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July 10, 2013

Vol. 113, No. 15


A wonderful life

For nearly seven decades, Butler Tract has formed a happy domestic ­backdrop for ­students — not bad for ‘temporary housing’

By W. Barksdale Maynard ’88
Published in the July 10, 2013, issue

Dan Johnson GS; his wife, Julie; and their children Anders (5), Lucia (2), and Henrik (5 months) make good use of their small living room.
Dan Johnson GS; his wife, Julie; and their children Anders (5), Lucia (2), and Henrik (5 months) make good use of their small living room.

“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.”

Haifeng Huang *09 took this photo in 2005, when he was a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry.
Haifeng Huang *09 took this photo in 2005, when he was a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry.

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.

In June 1957, Fred Holzweiss ’54 *57 got a job with IBM in Trenton. He and his wife, Win, in photo, rented a trailer and moved from Butler to Levittown, Pa.
In June 1957, Fred Holzweiss ’54 *57 got a job with IBM in Trenton. He and his wife, Win, in photo, rented a trailer and moved from Butler to Levittown, Pa.
Butler resident Lorenz E.A. Eitner *52 planted a sapling in 1947 to celebrate the birth of his daughter. In 2003, Eitner’s son-in-law, Bill Neidig ’70, photographed his wife and daughter — Eitner’s
Butler resident Lorenz E.A. Eitner *52 planted a sapling in 1947 to celebrate the birth of his daughter. In 2003, Eitner’s son-in-law, Bill Neidig ’70, photographed his wife and daughter — Eitner’s

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.

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21 Responses to A wonderful life

Robert Buntrock *67 Says:

2013-07-01 16:07:33

I enjoyed the article "A Wonderful Life" on the Butler Tract, even though we never lived there. When we arrived along with friends from Minnesota in September 1962 with a 14-foot U-Haul with EVERYTHING, we were dismayed to find that for the first time ever, Butler was full and we hadn't made enough effort to get on the waiting list (10). Staying in a motel for very long was not an option, and we eventually found an apartment above the 206 Center across from the Princeton Airport (our friends found an apartment in Rocky Hill). Of course, once we got to know residents of Butler, we were asked if we felt we were "too good" to live in Butler. Far from it, just a different degree of desperation. My wife of one year also found it better to work for ETS than take a job on campus for far less money (skewed market against grad wives). The article doesn't mention the Graduate Wives Group, the bridge clubs, and other social events open to all, regardless of residence. Many grad wives (including mine) received their PhT (Putting Hubby Through). The first female grad students were just being admitted in '63, and they weren't married. My wife visited Butler regularly, and we often played Bridge there in the couples' Bridge Group. It was good to see quotes from Charlie Wilkes and former lab mate Bob Morrison. Did we miss not living in Butler? Not really. Even though we had our own problems with our apartment, none were as bad as those at Butler. The University's lofty patrician-landlord practices were (and are) galling, to say the least. It was made quite obvious to us that Princeton grad students ranked far below undergrads, both in the eyes of the University and also the townspeople, especially the merchants. -- Bob Buntrock *67, Chemistry

Gary Hewitt *96 Says:

2013-07-02 14:42:13

Missing from the heater discussion was October or November of 1990, when the old heaters (they were about the size of an old-fashioned large console TV, if anyone remembers those) were discovered to emit carbon monoxide. Obviously, they had to be removed and were all ripped out in one day. Naturally a cold spell set in immediately, and it took about a month of shivering before the new, vertical editions were installed. I stopped by our old apartment on King Street after 20 years, and it looked like they are still going strong. Also entertaining was the annual refrigerator shuffle, since refrigerators weren't part of the standard apartment equipment.

Marissa Smith GS Says:

2013-07-08 09:35:15

Great article, but I'd like to read more about women as grad students, people living with roommates, international students who have parents living in Butler with them...

Kevin Downing *89 Says:

2013-07-08 09:37:09

To follow up on Gary Hewitt's comment (and, yes, that's how I remember what happened as well): This may be apocryphal, but supposedly the University had tested 25 of the old heaters for carbon monoxide, and 24 of them failed inspection, hence the need to replace them all in a hurry. To this day I'm convinced that Butler residents of the time owe their lives to the windows being so drafty.

Donald W. Niemiec '75 Says:

2013-07-08 09:50:54

I arrived at Princeton as a U.S. Navy vet in 1975 and secured a high-priced apartment in Kingston. I was married and needed a more affordable place. I sat on the steps of the dean of graduate students until he let us in Butler. We had a wonderful experience. Central heating, clothesline, garden and great friends. An unrenovated unit was $75/month and was in greater demand than those renovated at $100/month. An easy bike ride to campus, dogs allowed, picnics -- a really pretty good deal. Sorry it doesn't fit with the Princeton neighborhood. Appears many agree that the experience was terrific.

W. Harley Funk '50 *52 Says:

2013-07-08 16:42:55

I sent comments plus a 1950 photo of Butler Tract residents to Jean Hendry *80 at Some of our fellow residents went on to become rather famous in their chosen fields. We moved in February '47.

