Current Issue

Oct. 21, 2009

Vol. 110, No. 3


Not your parent’s dorm room

From A/C to sub-free, amenities and options abound. Is “gender-neutral” next?

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the October 21, 2009, issue

Wallace Murchison '41, left, and Ted Phillips '41 in their Brown Hall room in 1939.
Princeton University Archives
Wallace Murchison '41, left, and Ted Phillips '41 in their Brown Hall room in 1939.

Editor's note: After this story went to press, Vice President for Campus Life Janet Dickerson confirmed that Princeton will offer gender-neutral housing for the first time in the apartment-style rooms of Spelman halls in 2010-11. The Daily Princetonian reported Oct. 15 that the pilot program is not expected to involve other dorms during the first year.

On a crisp September afternoon, sophomore Christina Chang stands at the window of her spacious single in Bloomberg Hall and savors the college experience. “I chose to live on the fourth floor because of the gorgeous view of Poe Field,” she says with a smile. “I was lucky to have an early draw time — it’s one of the best rooms on campus. Upstairs is an enormous common room and a snack kitchen with an Insta Hot faucet next to the tap, perfect for ramen noodles or hot chocolate. I live above a computer cluster with a printer and blackboard, and there’s a laundry room on every floor.”  

Chang’s grin betrays a satisfied 19-year-old, for she is part of a lucky generation benefiting from housing improvements that would have astonished earlier generations. Gone are the spare, monastic accommodations of the old days, jokes longtime University architect Jon Hlafter ’61, who retired last year. “When I was a student here, you got to your room and there was a porcelain wall bracket into which you could put a light bulb and maybe a shade from the U-Store. That was it. You brought your own desk, carpet, everything. The lavatory was in the basement with a gang of WCs separated by marble partitions and no doors. When women finally came, plastic curtains were provided.”

Parents spending more than $50,000 a year expect better. Shopping around for the perfect college — or comparing dorm rankings available on the Internet — they want to see spacious suites, private bathrooms, kitchenettes. Construction of Scully (1998) and Bloomberg (2004) halls on the Ellipse marked the beginning of a tremendous expansion in Princeton’s undergraduate housing stock, spurred in part by fierce competition for top applicants. At the height of the boom, The Wall Street Journal critiqued the “summa cum lavish” lifestyle on many campuses, Princeton included, as an “amenities arms race” fueling a $14 billion “building binge.” Chang is enjoying the results — along with her neighbors in collegiate gothic Whitman College (completed in 2007) and in the brand-new dorms of Butler College, just north of Bloomberg, with their gleaming kitchenettes, studies, lounges, seminar and computer rooms, and food emporiums.

Unlike students at Yale or Penn, for example, more than 98 percent of undergraduates live on campus — because they’re encouraged to live where they can participate in University life, and because apartments in town are virtually unaffordable on a student budget. Take a stroll and you can study 253 years of room types, including some that long predate the amenities arms race. At Nassau Hall, administrators toil in former dormitory rooms that housed the likes of young James Madison 1771. As still can be seen, every room (all doubles) had three narrow windows, one lighting the sleeping chamber and the others for two closet-like alcoves or “lobbies” that contained a chair and table, derived from the study cubicles of medieval Oxford. God’s natural daylight spilled across every schoolbook in this factory for pious Presbyterians. In an 1855 reconstruction following a conflagration, the interior of Nassau Hall was rendered fireproof, and the 54 student chambers were heated by a central system of nine furnaces in the basement, which worked best when the janitor wasn’t drunk.

Christina Chang ’12 enjoys a common room in Bloomberg Hall, which offers air-conditioning, a laundry room on every floor, and other amenities that would have astonished earlier generations of students.
Beverly Schaefer
Christina Chang ’12 enjoys a common room in Bloomberg Hall, which offers air-conditioning, a laundry room on every floor, and other amenities that would have astonished earlier generations of students.

East and West Colleges of the 1830s inaugurated the dormitory tradition of no internal halls, but vertical “tenements” instead, each entered by a separate outside door and serviced by a staircase — the trustees were fed up with miscreants who rolled hot cannonballs down corridors. When visiting President Andrew Jackson strolled over to the East College construction site after morning services in the Nassau Hall prayer room, he was shown how the new four-story building was to be divided in two by a solid partition wall, each half with a stairway and suites directly off the stairs. “Entryways” would remain a fond tradition for generations — notably in the collegiate gothic dorms of Mathey, Rocky, and the “junior slums” of Laughlin, Henry, and 1901 halls, but lately, long corridors have made a comeback at Bloomberg Hall and elsewhere: They require fewer costly stairwells, plus modern fire codes demand multiple exits.  

Chang controls the heat and air conditioning in her room with the touch of a thermostat, and there are two bathrooms to choose from on her floor. It’s a far cry from the antebellum experience of East College resident Leonard Jerome 1839, the American grandfather of Winston Churchill. He trudged up stairs to the third floor, while Chang, when feeling lazy, takes an elevator. His double contained a common room with fireplace, controlled not by thermostat but by a servant who came barging in before daybreak to light it. (Students rigged contraptions so they could open the door without crawling out of bed on icy mornings.) There was no heat at all in Jerome’s adjacent bedroom. Chamber pots got dumped out the windows, which made first-floor quarters less than desirable. As late as Brown Hall, built in 1892, all dorms were heated by fireplaces with coal grates, and students trudged across campus to use a clammy bathroom in the “Crystal Palace” beneath Nassau Hall.  

