Friday, November 16, 2007
The Changing Face of the South 40
If you're a 1990s Wash U alum like myself, there's growing odds that one of the dorms you lived in no longer exists.
The two high rise towers, Shepley and Elliot, were demolished in the late 1990s. More recently, low-rise dorms Koenig and Liggett were torn down in 2005, having been replaced by a new building. The other four low-rise dorms (Lee, Umrath, Beaumont and Rubelmann) are likewise slated for replacement, as is Wohl Student Center.
Washington University's old dorms are a somewhat chintzy variant of Modernism, with cheap orange brick in a harsh contrast with the white-painted concrete. Individually, there's not too much that's special about them. The intended elegance of their open, glassy ground floors, with the upper floors floating above on arcades of white columns, gets a bit lost when you're up close, with the ground floor rooms largely empty and unused. Meanwhile, the upper floors lack any sort of communal space, aside from the shared bathrooms.
But in the time I knew them, the dorms were an unaltered example of 1950s planning, completed by 1965 and not touched for over three decades. They were a rare example of "towers in the garden" that actually worked. Much of that planning has been reworked with a contemporary sensibility, and while the result are certainly fine, it's a little sad to see the purity of the original plan diluted, faults and all.
The old low rises are being replaced because they can't be effectively remodeled to meet the University's standards for room configuration and bathrooms, in part because of window placement. The rigidly marching rows of windows certainly don't lend themselves to a flexible arrangement.
Like the grounds, I'm sure the new dorms are nice. In fact, testifying from spending my senior year in the early 1990s Wydown House (now Mudd House), they're likely rather posh. I remember wondering why we needed so much space in our suite; I felt a bit guilty living in such luxury.
By my senior year, I'd kind of adopted the idea that you go through some rough times in college: you scrimp and save a bit, struggle to make ends meet, curtail your spending, learn to live on the cheap. You don't expect luxury on campus or off. If you live off-campus, you're in some run-down old apartment building. You certainly don't have money to throw around. That's what college is, right? That's just a standard rite of passage, isn't it?
Not anymore, apparently, and maybe not even in my own time. I was always suprised that some of my classmates had cars in college -- how on Earth do they afford that? I recall my Junior year as I was moving into Shepley, some girl came into her room and marched out 30 seconds later, declaring that she couldn't possibly live there; I never saw her again.
The notion that the old South 40 dorms were somehow inadequate, with their shared bathrooms and worn finishes and relatively small size, never once crossed my mind. That was what we got, and you learn to deal with what you've got, and at any rate it certainly seemed good enough to me. It's not a hotel; it's college!
But college today is more and more shaped to be a luxurious commodity, no different than your folks' home out in Town & Country. The idea of "hard knocks" doesn't sell; "safe, pretty and comfortable" does. Meanwhile, we gripe when the price of tuition keeps going up. Tearing down buildings and putting up replacements don't come cheap, y'know.
There's been no mention of plans to replace the 6 1950s suite buildings (Rutledge, Hurd, etc.) But I wouldn't be surprised if it comes down the line eventually. That would be especially sad -- the buildings are less interesting, but the suite arrangement is especially nice, with sunnily lit common rooms and pleasant balconies.