Robert Buntrock *67 Says:

2013-07-08 16:44:10

@Marissa Smith: I agree that input from female grad students (and wives of male grad students) was unfortunately absent. Check my posting from a nonresident whose wife nonetheless spent a fair amount of time there with other grad wives (as well as her famous PhT). Hopefully this will get more input.

Suketu Bhavsar *78 Says:

2013-07-08 17:20:40

I lived in the Graduate College my first two years at Princeton, but my close friend Bob had moved to the Butler Tract with his fiancé during my (and his) second year. His place became a home away from home, especially with my "home" being 10,000 miles away in India. I had many memorable times during the rest of my years at Princeton in Bob and Kathy's Butler home. Getting away from dormitory life and visiting them in a *real* home with a kitchen and a porch, home-cooked meals and the smell of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven are some of my fond Princeton memories.

Catherine E Saunders *02 Says:

2013-07-09 09:50:03

My memories of the great heater inspection/replacement debacle also tally with Gary Hewitt's. While I was generally very happy at Butler, that event did seem, to Butler residents of the day, in some ways symptomatic of the University's attitude toward its graduate students. The fact that the University was busily collecting copies of marriage certificates before allowing opposite-sex cohabitation probably didn't help (needless to say, we thought the effort might have been better expended inspecting the heaters a bit sooner. Also, an amazing number of couples shared virtually identical marriage certificates -- photocopiers and white-out sometimes came into play in providing the required documentation). One thing I learned from the article: I share a former address with Bill Bowen. That's an interesting coincidence, since the Bowen Report, and the ways its predictions have and haven't played out, have formed part of the context in which my academic career has played out. Also, not all former Butler residents move into larger quarters. I currently live in a 383-square-foot studio apartment. When I moved in, the kitchen cabinets (from an '80s renovation) looked strangely familiar; I've never found a photo of our Butler kitchen to check them against, but I suspect they're the same model (which would mean our kitchen was fairly recently renovated when we moved in -- but it still didn't include a refrigerator. We went to Sears, bought one of their cheaper models, and had it delivered, thus solving the how-to-move-a-refrigerator problem). I was a relatively young graduate student for my day (23 when I arrived in Princeton, after one year off between undergrad and grad school), and Butler was my first non-dorm home away from home. P.S. I was a single female grad student sharing with another single female, whom I met while living at the grad college my first year. That was a pretty common configuration for Butler roommates during my time there -- the late '80s. Though roommate groups came in various configurations, on average, single male grad students were probably a bit more likely to linger at the Grad College, while female grad students were more likely to seek out apartments with kitchens in Butler or Lawrence. Extended family groupings (especially grandparents, often from China, coming to help care for new grandchildren) were also pretty common; one of the early-morning sights in my day was grandparents doing tai chi on the sidewalk.

Katherine King *78 Says:

2013-07-09 09:53:01

I may have been the first female graduate student to live in Butler. I moved into 221C Halsey with my two sons, 5 and 10 years old, in 1972. It was dilapidated, but it was great to have a back and front yard and a clothesline. I pity my very nice neighbors who had to listen to my boys' noisy wrestling and playing, but everyone was always friendly and helpful. It was a wonderful place for children. We were able to keep a canoe in the backyard, which we occasionally trekked down to the lake. The one idiosyncrasy no one else has mentioned is the lack of bathtubs in the unrenovated units. The barracks were clearly built for men who take showers. So women and little children had to take only showers too -- this, and the lack of other women graduate students in the compound (all my close friends lived elsewhere) -- were the only things that really bugged me. The thin walls, the heater (ours worked well, but you had to give it a wide berth), none of it mattered. It was a great place to live during those difficult years.

Steve Kittelberger *66 Says:

2013-07-09 13:51:31

My wife and I lived at 408B Devereaux St., and I always assumed Devereaux was another admiral or general, not a polo player! We struggled with the heating system like everyone else. I remember a toilet bowl frozen over on returning from a weekend away. The community garden was great, especially if one had access to the chemistry department's "morgue" of discarded chemicals. I had radishes the size of turnips one spring, and we lived to tell this tale!

John McLeod *62 Says:

2013-07-15 09:39:54

The "central heat" was a kerosene heater in the center of the living room and very much in the way. I disconnected it in the summer and moved it back to the wall. One day the outside was painted. That involved moving the kerosene tanks away from the wall. When the work crew finished, they moved the tanks back, reconnected and turned them on. We came home to a kerosene flood and had to find another place to stay that night.

Vera Keller *80 Says:

2013-07-17 16:27:48

I always love running into old Princeton Ph.D.s who tell me how it was in the old, hard times: "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!"