The college treasurer rejected the architect’s idea of wiring Brown Hall for electricity, saying that any student who needed that newfangled luxury could run the wires himself. Today, the housing department would frown if Chang undertook this kind of project and minutely specifies what kinds of electrical devices she may own — the DeLonghi Model 3500 Espresso Maker is allowed, for example, but not the 4500. Fireproofing continues to be a top concern; students are no longer allowed to have fires in the older dormitories, and Whitman College features dummy chimneys housing only ventilation ducts. Chang’s air-conditioned room comes with a price: According to Thomas Nyquist, Princeton’s director of engineering, Bloomberg Hall uses about 15 percent more energy than a dorm without air-conditioning. (Campus electricity consumption has increased by 75 percent since 1988, although dorms suck down far less power than new labs and computer centers.)

The recent transformation in housing is not only physical, but programmatic. The mantra today among housing officers in the Ivy League is options. Postwar universities prided themselves in taking all kinds of individuals and sternly forcing them to live in the same way, as the Army had; this was true democracy. Princeton abandoned its old, elitist tradition of varying room rents in favor of a random lottery, and dorm rooms in Wilson College (1961) were built with no-nonsense cinderblock walls. But this postwar thinking turns out to have been a historical phase. Today, monotypical “Princeton Charlie” has given way to a multicultural array of students who are considered to have myriad housing needs and preferences. “The widest range of options possible is the goal,” says Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life. “We want to give students enough choices, since we know people have different study styles and sleeping preferences. We’re now a very diverse community at Princeton. In some areas students have no choice: They must take at least 34 courses; they must be enrolled full time. To the extent we can give them a range of options, we think it creates a ­happier student.”  

“Princeton students want as many permutations of choice as possible,” agrees Andrew Kane, director of housing. Starting with room draw — now done efficiently online — they expect an extraordinary level of responsiveness. “They love the fact that we offer a room-draw process that lets them pick their individual room, unlike many of our peer institutions. They love to study the square footage and floor plans and really customize their choice,” Kane says. Perhaps Chang got unusually lucky, but she regards room draw enthusiastically: “It’s pretty safe to say that you’ll get a room you like.”

Every year brings more possibilities in housing. The four-year residential-college system has gotten the most press, but other options recently have been instituted as well: substance-free rooms, single-sex-area housing, and — already in the Graduate College and being proposed for some undergrad rooms — gender-neutral housing. Last year, Chang lived in the so-called Nunnery, half of 1915 Hall set aside for women; the other half was the all-male “Monastery.” Segregating women and men may seem retrograde, a throwback to the situation of 40 years ago when the first 171 female undergraduates huddled in Pyne Hall. But the increased religious diversity of the campus and the presence of observant women who do not wish to collide with men in their hallways while towel-clad and dripping wet has led to this option being made available in Butler and Whitman colleges and in one upperclass entryway in Laughlin Hall. Chang found herself in single-sex-area housing almost by accident. “It was my third choice in room draw. Many of us weren’t sure how we got there. It was a very diverse group of 24 girls, of whom only two had chosen it on moral grounds. It was quieter and calmer, but there were many men nearby — so on the whole, it didn’t make much difference.”

In substance-free housing, first established in 2002, participants agree to refrain from using alcohol or drugs in the building and from making a ruckus as they stumble in from Prospect Avenue. (All dorms have been smoke-free since 2005.) The option has expanded enormously from the mere 10 beds set aside for it originally, to 365 today. “Each year we have more of a demand than a supply,” says Michael Olin, director of student life in Wilson College, where two entire dormitories have been designated “sub-free” this year. One is Dodge-Osborn Hall, where two big suites, once known as the Zoo and Sub-Zoo, were long infamous for boozy binges. Another suite, 211 Gauss, became sub-free this fall, one more storied haunt of merry revelers now fallen silent except for the studious tap-tapping of calculators. Critics cry that it’s all part of President Tilghman’s diabolical scheme to banish fun from campus forever. Wilson College seems quieter now, says Olin. Since he arrived two years ago, Public Safety has broken up a couple of dozen parties there, but never in the ­substance-free zones. “I’d love to see more sub-free dorms,” he says.

Dodge-Osborn Hall is one of two Wilson College dormitories designated as substance-free.
Marianne Nelson/Princeton Alumni Weekly
Dodge-Osborn Hall is one of two Wilson College dormitories designated as substance-free.
Post Comments
2 Responses to Not your parent's dorm room

Rachel Linton '03 Says:

2009-10-23 13:40:12

My current apartment has a guy in the other bedroom, which is fine for a 27-year-old. I grew up with two brothers and it was no big deal. But I probably would not have handled it well as a 17-year-old girl. I already had an issue with being sexually harassed multiple times on campus, with a drunk acquaintance grabbing my butt in public in Frist (I never reported it, not realizing at the time that anything could be done, and quite embarrassed about it). In two of my post-college housing situations I have had male platonic housemates ask me to date them, when I had given no indication that I wanted anything other than friendship, and it created a very awkward rooming situation until I could make provision to move out. Co-ed should probably only be an option for upperclassmen, and only if they can have separate bedrooms (at least in theory; I know people who swapped during my junior year to live with significant others). Another reason not to give couples doubles - why drag the university and housing into the drama of "Mini-divorces" which will significantly affect the students' ability to perform academically and their future? Also, my sister had co-ed floor bathrooms at Columbia, and this should never happen - it was totally not cool.

Eleanor Aversa '01 Says:

2009-10-26 12:05:06

To really make the most of an education, a person requires a basic level of psychological well-being. At the very least, Princeton should offer a designated LGBT-friendly dorm.
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CURRENT ISSUE: Oct. 21, 2009