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Interview: Carla Yanni on How College Dormitories have Evolved

by Jeremy Bauer-Wolf | Mar 05, 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.

Movers unload mattresses in front of the dormitories at the Livingston Campus of Rutgers University, September 1969. R-Photo, Building and Grounds, Box 33, Livingston College Campus Views, 1969, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers.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.

Read the full article here

Carla Yanni joined SAH in 1990 and is a Life member.  In 1997, she was awarded the JSAH Founders' Award for her article: "Divine Display or Secular Science: Defining Nature at the Natural History Museum in London," JSAH, Vol. 55, No.3, September 1996.

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