Housing after fraternities: filling the vacuum

The fall of fraternities created the need for a viable new residential system and both a way of building community. This need was met by the three-year house system, which worked well throughout the 1970s but was clearly wavering by the decade’s end.

After the abolishment of fraternities, housing was restructured such that groups of four students would submit forms with their preferences for housing locations at the end of their first year. Although this was far different from today’s method of picking directly into a house, students could indicate their preferences between the different housing groupings, which included the Greylock Quad, Mission Park, Row Houses and the Berkshire Quad.

These groups of rising sophomores were assigned to individual houses (for instance, Dennett or Carter), based as much as possible on their indicated preferences. After the initial draw, each house would run its own room draw based on seniority, so instead of moving up in a campus-wide rooming hierarchy, (i.e. Pratt to Bryant to Spencer), students ascended within their own houses—hence the origin of the so-called “senior singles” in the Greylock houses. All students became part of a house with the expectation that they would remain there for three years, although there was a rarely utilized process through which students could appeal to the deans to get placed in a new house.

“Staying in your house was the default option,” said Jim Kolesar ’72, director of the Office of Public Affairs. “In my three years I can recall only one person moving out of my house and one person moving in.”

“Houses” in Greylock and Mission were defined in the same way they are today, with distinctions made between spaces like Bryant, Carter, Dennett and Mills. “Row Houses,” however, were not considered as individual buildings, but rather as a few intimately affiliated buildings that housed approximately the same number of people as a Greylock or Mission house. For example, Garfield and Wood were considered a house, and students in “Gar-Wood” house had their pick of rooms from any of the buildings that composed the house.

Since they were not always enough rooms in the groupings of row houses, some of the sophomores lived in “overflow housing”—for example, West was the overflow housing for “Gar-Wood” members. However, they remained active members of the house, moving up the room hierarchy in the junior and senior years.

Students in a housing group ate their meals together at a set time in the house dining room. Each of the row houses had its own dining area, and Greylock dining hall was divided into four sections, one for each Greylock house. Housemates sitting down to meals together was a vital part of the house system: “in addition to activities, the most important part of social life was having meals together,” explains Wendy Hopkins ’72, director of Alumni Relations.

Jay Thoman ’82, professor of chemistry, has fond memories of house dining in its twilight. “Dinners were a sit-down affair, with platters of food brought to large tables at 6:15 p.m. by student waiters,” said Thoman, a former Wood resident. “‘Waiting on’ and dishwashing were campus jobs that I held for two semesters; they were a lot nicer jobs than working at, say, Baxter.” He recalls paying their chef, Cliff, out of house funds to prepare “fabulous cheese omelets a half an hour early” for Sunday brunch.

Houses did have “guest meals,” meals to which the members of a group could invite other students or faculty members to dine with them, but other than these weekly occasions, students ate with their houses. Kolesar, who was a member of Fitch House, describes “tablecloths and a served meal, with student waitstaff” every Thursday for guest meals in Driscoll — a guest meal was “special, enough so that some students would even put on a jacket and/or tie!”

Another vital part of the ’70s system was the role of the faculty associate. Each house had a faculty associate who was very involved in the house’s activities, often eating with the house. Cappy Hill ’76, College provost, said that her faculty associate in Dodd House “ate lunch with us almost every day, and sometimes brought his wife for dinner.”

The College also gave the house money for “cultural events” which the faculty associate had to sign off on. It was common for houses to sponsor a wide spectrum of events ranging from lectures to parties. Kolesar’s faculty associate was Whitney Stoddard ’35, professor of art history emeritus, and as Kolesar describes it, “[Stoddard] had a liberal interpretation of the term [cultural events].”

Many faculty members who are former students remember the house as being a key part of student identity, more so than it is today.

“Students generally felt a rather strong affiliation with their houses,” Kolesar said.

Dave Johnson ’71, men’s tennis and squash coach, recalls that “affiliations seemed pretty important and people took it seriously, plus the fact that you knew you would be there for three years made everyone a bit more invested in the process.” Hill remembered the house living and eating arrangements allowing her to get to know students two years ahead and two years behind her. Moreover, “after people graduated, when they came back to campus, it would be to their old houses, where they still knew people,” Hill said.

This investment in and bond with the house was reflected and encouraged by a active and a series of competitive events and traditions. Not only were there more intramural (IM) sports, they were also taken more seriously. Hill, who played IM golf for her house, said houses took competing against each other very seriously. Connie Sheehy ’75, associate director of admissions, vividly recalls an annual tricycle race around the freshman quad. “Different houses sponsored costumed teams like a NASCAR race,” Sheehy said. “If you were lucky, you avoided people throwing water on you from the Quad windows.” Other events like the Winter Carnival ice sculpture competition and Trivia on WCFM were also highly anticipated.

By the late ’70s, more and more students were opting to transfer out of their houses, and were able to submit preferences for a new assignment. In a special issue titled “Housing at Williams” on March 14, 1980, the Record reported that 220 students applied for house transfers, “demonstrating the increasing desire among the student body to experience different living arrangements while at Williams.”

This was a substantial increase over the handful of students who requested transfers a decade earlier.

According to Charles Jankey, then-director of student housing, the transfer rules (adopted in 1976) stipulated that at the end of sophomore year, a student who wanted to move houses could submit a request, along with up to three others, listing in order of preference 15 of the 16 houses. The only guarantee was that a student would not get assigned to the house left out of the request. The Dean’s office and House Presidents then processed these requests and allocated the available rooms in the houses.

These increases in both the pervasiveness and acceptability of transferring spoke to a weakness in the system. As Cris Roosenraad, then associate dean, said in the special edition of the Record, “It’s awful, [the number of transfers] is way too high, and the system’s breaking down somewhere.”

By 1980, with the house system very much in place, increasing transfers had begun to shift the housing focus from house to class. A 1980 issue of the Record stated “the exodus of students – predominately sophomores – from Mission Park and the Berkshire Quad lends credence to the ‘typical’ housing scenario: sophomore year Mission Park or Berkshire Quad; junior-senior years: Greylock or Row Houses.”

With the house system becoming increasingly flexible, and more and more students changing affiliations and eating in other dining halls, the College made one final change, drastically accelerating the system’s collapse. In 1980, amidst an institution-wide drive to save money and resources, John Chandler, then-president of the College, created an ad-hoc committee on student residential life to examine “some developments of recent years which indicate that the residential system does not function as well as it once did.” The “Gifford Committee,” named after its chair, Don Gifford, professor of English and American Studies, recommended among other things that the College eliminate house dining.

Asserting that “significant changes in dining habits have taken place in the last few years and that habits are apparently continuing to change,” and “many students now gravitate to the major dining halls to take their meals,” the committee recommended closing the Spencer-Brooks, Garfield-Wood, Perry and Tyler dining halls and consolidating all dining into Baxter, Greylock, Mission, Dodd and Driscoll. Furthermore, the committee recommended the establishment of three meal plans: 21, 14 and seven.