Martha Jones *82 Says:

2013-07-17 16:33:31

We lived in the Butler Tract from fall 1980 to spring 1982. We repainted the inside completely when we moved in because it was dingy and dirty. Our home was slated to be renovated, and they started working on it in fall 1981 by taking most of the siding off the house. But then it got cold, and they decided it was too cold to continue the work so they stopped construction for the winter, leaving our home open to the elements without any insulation. It was freezing all winter – every time the wind blew, the curtains moved. There was no bathtub, so we bathed our baby in the sink. The mother who lived next door used to chase her toddler all around the tract houses with a bowl and spoon in hand, trying to feed the child who wasn’t much interested in eating. Those were the days. Despite a few inconveniences, we had a wonderful time there.

Edward Golding *82 Says:

2013-07-17 16:36:57

Halsey 223 Butler was opened up to non-married students in the 1970s, thanks to changing demographics and N.J. constitutional challenges. The barracks were on cinder blocks (foundations came later), and as a result the pipes would often freeze. No problem, we boiled water and poured it down the shower. My principal gripe was that our end unit was the mirror image of the other three (bedrooms to the left). For these units, the gas heater had the controls (similar to that of an old-fashioned water heater) in a corner against the wall and not accessible without leaning over the hot heater. So I epoxied a dowel stick to the valve to be able to control the heat without burning myself. Nonetheless, the rent was $110 for the two of us and quite affordable.

Will Driscoll *91 Says:

2013-07-18 15:13:39

The University would not equip Butler houses with fridges. Instead we had to buy a fridge at Butler, move and store it over the summer, move it back in September, and sell it in May. What a hassle! I asked the University administrator in charge to fix this problem, and he declined to do so. Did the University ever fix this problem?

Kenneth Fry '91 Says:

2013-07-22 10:23:17

My father, Franklin Fry *59 *61 lived there with my mom and four children under the age of 3. My mother has fond memories of those days and we recently went there to see the old homestead. I have several photos of us playing the yard in 1961.

Lisa Jadwin *89 Says:

2013-09-16 13:15:41

I have fond memories of what Walt Litz used to call "the projects." Nobody had much furniture, so there was a big used-furniture warehouse maintained by a University auxiliary. You could rent a dining room table for $5 a year, or a bureau for $3. When you left, you returned the furniture. The best pieces were always "spoke for" before they left the previous owners' hands. Also, the parking strips on the street functioned as an ongoing "free to a good home" yard sale. Anything placed out there was up for grabs, and lots of nice stuff changed hands, and friendships were sometimes struck up as one person helped themselves to somebody else's castoffs. We had to provide our own refrigerators, and there was a brisk market in old-fashioned '50s ones. My roommate and I had an old Norge that was probably older than I was at the time. It wasn't luxurious, but there were grass, trees, families, singles, and even a shared collective garden that was ravaged by woodchucks but still a good source of fresh food and camaraderie. Life at Butler is one of my fondest memories from my graduate days at Princeton.

Leonard J. Rahilly *72 Says:

2013-09-16 13:17:01

I lived in Butler '61-'64. They should have been razed long before that. Recently, I had a chance to drive through the tract and see that they have been tarted up a bit on the outside. Spanish has a wonderful word for things like this -- una vergüenza -- something truly shameful. Well, the fact that world-renowned and well-endowed Princeton can't offer better housing than this is truly something to be ashamed of.

Mike Axelrod *66 Says:

2013-10-09 14:40:16

My wife, one-year old daughter and I lived in Butler from 1964-66. The little one in the picture [shown above the comments] is now 50!! As a married graduate student, Butler offered something that was extraordinary for the time. In the academic community, there is often a faculty row where the profs. and their families live at or on campus. It is a community where intellectual pursuits merge and ideas are discussed and shared both socially and academically. It is a microcosm of the inheritors of the mantle from the previous generation. That describes life at Butler exactly. It is the pre-quel where one observes the next generation of inheritors living together in a “pre-faculty” row. The living conditions, albeit somewhat primitive, could not have been a more accurate look view into the future. Even those who did not choose an academic career, as I did not, loved the unique opportunity which might never again be possible. We spent many profitable evenings discussing our research, books we read, politics, careers ahead of us, etc. My Ph.D. was paid by NASA (Sputnik inspired) which, in addition to my tuition, paid a living allowance of $640 every TWO months. It made “Europe on $5.00/day” a luxurious way to travel. At 74, and gainfully unemployed, those wonderful days of Butler poverty turned out to be the most important catalyst to the decisions which mapped my future. If I had the chance to re-live and change the past, I wouldn't have altered a thing in my years at Princeton.

David Paul *73 Says:

2013-10-16 11:53:54

In the early '70s, Princeton Township's dog-control ordinance required owners to keep dogs confined or on leash between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. As soon as the clock struck 7 p.m., the dogs were let loose. Our friends Jeff (*73 politics) and Sue Bergner had a beagle mix named Hegel who tore up the house when left alone. So if they were going out in the evening, they waited until 7:00 and let Hegel out. Hegel would try to follow their car, so Jeff and Sue drove around the project until they found a cat. Hegel took off after the cat, and the Bergners quickly made their escape. Hegel was always waiting for them on the front steps when they returned.
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