In “Housing Lunatics and Students: Nineteenth-Century Asylums and Dormitories,” Carla Yanni, Professor of Art History, Rutgers University, explores the residential building types that have persisted at American universities for decades. Yanni’s essay appears in the latest issue of Change Over Time, PennDesign’s journal of conservation and the built environment, which documents a 2015 symposium entitled Therapeutic Landscapes. The issue’s guest editor was Aaron Wunsch, Assistant Professor in the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at PennDesign.
Victorian educators wanted students to live in house-like conditions, and yet they did not embrace the boarding house. For many years, and for thousands of students, boarding houses were a common type of student housing, either because a student’s college had no residence halls or because the student could not afford a costly dorm room. (Boarding houses, where students slept and ate, were distinct from rooming houses, where no food was served.) Commuting from home or residing in a boarding house offered less chance for fellowship among students. To put it another way, life in the dorm required enforced sociability that could be avoided in a boarding house. As a type of lodging, the boarding house was considered socially unacceptable for families. According to architect Calvert Vaux, families should not reside in boarding houses; such a living arrangement was distasteful, because it lacked privacy and stability. Guests were constantly moving in and out, the environment was volatile, and families were unable to put their personal imprint on their space. Architectural historian Elizabeth Cromley reasonably concludes, based on Vaux’s and others’ comments, that the boarding house was threatening to middle-class values.(1) But students often had no choice.
College ofﬁcials objected to this unregulated off-campus option for many reasons. Proﬁt-seeking landlords and landladies could take advantage of gullible youngsters living away from home for the ﬁrst time. A student living on campus produced revenue for the college; a student in a boarding house did not. The boarding house was isolating. Shy students could hide in their rooms. The boarding house was an unsafe and malleable environment, especially for young women.
In Ann Arbor, Michigan, there were many so-called mixed boarding houses that placed men and women together. This was a custom most Deans of Women found abhorrent. Mixed boarding houses often had no common rooms, which meant girls might be tempted to entertain boys in their rooms. The houses could be decrepit and susceptible to fire. Dean Myra Jordan inspected houses to make sure they were single-sex, in good condition, and arranged with first-floor parlors.(2) She argued that girls living in boarding houses did not have the many advantages of dorm living—healthy meals, the companionship of other young women, afternoon teas, and the guidance of professional deans.
From today’s vantage point, it might be hard to see how to insert the robustly masculine fraternity house into this framework of domesticity. Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, saw no contradiction. Cornell was founded in 1868 with the premise that dormitories were unnecessary. The ideal fraternity would create an intimate group of men, which, according to White, would serve as “the best substitute for the family.”(3) The fraternity solved other problems, too. Each individual fraternity had the advantage of making the fast-growing land grant university seem small. And if fraternities built their own chapter houses, the university could spend its capital budget on laboratories and classrooms rather than student housing.
On the one hand, there was a theory, not to say myth, that fraternities created an all-male family. On the other hand, fraternities often occupied regular houses, which obviously strengthened the domestic association.(4)
1. Elizabeth Collins Cromley, Alone Together: A History of New York’s Early Apartments (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 20.
2. Myra Beach Jordan to President Harry Burns Hutchins, 28 July 1915, Box 10, folder 4, Harry Burns Hutchins Papers, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan. In this report, actually a personal letter from Jordan to Hutchins, Jordan outlined the many duties of her ofﬁce.
3. Blake Gumprecht, “Fraternity Row, The Student Ghetto, and the Faculty Enclave: Characteristic Residential Districts in the American College Town,” Journal of Urban History 32, no. 2 (January 2006): 231–73. See also Blake Gumprecht, The American College Town (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).
4. James Ellsworth Boyd, “A Note on the Old North Dormitory,” The Ohio State University Quarterly 2, no. 2 (October 1910): 35–36. The author, who graduated in 1891, was recalling his time in the dormitory twenty years earlier.