Friday, November 16, 2007

The Changing Face of the South 40

Beaumont and Rubelmann

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 More recently, low-rise dorms Koenig and Liggett were torn down in 2005, having been replaced by a new building.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.

South 40 dorms

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.

Rubelmann

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.

Hurd and Meyers

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.

10 comments:

Eric said...

I lived in Umrath in 2003. I guess they're making the older dorms kind of a freshmen-only thing, though freshmen are increasingly housed in newer buildings too.

The old dorms didn't have communal areas on each floor per se, but some of the new ones are even worse, since the actual rooms are set farther back from the doorways. In Umrath, for lack of communal spaces, we'd hang out in each others' rooms; got to know our floormates better. My friends the lived in the newer Lien Hall had parties occasionally, but it always felt like there was less of a sense that everyone on the floor knew each other. I lived in Park (Mudd's attached twin) sophomore year, and it was a little posher, but I think that about the only time that I'd see people from my floor (aside from my suitemates) was when I was doing laundry.

There was one dorm, corner of Big Bend and Wydown that I remember seeming especially posh - Wheeler Hall, I think?

As far scrimping and saving, I saw so many pricey gadgets here and there. I remember freshman year, passing by a room a floor or two above me where they were playing Xbox on a rather large HDTV. These were freshmen. So there's that.

(Incidentally, I don't think your RSS feed is working - I keep trying to subscribe every few months, but it never works...)

Seeing St. Louis said...

Eliot was not demolished until June 2003. Then they named another dorm (either the building that went up in its place, or another new dorm by Wohl, if that still exists) Eliot, as if Eliot Tower was a mistake or never existed at all. I adored that building--the top floors afforded great views of the sunset and the changing seasons. The hill behind the building (now a parking garage) was great for snow sledding or hanging out on a blanket and talking.

Robert Powers said...

@Eric - yeah, in Wydown, we almost NEVER associated with students in other suites. Each suite was pretty much its own little isolated world. In the old dorms, by contrast, you knew lots of people, if not everybody.

@Seeing St.L: I absolutely treasured my view of the downtown skyline from Shepley. In fact I specifically chose an east-facing room on the highest floor I could get for that very reason. The sunrise was a beautiful reward for those occasional all-nighters.

Sarahlynn said...

I could not agree more. I came to Wash U in 1993 as a freshman and I knew NO ONE. Living in Beaumont was wonderful. I was initially displeased to be assigned substance-free housing (and an obnoxious roommate to boot) but grew to love it. (At least there were no big parties and puking drunks on my floor.) And freshman floors did so much together as groups. Suite living changes all that.

As do other things. Like television and the internet. When I was a freshman, few people had TVs and far fewer had cable. No one had computers, making the few computer labs (Rutledge and Cupples?) additional community gathering spaces.

By the time I graduated, more people had TVs, VCRs, personal computers, and high speed gaming connections. Definitely a very different feel.

I'm betting that now you don't have to go to the library to watch missed Chem lectures on tape anymore, with online coursewear.

And there's something just plain wrong about leather furniture in dorms.

(I LOVED my views from Shepley 11.)

R.P. said...

I was in Rubelmann my first year (all freshman building), and although people did use the ground floor lounge, most of our communal space was in each other's rooms (and it was much the same for my friends who lived in Beaumont and Umrath. Lee? Well that was the weird place ;-)

Having the TV lounges every other floor in Shepley was okay, too, but we still did most of our socialising in each other's rooms.

The year I was in a Rutledge suite was nice--we could host big parties in the living room--and I like the people I lived with, but it was definitely more isolated from other people in the building and would not have been a good idea for a first year student.

R.P. said...

I was in Rubelmann my first year (all freshman building), and although people did use the ground floor lounge, most of our communal space was in each other's rooms (and it was much the same for my friends who lived in Beaumont and Umrath. Lee? Well that was the weird place ;-)

Having the TV lounges every other floor in Shepley was okay, too, but we still did most of our socialising in each other's rooms.

The year I was in a Rutledge suite was nice--we could host big parties in the living room--and I liked the people I lived with, but it was definitely more isolated from other people in the building and would not have been a good idea for a first year student.

WriteBrain said...

Wow. Glad I stumbled across this blog and info. I was a Lee resident my freshman year (way before you -- back in 1985-86. I lived in one of the old suites buildings -- can't even remember which one). Yeah, dorm living is a rite of passage. It's not suppose to be comfy! It's suppose to be cramped!

'04 Alumna said...

My now-husband lived in Eliot 1218 his senior year (his choice) with the great views of downtown St Louis and Richmond Heights. You could see the helipad at St Mary's hospital, the Amoco sign, the Central West End, and the Arch all in one panorama. We both loved that old dorm and were so sad to see it go. I always loved that I could see if his light was on when I was outside and could decide if I should visit him.

My freshman year I lived in Beaumont, which was great. Everyone on my floor knew everyone else, and the substance-free living meant we never had to deal with puddles of vomit or condiments or condoms on the floor on weekend mornings.

Sophomore year I lived in Wheeler, and even though our suite was right next to the common room, there seemed to be virtually no camaraderie on our floor. One girl knew someone down the hall and we were friendly with our RA but that was about it. Very isolated. Nice, suite-centralized heating and carpeted, but no real sense of community.

Junior year I lived in Dauten (?), one of the JKL dorms, and it was very nice. We had a well appointed common room which was perfect for little student group meetings and we were friendly with the guys across the stairwell.

Senior year I lived off-campus in a university owned and furnished apartment (on the University LAN and with a University telephone), and with the money we saved from not buying a meal plan my roommate and I were able to buy a modest amount of cooking supplies and cooked our own meals for the year. It was obviously isolated from the WUSTL bubble but we had neighbors with small children. It was interesting to see families again.

I recently visited the South 40 and frankly am dismayed at what is becoming of the place. It reminds me of some sort of European promenade instead of a dorm court. Beau, Lee, and Ruby remain, but Umrath and Wohl are gone. I remember some of my friends moved off campus to live in some of those fancy apartment buildings on Skinker or in the CWE and I thought they were insane. Nowadays, it's probably a cheaper proposition, especially if the University has shuttle service to those areas. Sad.

John MacDonald said...

I enjoyed reading the comments. I stayed in Rubelmann my freshman year, all the way back in 1975. Attending my 30th reunion in 2009, I felt like a ghost without a home--most of the buildings in which I spent time were gone. Still, it's a beautiful campus and a better school than when I attended.

Do colleges really need to have the facilities (and fees) of a luxury spa to compete for the best students? Perhaps they do.

I can envy today's students while also treasuring the memories of dorm life in 1975, "roughing it" in Rubelmann.

Anonymous said...

Ahhh and there are still students "roughing it" in Rubelmann in 2011. The traditions and memories continue.