“I love my clothesline!” gushes Julie Johnson, a five-year resident of Halsey Street in Butler Tract and the wife of a graduate student. “Where I lived before, clotheslines were against the code.” In fact, Johnson loves everything about Butler, Princeton’s quirky old housing complex for grad students — the dandelioned lawns, the community garden, the cadre of intellectuals from all over the world: “I’m really sad they are going to tear it down.”
Yes, this will be the last summer for the Butler apartments. Wrecking crews finally will arrive in summer 2014 to demolish the units, after the new Lakeside graduate complex is open on Lake Carnegie. (At the Butler site, the University intended to build new homes for faculty and staff, but the recession put these plans on hold.) Demolition will drop the curtain on a long, colorful era; recently an elderly widow showed up on Halsey Street, looking for the home where she had lived as a newlywed in the 1940s. “It was so fascinating to talk to her,” says Johnson. “Only I’m glad it wasn’t my unit she wanted to see!”
No wonder — Johnson shares the two-bedroom space with her husband, piles of books on English literature, and children ages 5, 2, and infant. Butler apartments come in two sizes — small (670 square feet) and smaller (454 square feet); so crowded are they that Dan Johnson GS has his computer on a wheeled cart so he can set up an office wherever he can find an inch. Such is life in Butler, where the little hardships seem to brew the happiest memories.
HALSEY STREET is named for a legendary World War II admiral, William Frederick Halsey Jr. Eisenhower Street lies one block over. These names are fitting: The Butler houses originally were U.S. Army barracks, hauled to Princeton after the war as emergency overflow for married students.
Every college faced a housing crunch once the G.I. Bill passed Congress in 1944, funding higher education for millions of ex-soldiers. To relieve the strain — and to accommodate a doubling in graduate-student enrollment from 250 to 500 — the University built Butler on Devereux Polo Field, an emblem of tweedy Princeton sacrificed to the cause of mass education. As a lad, John McPhee ’53, now a renowned writer and Princeton professor, watched construction of Butler, bidding goodbye to “polo — yes, the whole chukker, students in jodhpurs, the horse latitudes.”
Veterans’ Housing Project NJV-28205 of the Federal Public Housing Authority — aka Butler — marked the first flirtation between Nassau Hall and Uncle Sam in the matter of campus development. The University thought it a pretty good deal until its insurance company raised concerns about fire breaking out in this warren of pine-board shanties: The administration was obliged to widen the space between the houses, which drove its costs to a stiff $160,000.
The first eager occupants moved in at Christmastime 1946, as theatergoers flocked to see Jimmy Stewart ’32 in It’s A Wonderful Life. Early residents of the 252 Butler units included married graduate and undergraduate students in about equal numbers, with a few faculty and staff. (By the late 1960s, all residents were graduate students. This remains true today — but residents no longer have to be married.) Ex-soldiers felt right at home. For Paul Cowie ’46, Butler seemed quite luxurious compared to his previous residence, a Nazi prison camp.
One thing was certain: Butler was temporary. Federal regulations required that it be demolished two years after the president declared an “end to the national emergency.” Even after the government transferred title to the University in 1948, the residents all assumed that they were the very last Butlerites. “It was old and run-down in 1960 when I got there,” recalls Joe Trahern *63, “and demolition seemed imminent.”
By that time, Butler was regarded as a model of how not to build graduate housing. President Robert F. Goheen ’40 *48 called for new high-rises surrounded by open space where graduate students’ children could frolic, “rather than structures that eat up the ground like regimented barracks.” Multistory Lawrence Apartments opened in 1967 near the golf course, offering a gleaming alternative to Butler.
But Butler lingered on, playing a key role in housing ever-growing graduate enrollments as higher education boomed. “I’ll believe ‘razed’ when I see it,” says Richard Snedeker ’51 *61, who lived in the enclave six decades ago. “I always love running into old Princeton Ph.D.s who tell me how it was in the old, hard times,” says Vera Keller *08. “You know, ‘When I went to grad school, we had to live in barracks.’ And I respond, ‘Yeah, I lived in those, too ... but they were 30 years older!’ ”
Mike Axelrod *66, who lived in Butler from 1964-66, submitted this image from October 1964. Axelrod writes that Butler was the grad-student equivalent of faculty row, “a community where intellectual pursuits merge and ideas are discussed and shared both socially and academically.” Read his full comments below.