A history of halls: Dorms then and now

Residence halls at GW have changed dramatically over the last half-century. Today, most students live in one of many co-ed dorms with as many as six roommates, high-tech electronics and strict security. Fifty years ago, the story was very different.

From the “Superdorm” to Potomac House

When Daniel Kane, a law and public policy professor, arrived at GW in 1948, he carried only a few suitcases and had no idea where he was going to live or who he was going to live with. In this era almost 60 years ago, the only dormitories available were for male athletes and war veterans.

“When I came in ’48, this was a night school,” Kane said. “The people who came here either lived at home or they lived in the area.”

Because he had served in WWII, Kane was sent to Draper Hall, a converted military barracks located on 23 and G Street that housed approximately 120 veterans.

His small two-person room, which he said cost him $12 a month, contained a bunk bed, desk, chair and running water for each roommate. Despite the sparse furnishings, Kane maintains that it was an exciting place to live.

“The place was alive; it was like a fraternity house,” said Kane, who added that residents would often sit and talk in the hallway for hours. “Everyone had their own war stories, and it was great because you got to meet a lot of veterans who had just come from all over the world.”

A decade later, as more students began living on GW’s campus, residential life slowly evolved.

Thomas Curtis lived in Adams Hall, now known as Lafayette Hall, in 1964. Curtis said the growing student body at the time meant that fraternities dominated the social scene.

“It was still a commuter school, so whatever was going on was mostly directed by the fraternities,” said Curtis, who added that one myth of his time at GW 40 years ago was that the Interfraternity Council, which oversees male Greek life on campus, annually chose the student body president.

That same year GW acquired what is now Thurston Hall, formerly known as the Park Central Apartments. Nicknamed “Superdorm” until it was properly named in 1967, this all-female dormitory required residents to sign in for the night at 11 p.m. on weekdays and 12 p.m. on weekends, Curtis said.

It was during this era of residential life at GW that the Vietnam War was in full swing. This meant dorms were filled not only with residents, but with anti-war activists from colleges and universities across the nation.

Throughout the ’60’s and early ’70’s, the University had trouble enforcing housing policies that limited the number of students allowed to sleep in a room. In 1969, The Hatchet reported that University President Lloyd Elliott refused to alter these policies even though “the influx of antiwar protesters (had) reached flood levels.”

Law professor Roger Schecter, who graduated in 1973, said “GW was ground zero” in 1973. “The dorms tended to become crash pads, anybody who knew anybody and anybody who had a friend would sleep over.”

Also a Thurston Hall resident, Schecter recall that students would gather around their dormitory’s only television every night at 6:30 p.m. to watch the evening news.

Since the mid-’70’s, GW has acquired and constructed many buildings in the Foggy Bottom area for student housing. The University built New Hall in 1997, the Dakota in 1999, 1959 E Street in 2002, Ivory Tower in 2004 and Potomac House this fall.

Modern Differences

University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said in a phone interview that today’s dormitories are more conducive to student life than those of the past.

“Psychologists … tell us that we are going to be able to do better if we are in surroundings that are accommodating,” Trachtenberg said. “Now, (GW residence halls) are the kinds of places that real people can live in; they tend to be more accommodating. They recognize notions of privacy and are basically more attractive and less primitive.

“It changes the whole sociology of the institution,” said Trachtenberg, who added that when he arrived in 1988, GW was still known as a commuter school.

Michael Mufson, a 1976 graduate whose daughter is a junior at GW, said he thinks that modern dormitory life seems less social than in years past.

“We weren’t as insular as kids are today,” said Mufson, who met his wife of 29 years in Thurston Hall. “If there was a movie on television, you went downstairs. Everyone didn’t hide in their rooms.”

Trachtenberg said there is still room to build and improve residence halls.

The University has a plan to build a new residence hall behind the School Without Walls on F Street, which is under review by the D.C. Zoning Commission. Administrators are also discussing remodeling a hall on the Mt. Vernon campus.

“They’re still not luxurious for the most part because of cost issues,” Trachtenberg said. “And besides, college (residence halls) are not supposed to be a resort hotel, but neither are they supposed to be penal colonies.”

Note: The article is part of a two-part series on the history of residence halls and comparing residence life at GW to other local schools.

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