Overcrowded

With college enrollments on the rise, Harvard faced an impending housing crunch

When members of the Class of 1955 settled back into their dorm rooms to take their first semester exams in January of their senior year, University President Nathan M. Pusey ’28, too, was busy studying problems and writing reports after a semester’s worth of rumination.

The most serious problem facing the College, he wrote in his second annual President’s Report to the Board of Overseers, was impending overcrowding.

Though students still fit comfortably into the Yard and each of the eight River Houses in the early 1950s, the population growth phenomenon now known as the Baby Boom was just beginning to make itself heard in the halls of higher education.

In April 1955, Seymour E. Harris ’20, professor of economics, predicted that by 1970 there would be a 75 percent increase nationwide in college-bound students due to the national trend of accelerated population and income growth. Later that month, David W. Bailey, secretary to the Harvard Corporation, reported an upward trend in the number of students accepted to the College in a pamphlet entitled “Notes on Harvard College: Graphic and Statistical.”

But Pusey and other administrators had their fingers on the pulse of the problem before experts released their reports on the reverberations of the Boom. Already concerned by a freshman class size 50 men larger than expected, House Masters and administrators alike were meeting to discuss the projected rise in applicants and exactly how Harvard could absorb the next wave of scholars.

BIGGER, BUT BETTER?

While it became apparent that colleges across the nation would soon be struggling with the same problem, one of the first questions that faced Harvard administrators was how much, if at all, the College should expand both its physical and academic resources to meet the rising demand for private education.

Though some felt the College had a social obligation to accomodate the growing number of college applicants, others objected on the grounds that doing so would compromise the quality of the Harvard experience.

Wilbur J. Bender ’27, then-dean of admissions, told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954 that the College’s first responsibility was “to maintain the highest level of liberal education...even more so because of the threat of a serious watering-down of liberal education.”

Though Bender professed himself willing to brainstorm other solutions, he maintained that the College should not expand, noting that keeping acceptances constant in the face of an increased number of applications would allow Harvard to achieve greater selectivity.

But others cautioned that such a strategy could stifle the spirit of intellectual diversity that the College encouraged.

“I’d be worried if Harvard came to the point where it attracted no students other than proto Ph.Ds....We need more, not less contact with the public,” Philip H. Rhinelander ’29, director of General Education, told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954.

QUANTITY WITH QUALITY

Administrators were faced with the task of finding a way to allow for growth without losing sight of their sterling academic standards.

“There is no point to expanding,” acting Master of Eliot House Archibald Mac-Leish told The Crimson on Dec. 11, 1954, “if in expanding, you lose what Harvard College is.”

While College officials were charged with the task of constructing a suitable solution, the subtleties of the predicted surge in applicants also weighed on students.

“As far as increasing the student size, I think that most of us were concerned that our classes didn’t get too large,” says Clark A. McCartney ’55 of Adams House, explaining that while many freshmen attended large lecture courses, upperclassmen enjoyed getting to know their professors in smaller seminars. “We didn’t like the idea of it getting too crowded.”

Perhaps even more pressing for the student body was the threat of losing the more luxurious elements of their housing. Already concerned by the College’s 1954 cutback in individual maid services for undergraduates, many students were reluctant to sacrifice their spacious rooms. “Private baths may go the way of other elements of gracious living,” a Crimson headline speculated.

If Harvard’s expansion were to match national projections, the College would need to accept 8,000 to 10,000 undergraduates and build up to 12 more Houses. However, Pusey, among others, believed that moderate, but not total expansion was the appropriate and necessary path for Harvard to follow. But would the existing Houses be able to accommodate the influx of students?

MOVIN’ ON UP

Overcrowding, while not yet a pressing problem for the campus, was already beginning to occur.

“I remember that our room was converted—it was two singles and we made a triple out of it; we even made a four-person out of it for one semester. It wasn’t a big deal to us,” says Alan O. Dann ’55, who lived in Lowell House.

Yet a simple division of rooms could not sustain the proposed expansion.

In the fall of 1954, Winthrop House Master Ronald M. Ferry ’12 submitted to the administration a plan to build an addition between Winthrop’s Gore and Standish Halls consisting of low-cost rooms and communal bathrooms in order to alleviate crowding in the existing House rooms. Claverly Hall, meanwhile, was being used as overflow housing for upperclassmen.

These short-term solutions, however, would not relieve long-term expansion, and in a meeting in early December 1954, House Masters supported the building of a new House rather than making additions to the old.

In planning for a new residential space, Masters were careful to consider the social and intellectual community that such a construction would foster. Lowell House Master Elliott Perkins ’23 told The Crimson in December 1954 that a new House should preserve “the process of undergraduates educating each other.”

Some students worried that the addition of a ninth House would disturb the unique character for which each residence was known.

“Each House tended to have its own flavor and personality,” McCartney says. “We didn’t like to see that broken up.”

And other students compared their housing to halls beyond Cambridge. “Having visited some friends at Princeton, I thought our living conditions were at least as good, maybe a little better than theirs,” says former Eliot House resident William H. Toohey ’55. “If I was concerned about anything, it was having to climb five flights my last three years.”

Keeping administrative and student concerns in mind, the College continued to carefully deliberate the impending housing crunch. Nearly 20 years later, Mather House was built next to Dunster, with elevator service for students living on the 18th floor.

—Staff writer Anne E. Bensson can be reached at abensson@fas.harvard.edu.