My own college dormitory, one of “James Gamble Rogersâ€™ sublime Yale residential colleges.”
Anthony Paletta reviews a recent book on college dormitories in America.
Hotels have received plenty of architectural attention, but unless youâ€™re Howard Hughes or Coco Chanel you probably havenâ€™t spent four years living in them. One space where most readers have likely spent just that long in residenceâ€“and that hasnâ€™t attracted a fraction of that kind of attentionâ€”is the old-fashioned college dormitory, now ably addressed in Carla Yanniâ€™s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory.
The dormitory is an interesting space, intrinsically transient but often designed to serve as a social aggregator, edifying home environment and cocoon from baleful influences, once loose morals and religious nonconformists, lately Halloween costumes and Republicans. Itâ€™s a building type represented virtually everywhere in the United Statesâ€”Yanni notes early on that there are likely more than thirty thousand dormitory buildings in the U.S.
The first unusual thing about American dormitories is simply how widespread they are. You donâ€™t actually need to house students on-site: this happens for a very small minority of students in secondary and boarding schools, and a minority in graduate education. Living on campus is not remotely as common in a number of other societies, and wasnâ€™t the standard even in some European societies that provided inspiration to American universities. A prime task is to explain â€œwhy Americans have believed for so long that college students should live in purpose-built structures that we now take for granted: dormitories. This was never inevitable, nor was it even necessary.â€
The religious and often rural origins of many American colleges, designed to remove students from the malignant influences of the city, played a prominent role in the provision of housing. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorneâ€™s Fanshawe and its fictional Harley Collegeâ€”â€œThe local situation of the college, so far secluded from the sight and sound of the busy world, is peculiarly favorable to the moral, if not the literary, habits of its students; and this advantage probably caused the founders to overlook the inconveniences that were inseparably connected with it.â€
I’ll bet the Yanni book overlooks the story of the Yale undergraduate of the 1850s who was expelled for shooting a deer on the New Haven Green from his dormitory window on the Old Campus.