Students move from cabins to clusters

by Maura Henninger | 3/4/98 6:00am

One of the first students of Dartmouth College, Joseph Vaill, class of 1778, spent his first week in Hanover sleeping on the floor and covered with narrow Indian blankets. Soon, he and his friends were able to acquire wooden bunks, straw matting and crude culinary tools. To keep warm, they fed logs to the constantly burning fire.

He reported that "a more romantic situation" could not be found and that the "howling of wild beasts and the plaintive notes of the owl greatly added to the gloominess of the night season" in Hanover, according to "The College on the Hill" by Ralph Nading Hill.

These first students did not enter the College right away because they did not have enough preparation, money or credit. Later, they would trek through the heavy snows to recite to their professors.

Since its first primitive lodgings in the unsettled woods of New Hampshire, residential life has undergone a series of exciting and tumultuous changes.

Life in Dartmouth Hall

The first years at Dartmouth were rough going. According to Frederick Chase in his "History of Dartmouth College and the Town of Hanover," students had chapel at 5 a.m., followed by breakfast, study, recitation, midday meal and more study in the afternoon. Saturday was free for prayers.

On Sunday, students were forbidden to leave their rooms except to attend church twice and for meals. At all hours, they were expected to remain in their bare and cold rooms, where they were visited at least once a week by a member of the faculty.

Even the construction of Dartmouth Hall seems to have hardly improved student accommodations. Upon his arrival in Hanover in the winter of 1796, Samuel Swift was assigned to a cold chamber on the lower floor of "the great wooden air castle in which most of the students had their rooms."

Life in early Dartmouth Hall was far from royal luxury. There were the wretched journeys to the privy at the rear on the subsequent site of Fayerweather Hall. This primitive structure was known as "The Little College.

College Founder Eleazar Wheelock had cleared 200 acres, planted them with hay and grain, fenced 2,000 acres of woodland to graze horses, oxen and cows by the end of 1773. He built himself a house, where Wheelock's family and a number of students lived, on the present site of Reed Hall.

With the subsequent presidency of John Wheelock, student behavior became debaucherous. Big room parties were not atypical. Students reveled in the story about a legendary party, which ended only when the president broke down the door to the student's room saying, "Bacchus, was ever wont to reckon himself as the noblest of gods."

In the following decade came a period of unrest and moral decline because of the Revolutionary War, according to "The College on the Hill." Students turned to drinking as an outlet for their distress.

Late 1789 marked a so-called "nocturnal visitation" in which the students demolished the badly-rotted former Dartmouth Hall and meeting room -- "the first sprout of the College," which was basically Eleazar Wheelock's aging log cabin.

Following the destruction, the Board of Trustees voted to rebuild Dartmouth Hall and build a chapel southwest of Dartmouth Hall on site which is now Thornton Hall -- a cheerless building, according to students at the time.

In 1791, Dartmouth Hall was rebuilt, but the hall did not receive that name until some 40 years later. Until then, it was simply "the College" -- the towering architectural feature of the campus.

"From the day of the first lecture and from the first night that students slept in its barren and drafty chambers, this noble building became the center and soul of the Hanover Plain," Hill wrote.

The rooms in the new hall were numerous and small and served the diverse functions of dormitory, classroom and social center.

The College library, which was only open one hour every two weeks, and a special room for the "philosophical apparatus" obtained abroad by John Wheelock were located in the new hall. A museum of curiosities contained "a stuffed zebra which the students loved to purloin and transport to the belfry or the stage of the College chapel," in the words of Professor Francis Childs.

One evening in the late 1790s, seeking promises from farmers that they would no longer graze their cattle on the Green, students herded cattle into the cellar of Dartmouth Hall, barricaded the doors and held the cattle as hostages.

There were also rooms for the literary societies, the Social Friends (1783) and the United Fraternity (1786), predecessors to the fraternities which would later arrive on campus.

Daniel Webster, class of 1801, was a notable first member of these societies. The precise location of Webster's room at Dartmouth has always been the subject of controversy. Many townspeople during his time liked to claim that they gave room and board to the brilliant young orator.

But college records show that he played a "chamber rental" for three years, which would place him in College housing. In his sophomore year, he occupied room 006, at the north end of the first floor, of Dartmouth Hall. In his senior year, he roomed outside the College, in what is now the Webster Cottage museum near the Choates residence cluster.

Sledding and electrical experiments

By the 1870s, about half the students roomed in the College's halls, and the other half lived in private houses.

