Houses, homes, halls: diversity in housing

One of the most significant aspects of Williams’ housing is the considerable number of student options. From small upper-class houses like Woodbridge, which offer a quiet, intimate living situation, to bigger houses, such as Mission Park, with its narrow hallways and isolated suites, the residential system offers spaces with entirely different atmospheres. Indeed, the feel of the house often revolves around its physical composition: the number of common rooms, the size of its rooms, its capacity to host social functions or accommodate house members in one space, and even its location on campus.

Regardless of the building in which they live, students generally have one major concern: living in a single.

“My experience is that Williams students like singles, regardless of their size,” said Tom McEvoy, director of housing. “We try very hard, where possible, to create singles, as long as they meet [fire codes].”

However, McEvoy notes, while students like singles, the desire to live alone is coupled with an almost equal desire for common spaces. The balancing act between common and individual space is a difficult one that often poses problems for the College.

In Mission, for instance, students have singles, but point out that they rarely leave their suites to meet other people. While McEvoy said that one of the reasons cable television was not installed in suite common rooms was to entice students to move into the bigger, ground floor common spaces, the plan has not worked particularly well. “In Greylock and Mission, our aim is to try and draw students out of their suites and into the building common areas so they can get to know their housemates,” McEvoy said.

“I think that the setup of suites makes for a very tight group of friends,” Mills resident Joe Buccina ’04, said, “but I feel like the lack of a popular spot to hang out in Mission isolates suites.”

Fellow Mission resident M.J. Prest ’04 (Armstrong) agrees that suites isolate people, but that the dining hall can be a positive aspect of Mission, an opinion Buccina agrees with. Prest said that she has met new friends in the dining hall, although rarely do people actually go to her suite. “Our common room is spacious and quiet and generally used more for studying than for partying, mostly because of my feeling that my suite is isolated,” she said.

And Prest contends that the lack of cable television in common rooms actually detracts from the appeal of having large groups gather in suites. “Because there’s no cable television, there’s no good reason to convene in the common rooms,” she said.

E.J. Johnson, professor of art history, said that originally, the architectural plans for Mission called for more open common rooms; instead of a wall separating the rooms from the hallway, the end common rooms were supposed to be large, open spaces that would not have separated the common space so much from people traveling through a suite. Instead of tearing down Mission, a plan that if often discussed, Johnson suggests opening up the suites to accommodate larger common spaces and encourage traffic across the dorm.

Bryant and Mark Hopkins, other dorms arranged with suites and adjoining common space, also suffer from quality general common space for residents to get together. Zach Yeskel ’04, and Lindsay Ewan ’04 both like the singles that they have and say that their suite common spaces are used moderately.

“[Mark Hopkins’s design] makes it hard to meet people here,” she said. “You can’t really go traipsing through people’s suites like you can in a more open setting.” Ewan also said that there have been some issues between different groups living in the house, which has led to a less-friendly atmosphere in the dorm.

Yeskel concurred: “In general, the common space is not used that much. Some suites make use of their common rooms, but most are just fruitlessly decorated and generally unused,” he said.

While Mission and Greylock residents seem to underutilize their suite common space, other students have varying opinions of the common spaces in their houses. Obviously the use of common space is largely up to the students, so there are a wide variety of opinions on how useful the common space is, but some consistent themes emerge when students are asked about such houses as Tyler, Bascom, Agard, and Thompson.

In general, the physical arrangements of the houses are not conducive to “chance encounters, or serendipity,” two aspects of dorm living that McEvoy said contribute greatly to better social interaction. Students did, however, seem to point to some architectural strengths that promoted social interaction.

“The physical design of [Agard] has made it so that I rarely see people who don’t drop by my room — which is about half the residents in the house,” Joe Masters ’02, said. “I think there are people living in Agard that I’ve never seen [here].”

Masters lives in arguably the largest double on campus, which makes his room a viable space for larger get-togethers. However, he said, the general common spaces, while used for campus parties, are not used too much. Masters said that Agard’s large porch is “awesome” and used whenever the weather is nice.

In Thompson, Dan Schwab ’02, said that his dorm’s basement pool room, kitchen and living room, are all used frequently by house residents. “I’ve met a lot of guys [while playing pool],” Schwab said.

However, he also pointed out, “there are a bunch of people who are living [in Thompson] who I was friends with before, but didn’t pick in with, so it’s nice to have them here.” The fact that Schwab lives in a house where he knows a large number of the residents certainly makes the common spaces easier to use.

In contrast, while Bascom and Tyler both have large, central common spaces, different factors keep students from collectively using the areas. “Tyler is desirable in that there is a great common living space on the first floor and kitchen facilities,” said Carrie Jones ’02. “The kitchen is used a lot. The common space is not used so much but the television is popular.”

Tyler’s separation from the rest of campus means that students either spend a lot of time there or none at all. All-campus parties, Jones said, have not been successful because students don’t want to make the long walk to the house, but team parties have used Tyler’s common space well. Jones also said that the design of Tyler — which was renovated last year — and the small number of people living there could make the building conducive to intermingling.

“The lack of suite common rooms and the long walk to campus [lend themselves to house interaction],” Jones said, although the new furniture in the house “looks like it’s from the Jetson’s and isn’t very cozy.”

Bascom, another small house, benefits from a great location that is slightly removed from campus, but still close enough so that residents have the option of staying in the house or using Goodrich, the snack bar, and other common spaces. “[Bascom] is set back from the road, which makes it feel more like a home,” Dana Nelson ’02, said. “The common space on the ground floor is really nice and a lot of people hang out down there and watch television.”

However, Nelson also noted that her high pick and the number of people in her group allowed for an almost complete takeover of the second floor of the house. “It’s very easy to stick to my own floor,” she said. “I don’t like that fact [that I do stay on my floor a lot], but I tend to do it anyway.” Nelson cited the large amount of work she has this year as a factor in how much she can use the common space.

Thus, generally positive reviews were returned about many of Williams’ mid-sized living arrangements. The most positive comments, in general, came from residents of very small houses, such as Woodbridge, and the Poker Flats co-ops.

Woodbridge has an ideal, central location on campus, and is a small house with nice common spaces. “I thought a larger dorm like West would be nicer, originally,” said Abid Shah ’02. “I thought Woodbridge would mean a smaller social circle, but I was wrong.”

Shah admits he leaves his house more often than others, but he nonetheless likes Woodbridge’s living room. “The cozy living room and kitchen accounts [for fostering new friendships],” Shah said, although he notes that the Nintendo in the living room creates “a lot of unhealthy competition.”

In Poker Flats, on the northern edge of campus, “the atmosphere . . .is like you’re living in a house rather than a dorm,” Craig Tamamoto ’02, said. “We are far away from everything, and that makes it difficult to leave the building,” he said, but the homey feel of Poker — and the fact that he wanted to live there — makes Poker’s distance from the center of campus bearable.

Few will argue that Williams has physically unattractive housing options. However, the actual viability of those spaces in building social cohesion can certainly be questioned. Common spaces seem underused in many instances, and students tend to isolate themselves in their rooms or leave their dorm. The problem with common spaces is indicative not only of dorms and houses, but also for the campus at large.

“I hope when Baxter Hall is transformed, we will draw together students from all edges of the campus — enjoying a communal space that offers a sense of place and community to Williams students,” McEvoy said.