“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!’ ”
Although Butler today resembles a time capsule, some things have changed over the years. In the 1980s, the University added 58 units to Butler under new, statewide low-cost housing laws. And the name of the project has morphed. Officially called “The Butler Tract Housing” for the blueblood family who donated this acreage to the University in 1912, it was called “The Harrison Street Project” or “The Barracks” by early residents. By the Kennedy years, it was “The Project.” Today, it is “Butler,” and a new lingo has arisen: Students announce their place of residence by saying, “I have a Butler!”
IN REMINISCENCES shared with PAW, the same pattern repeats, time and again: A fresh-faced couple moves to Tigertown, their sputtering car hauling a wobbly U-Haul filled with books but hardly any furniture. Eyeing the upscale borough, they commence to worry about where they will live: Everything is so expensive! They view the long waiting list for Butler with dismay, counting the days until they can get in. “When a tiny unit in the Project came available in fall 1960,” recalls Gail Ullman, who was married to a grad student, “we leapt out of the Route 1 motel where we were confined” and raced to Butler to start their new life together.
But when Charlie Duke *63 brought his bride home to 221D Halsey St., she took one look at it and burst into tears. At 216B Halsey, Andrea Singer — newly married to Nathaniel Singer ’83 — had the same reaction a couple of decades later.
Things would soon brighten, however. In story after story, residents get busy sprucing up tatty places with paint and curtains and, in the spirit of improvisation, jury-rigging copper tubing to feed kerosene to space heaters. “We solved the problem of an overflowing pan under the icebox by drilling a hole in the floor,” recalls “Petey” Funk s’50 *52 — who need not have fretted that Butler would be torn down before her husband finished his education.
Supporting their penniless student-spouses, early Butler wives found employment as secretaries or schoolteachers, or gave piano lessons. Men seldom were seen during the day, slaving long hours on campus. For newcomers, the barracks environment could be a shock. “At first I thought it was ugly,” Julie Johnson confesses. “I was lonely the first year,” says Darlene Dahle s*80. “There were evenings I would walk the streets around Butler Tract with tears streaming down my cheeks.”
But inevitably, friends were made, some of them for a lifetime; and bonds grew close, partly because, in decades past, there was so little to do in town. In the early 1960s, Butlerites mimeographed a newspaper full of book reviews, recipes, and gripes: Princeton had many mansions but no public tennis courts, no municipal pool ... .
Making up for these shortfalls, Butler units rang with laughter: potlucks, martini parties, crossword-puzzle contests. “We played cards for entertainment,” recalls Charlie Wilkes *65, “carrying the baby to the neighbor’s house in a clothes basket. We were all poor but happy.” Seeking respite from dining-hall food, unmarried grad students regularly descended on Butler for home-cooked dinners.
For many, the quasi-rural life proved delightful. “It was like living in a summer bungalow,” remembers Rich Rotunno *76. “You stepped outside onto a creaky porch, surrounded by grass.” Through the ’50s, farmers regularly delivered produce and eggs. Lake Carnegie was right at hand, perfect for rambles or ice-skating. For a few residents, Butler seemed almost too rustic: skunks under the floorboards, squawking mockingbirds in every lilac, the stench of Walker-Gordon Dairy Farm wafting from across Route 1.
Everybody remembers the leafiness: trumpet vines arching over the fuel drums; pansies flourishing around the foundations all winter, since so much heat was always leaking out. A Christmas tree the Ullmans planted in 1960 beside their front door is today a towering giant. When veteran Lorenz Eitner *52 wanted to celebrate the birth of his baby girl, he brought home a white-pine sprig in his pocket after a stroll by the lake. Decades later, his granddaughter included a photograph of the tree — now a neighborhood landmark — in her successful Princeton application.
“My fondest memory is of the communal vegetable garden,” says Sally Van Siclen *87. “The best was slicing open a sun-warmed, intensely scented melon after weeks of worrying someone would pinch it. I’ve never since had a garden like that.”
IF BUTLER WAS spacious outdoors, inside was cramped and congested. Partition walls were made of beaverboard hardly thicker than Kleenex. Once Bob Morrison *64 had an overnight guest who was flabbergasted, upon sneezing, to hear a voice come through the wall and say, “Bless you!” Suzanne Gossett *68 was awakened every morning by her neighbor announcing, “Paul, the coffee is ready.” Crying babies in the unit next door drove many a studious egghead to the brink. One plus: You could earn money babysitting the neighbors’ kids without ever leaving your apartment.
In 1970, a Butlerite called the police to complain about the awful racket coming from next door at 11 p.m. When the cops arrived, they found two couples quietly chatting over drinks. And, as everyone laughingly remembers, through thin walls came nocturnal noises that helped confirm Butler’s nickname, the Rabbit Patch. Once, former resident and distinguished Princeton professor emeritus John Fleming *63 swears, an over-zestful husband propelled his wife right through the beaverboard.