Stoves provided the only method of heating and the wood which the students bought from local farmers was used for fuel.

Students lit their rooms with kerosene lamps and candles and obtained water from an old-fashioned wooden well. Room rent was $7.50 to $18.00 and double that in private houses.

Despite the responsibility that came with maintaining a dorm room, students still made time for revelry. In 1820, a vacated general store on the site where Webster Hall is currently located became a rooming house for students.

Next to it, on Wentworth St., a girls' school was kept before the Civil War. The sight of the girls marching with their towels to a bath house south of the Green was fodder for a number of pranks by Dartmouth students.

In the late 1800s, the activities on "Bedbug Alley," as the top floor dormitory of Dartmouth Hall was called, were outrageous.

"There I was walking up and down Bedbug Alley and saying to myself, 'Damn! Damn! Damn!'" one professor said, in John King Lord's "History of Dartmouth College."

The doors to the rooms became sleds for sliding down the long stairways. Students subjected the bedsprings to numerous electrical experiments.

Students used old bells from the belfry to rouse the hall in the dead of night. The lot of the bellman, a junior who obtained free rent of the third-floor room into which the rope descended, was not often a happy one.

By 1856, the first fraternities, successors of old literary societies, were holding weekly meetings. Psi Upsilon and Kappa Kappa Kappa fraternities had resulted from the disunited United Fraternity in 1841. By the late 1800s, students had bought large mansions, on what is now Webster Ave., where many of them lived.

As the number of students increased into the 1900s, housing became a problem. The dorms could only hold 200, although the number of students far exceeded that. Many students were forced to room off campus.

The overcrowdedness, along with new ideas emphasizing sanitation and health, forced the Trustees to sanction the building of Sanborn House in 1894, which was an enlargement of the house that had belonged to Professor Sanborn. It became the favorite dormitory for some years.

Only books in Dartmouth Hall

Under the leadership of President William Jewett Tucker, 13 dormitories, either new or remodeled from older buildings, appeared between 1894 and 1908.

The construction of Richardson residence hall in 1898, the Fayerweather residence cluster in 1900 and Wheeler residence hall in 1905 added about 700 beds in total to the housing situation.

One alumnus who visited the dorms was dismayed at how comfortable they were. In his opinion, Dartmouth students should have to "rough it" in order to build character, according to "A College on the Hill."

Of the alumnus, Tucker said, "I think that each new dormitory was an offense to him and evoked the most strenuous denunciation that his unequaled command of Latin derivatives could supply."

All of this growth in dormitory life was marred by the calamitous burning of Dartmouth Hall in February 1904.

The fire, caused by defective wiring, brought students rushing out of morning chapel to find flames coming out of the windows of their beloved hall.

Smoke, mixed with a century's worth of dust which filled the attic, made passage into the building by firemen virtually impossible. Within two hours, the whole building was in ashes.

One professor recalled how each spectator shared the feeling that "somehow the world was coming to an end."

In a sense, though, the burning of Dartmouth Hall served as the emergence of Dartmouth's intensely dedicated alumni. Trustee Henry Thayer recalled, according to Hill, that the event "marked the beginning of the never-failing support of their alma mater that has characterized the alumni body ever since."

Within three months, enough funds had been raised from the alumni to begin construction of the third Dartmouth Hall.

Though architects tried to create a true copy of the old hall, the new building was very different from the previous since it was given entirely to academic purposes with no dormitories. In addition, it was constructed of brick instead of wood.

Like Tucker, President Ernest Hopkins, who took office in 1916, made a big push for an increase in the quality of student dormitories. Under his guidance, an unparalleled volume of funds poured in. As a result, the College erected a large number of buildings including Topliff, Gile, Lord, Streeter, Ripley, Woodward and Smith residence halls.

Beginning in Tucker's tenure and extending into Hopkins', a greater proportion of students came from wealthy families, and the number of fraternities and chapter houses increased. Alumni and administration began to worry that the age-old Dartmouth spirit was going to diminish.

Accordingly, no one class, even seniors, was allowed exclusive use of a dormitory. They were open to all members of every class. Room prices were graded in price so that the rich and poor were brought together.

To prevent the separation of fraternities from the general interests of the College, the Trustees restricted each chapter house to accommodations for 14men and did not allow any one to be used as a boarding place for its members. This restricted the fraternities from having a life separate from the College, as the members were forced to eat at the dining halls.

