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The Surprising History of American College Dorms

Why did universities provide housing on campus in the first place?

Hotels have received plenty of architectural attention, but unless you’re Howard Hughes or Coco Chanel you probably haven’t spent four years living in them. One space where most readers have likely spent just that long in residence–and that hasn’t attracted a fraction of that kind of attention—is the old-fashioned college dormitory, now ably addressed in Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.

The dormitory is an interesting space, intrinsically transient but often designed to serve as a social aggregator, edifying home environment and cocoon from baleful influences, once loose morals and religious nonconformists, lately Halloween costumes and Republicans. It’s a building type represented virtually everywhere in the United States—Yanni notes early on that there are likely more than thirty thousand dormitory buildings in the U.S.

The first unusual thing about American dormitories is simply how widespread they are. You don’t actually need to house students on-site: this happens for a very small minority of students in secondary and boarding schools, and a minority in graduate education. Living on campus is not remotely as common in a number of other societies, and wasn’t the standard even in some European societies that provided inspiration to American universities. A prime task is to explain “why Americans have believed for so long that college students should live in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories. This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary.”

The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and its fictional Harley College—“The local situation of the college, so far secluded from the sight and sound of the busy world, is peculiarly favorable to the moral, if not the literary, habits of its students; and this advantage probably caused the founders to overlook the inconveniences that were inseparably connected with it.”

It’s easy to roll one’s eyes about broader recent claims about housing always being an ideological project, but in the case of universities it was and always has been one, concerning “the socially constructed nature of the student”—with the (partial) exceptions occurring in the postwar period, when students were treated less like charges to be bent to one’s will and more like cattle. Even then, questions emerged: is it social engineering to separate genders or engineering to combine them? I simply don’t know.

Harvard and William and Mary featured student residences from their earliest days, often intermingled with virtually all university functions in the same buildings. Residence halls were a feature of most early colleges, but a fair number of universities dispensed with them. State universities located in towns of any size frequently looked upon dormitories as an extravagance and students entirely capable of renting lodging elsewhere. The first dormitory at Rutgers was only built in 1890. The University of Wisconsin at Madison had some housing but then eliminated it for decades.

Boardinghouses almost always existed on the outskirts of universities, but were generally viewed as fertile ground for immorality or even literal disease, and campus residences a better means of shaping the moral and educational lives of their students…[ ]

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