not house their students. (Oxford and Cambridge were the exception, not the rule.) Americans, on the other hand, think of college as a time to socialize -- to make friends and create a network that will reach long into the students’ futures.

Creating a network means including some people at the expense of others. Today we tend to think of the residence hall is a laboratory for diversity. We often imagine the dormitory is the place where students learn how to get along with all different kinds of people. A student’s college network can lead to jobs after college; that network can offer leverage for social mobility; it can affect who gets to participate in the American dream. In the past, sadly, diversity was the furthest thing from the minds of college officials. In fact, dorms introduced young men to other men like themselves. In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, housing policies openly enabled discrimination according to class and race.

Historians have learned so much about the troubled racial history of colonial colleges from Craig Steven Wilder’s Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America's Universities (2013). At Rutgers, the book Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History (edited by Marisa Fuentes and Deborah Gray White, with contributions from a team of history graduate students and others) reveals the extent to which Rutgers could only come into existence because of the work of enslaved and disenfranchised persons. Many colleges have done soul-searching work in this arena. What I’ve done in Living on Campus is add a spatial dimension to those new and important histories.

The dormitory is an intimate space, and so it is no surprise that residence halls were segregated by gender, but that intimacy is also why dorms were segregated by race. For example, although the classrooms at the University of Chicago were integrated from the college’s founding, in 1907, the university president forced a black Ph.D. student to move out of a women’s dorm. The deans of women defended her right to stay, but the president insisted she move off campus.

Another example of exclusivity is the all-female Martha Cook Building at the University of Michigan, a stunning English medieval revival building with a copy of the Venus de Milo gracing the hallway and a sculpture of the Shakespearean heroine Portia in the niche above the door. It was without a doubt the nicest dormitory at the University of Michigan, and one writer in Australia said it was the best example of a women’s dormitory in the world. However, it was not commissioned in order to further the educational advancement of the women who lived there. The donor stated that he did not want too many “A” students (he called them “bluestockings”) and he specifically objected to “the Orientals.” As he said, “It’s not the League of Nations.” His vision was to house only the “choicest American girls,” even if they were weak students. The Martha Cooke Building offered refinement for the already well-heeled. The donor even said it would civilize brutish young men with its architectural amenities.

On the other hand, there were radical attempts to be inclusive, such as the Adams and Tripp Halls at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The deans who promoted them argued that dorms should be direct alternatives to the fraternities that dominated the social scene at UW. These quadrangles tried to bridge class differences. The completely enclosed square courtyard created an outdoor room. The quads were divided into small houses so that the boys would form family-like bonds. The publicity surrounding the opening of the halls suggested, “The son of the banker and the son of the farmer will find mutual understanding” in the warm glow of the lounge’s fireplace.

Q: Has the purpose of dormitories fundamentally changed since they were first introduced? How so and how many of these shifts have we seen?

A: Students have changed a lot, but residence halls not so much. In the 17th and 18th centuries, students were boys who needed moral guidance. For Victorian college presidents, architects and deans, the purpose of college was to impose morality on young people. Character counted as much as mathematics or classical literature. So the defining purpose of the American college was a moral one. In the late 19th century, women began attending college in large numbers. They were seen as vulnerable and in need of protection. As the psychological concept of the adolescent emerged around 1900, male college kids were encouraged to delay adulthood. In the 1950s, a lot of students were GIs eager to re-enter society. In the 1960s, students were members of a youth culture that administrators almost feared. Obviously, this mad dash through the centuries is overly simplified, but, to me, it is remarkable that although today’s students bear little resemblance to previous generations, the residence hall still thrives.

Q: What are a couple examples of dormitory experiment gone awry?

A: Personally, I like modernist architecture and I like skyscrapers, but even I think the Morrill and Lincoln Towers at the Ohio State University are confusing and disorienting. The architects and student deans were outspoken in their opposition to the long corridor, which was seen as institutional and dehumanizing. Together with the architects, they came up with a plan based on the hexagons of a honeycomb. They turned to a beehive for something more human.

Q: In your opinion, has the design of dormitories become more or less important when wooing students? Dormitories were designed with socialization in mind, as you show, but with curbside appeal being so important to students and their families, how much of a factor is this?

A: Residence halls are definitely more important today. Many prospective students have no idea what they want to major in, or they have only a generic idea about majoring in business or pre-med. For them, the comfort and convenience of their daily lives will guide their choice of college. I suppose if a young person wants to major in something very specific, like bowling industry management or nautical archaeology, he or she won’t be put off by masonry block dormitories, but most students care more about where they will live than what they will study. I was teaching a seminar on the history of higher education when the subject of recruitment came up. I asked my students, “How did you make sense of the recruitment materials from various colleges?” And a very bright honors student, a business major, answered, “You choose based on football and team spirit and the dorms, because, you know, the academics are all pretty much all the same.” At first, that was discouraging to hear, but at the same time his comment went right to heart of what Living on Campus is all about.

Q: What are some of your favorite examples of dormitories you unearthed in your research, both past and present?

A: I would not say it was my favorite, but a fraternity (now demolished) at Cornell from around 1900 was the most unexpected. Its plan closely resembled the phallic “House of Sexual Instruction,” an unbuilt project drawn by the French Revolution-era architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux.

As for real favorites, the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle, a women’s dormitory, at Howard University, designed by leading African American architect Albert Cassell, is a gem. The dean of women, Lucy Diggs Slowe, carefully considered every aspect of the place and published essays on her theories. It is an excellent example of the 1920s quadrangle form. The ground floor included rooms for gracious entertaining -- a music room, a dining hall, comfortable lounges. Although it was a women’s dormitory, the downstairs was the social hub for the entire university. The upper floors included hallways with double rooms -- doubles not only saved money compared to singles, but also increased each individual student’s potential for making friends. You don’t have to take my word for it -- this was such a strong interpretation of the type that the national organization of deans of women (almost all of them white) visited the building shortly after it opened.

I know that many Yalies will disagree, but I think the massive and monumental Morse and Stiles College at Yale University by Eero Saarinen is a fantastically original take on the residential college. Instead of the traditional square quadrangle, Saarinen used an irregular street plan based on medieval towns, with richly textured concrete surfaces and a jagged silhouette. The interiors were originally too dark, but after a recent renovation by Philadelphia firm KieranTimberlake, it maintains its raw power.

I recently consulted with Princeton University about two new residential colleges, and their goals are much the same as the visionaries who put in place the colleges at Yale (and houses at Harvard) back in the 1920s. The residential college provides a sense of community within the larger university, it offers casual spaces (lounges and recreation rooms) for relaxation, it gives students a place to eat together, it makes it possible for a student to encounter faculty in an informal setting. As is typically the case in architectural history, a design does not cause any particular outcome; design only makes certain outcomes more or less likely. I can’t wait to see how these projects turn out. It’s always gratifying when my research (although deeply historical) is useful for practitioners today.

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