By the 1920s, Dartmouth had changed from a place where being in the company of girls meant being heavily chaperoned to the era of Winter Carnival, house parties, and prom. The typical student day reveals changes from the time when students went from their rooms to chapel to meals to recitation.

House Beautiful featured the residence of one student, Gail Borden '26, to demonstrate appealing trends in college room decoration. The room featured a Persian prayer rug and an Imperial Napoleonic crown tapestry.

"At Dartmouth, several outworn College rulings are a stumbling block to a free execution of individual taste, but at least the dormitories have plain-colored walls and lend themselves to any sort of treatment," the story states.

Veterans come home to Wigwams

Student councils assumed supervision of conduct in dormitories and fraternities from the administration and President Hopkins in the 1930s. Hopkins's theory was that he would give them all the responsibility they wanted.

Throughout this period, housing in general was assigned much like it is today. The freshmen office would send each freshman a lottery number and a list of available rooms. The same office then assigned rooms accordingly. After the room was assigned, the student left a deposit of 10 dollars for the term.

This method did not appeal to one very irate mother who insisted her son could not live in 106 Massachusetts Hall since it was "such a dark room facing a rubbish pile and the cemetery." She put up such a fuss that he was placed in a prime room in Hitchcock that cost twice the amount he actually paid.

The 1940s were an era of national turbulence resulting from World War II. Dartmouth, though it was tucked away from any sort of disturbance, felt reverberations.

When veterans returned to the College in the fall of 1945, the oldest-looking guy was a freshman and the youngest, a senior. Their innocent illusions about college had been eradicated by the harsh realities of war.

Many were married and brought their wives to Hanover while they completed their degrees. The lingerie clothesline was a sight to behold behind the Fayerweathers, and baby walkers lined the streets.

September 1946 marked the second-highest enrollment in College history at the time. Of the 700 freshman who came to campus, 375 were war veterans.

Already there was a housing shortage. Also, due to the war, there was a furniture shortage, a meat shortage and a metal shortage -- which meant not enough forks and knives to go around.

The unfinished Wigwam Village married housing facilities, which were located where the River cluster is now, presented the most aggravating problem. These dorms, funded by the federal government, were supposed to house all returning veterans. But labor and material shortages because of the war delayed the housing so it was nowhere near finished in the fall the veterans were to arrive.

It became the College's responsibility to find housing for all these student veterans, their wives and children. The Wigwams were prefab units originally used by shipyard workers in South Portland, Maine.

First, they advised the students to leave wives and children at home. But some students had already arrived on campus with their families. In order to provide housing for everyone, the College had to make arrangement with fraternities, while other students made arrangements with friends and still others relied on the hospitality of Hanover townspeople.

For the wives, life in the Wigwam village was less than ideal. A Jan.16, 1947 edition of The Dartmouth reported, "Wives hate it because it's too cold and too icy!" Many were not used to the climate, coming from places like California and the South.

The Interdormitory Council formed in the 1940s under the Green Key Society. The Council, a precursor to the undergraduate advisor program, held annual elections for a dormitory chairman, who supervised drinking and acted as a chaperone, making sure no "naughty" activities went on with women.

One out of six members of the student body was involved in the Undergraduate Council -- the Student Assembly's predecessor -- which governed the school through a structure of dormitory and fraternity officers, including the Interdormitory Council.

The construction of the Choates cluster in the 1950s caused an uproar because members of the Dartmouth community objected to the modern architecture.

"A rectangular building has no more beauty than a rectangular woman," one faculty member said.

But the $1.5 million project went forward and was completed in 1956.

Construction continued after the College received several million dollars from the federal government, when the River cluster began construction in 1965 and was dedicated in 1966.

In 1968, Cutter Hall began as an "experiment in dormitory living" -- a predecessor to the East Wheelock cluster. The 66-man suite was filled with students who came and went each year.

"The residents of Cutter do not constitute a brotherhood; The men had highly diverse points of view, and the emphasis is on tolerance, not agreement," an advertising brochure read.

While life in the dormitories carried on in the 1960s with a certain level of normalcy, there was controversy brewing below the surface. In the 1960s, student and faculty engaged more and more in discussing the possibilities and drawbacks offered by coeducation.

Women took classes at Dartmouth even before coeducation began in earnest in 1972. A small, but ever-increasing population of female exchange students who were on campus for several years before, living in off-campus apartments and living in dormitories separate from Dartmouth men, added momentum to the coeducation movement.

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