Forever enshrined in myth are the Butler space heaters — “immense, dark brown, rattly, and scalding fire hazards,” Fred Waage ’65 *71 remembers. Because this beast was the only source of heat in each apartment, no one dreamed of closing interior doors, inconvenient as this was (and mortifying when guests popped in while you were dressing). Once the Morrisons came home and found their bedroom door closed, which made them instantly suspicious. A prankster had stuffed the room with reams of crumpled newspaper.
The space heaters roared so loudly, in intermittent bursts, that Butlerites despaired of hearing What’s My Line? on TV. But despite the Herculean labors of the heaters, the units were cold all winter — so drafty were the windows in the early 1960s that everyone covered them with plastic. Icy linoleum floors made babies wail; in 2013, Johnson still knits extra wool socks for her progeny. Half-frozen students bellied up to the space heaters, used as office desks — absent-mindedly forgetting that valuables left on them soon would melt.
In the earliest years, those heaters were kept going by kerosene, usually carried in daily with a pitcher from a huge metal drum outside every unit. When Butler first opened, nervous residents petitioned for fire equipment: “It would take but a few minutes with favorable conditions to transform this Project into a blazing inferno,” one Butlerite wrote to Nassau Hall administrators — who responded that the residents could organize a bucket brigade. No point in spending lavishly on temporary housing.
A frequent lament was the University’s fumbling performance as landlord of this shantytown off campus. Within weeks of Butler’s opening, residents begged $250 in equipment for a playground. Nassau Hall said no, explaining that the University already had spent $650 per family “to make it possible for them to have housing at all,” an administrator loftily noted.
Often the University seemed clueless. Carefully tended flower beds were mowed under. Martha Jones *82 was delighted when her unit was slated to be renovated. “They started working on it by taking most of the siding off. But then they decided it was too cold for them to continue the work, so they stopped for the winter” — leaving the siding off in the meantime, until the Joneses shivered with cold. When Ann Duke s*63 came home one night and started cooking dinner, her kitchen flooded: During the day the University inexplicably had jacked up the whole house, and the pipe from the sink dangled a foot higher than its outlet.
Around 1973, a couple knocked at the door of newlywed Ellen Gould Zweibel *77: They had lived in the unit years before and were paying a sentimental call. The visiting wife disappeared into the bathroom, then exclaimed, “Oh, the toilet still runs!”
YOU NEVER KNEW whom you would encounter here. “The number of famous professors distributed among many continents who once lived in the Butler Tract is now legion,” says Fleming. “We entertained future Nobel laureates in our homes,” marvels Wilkes. Meeting new people was easy, given that a constant problem was mistaking someone else’s barracks for your own. “The units all looked alike, and it was easy to get confused, especially if you were trying to think lofty thoughts,” says a former resident of 414B Devereux Ave.: Bill Bowen *58, later president of the University. “I recall blundering into someone else’s unit,” he adds, “not once, but twice — within two hours.”
Some residents lamented their lowly social status, especially after Lawrence Apartments opened. It cost twice as much and seemed to attract a different crowd, The Daily Princetonian noted in 1970: While Butler wives industriously weeded their gardens, Lawrence wives sunbathed. “Butler was sort of a dumping ground” in the minds of some, remembers Waage, thinking of the contrast with the Graduate College, where unmarried students dined in academic gowns beneath a medieval hammerbeam ceiling. More than one Butler family relied on food stamps. “Butler had its detractors around town,” says Ralph Smith *92. “Terms were used like ‘Quonset huts’ and the derogatory ‘grad-student ghetto.’ ”
But the upside was the wackily low cost: $40 a month in 1950, $110 in 1980, and still just $828 in 2013. Fleming calls it “easily the best real-estate deal in town.” And there is something to be said for living in minimalist conditions, argues Charlie Duke, whose wife had cried upon first seeing the place. “Our years in the Butler Tract were among the finest and happiest of our lives,” he recalls, in spite of the fact that they experienced incessant “struggle, struggle, struggle. This prepared me for life. I wonder whether it is a healthy thing for students at today’s Princeton to be so pampered in their living arrangements.”
No pampering at Butler! For nearly seven decades, this “temporary” housing has formed the backdrop to countless Tiger lives. It has outlived many of its early residents, veterans who were grateful to be in college at all. “We were thrilled,” recalls Jean France s*52, whose late husband, a World War II bombardier, came to Princeton to study economics. “In 1948, the alternative was a rental apartment with a nosy landlady and a bathroom down the hall. The Project was practically luxury. And it was freedom.”
W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is the author of Woodrow Wilson: Princeton to the Presidency (Yale University Press) and, in 2012, Princeton: America’s Campus (Penn State Press).
The Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni is collecting oral histories from former Butler residents. Contact Jean Hendry *80 at firstname.lastname@example.org.