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College Housing Debates

As College administrators considered altering Harvard’s housing system, students were left out of the discussion–not that they minded anyway

By James K. McAuley, Crimson Staff Writer

In 1960, student housing—an essential component of the Harvard undergraduate experience—was on the verge of major transformation.

Administrators considered moving freshmen into the upperclass Houses, converting the iconic Yard dormitories into individual Houses, or constructing new housing options altogether. As students during the “Program for Harvard College”—a fundraising effort enacted by President Nathan M. Pusey ’28 in fall 1956 that raised $82.5 million for several campus initiatives in about three years—the Class of 1960 witnessed the establishment of Quincy House in 1959 and the construction of the Leverett Towers in 1960.

Lingering in the background of these developments were Harvard’s efforts to purchase the Bennett Street Yards, a prime stretch of riverfront property owned by the Massachusetts Transit Authority. The negotiations stretched from 1955 to 1966 and pitted the University against Cambridge City Council officials—particularly Alfred “Big Al” E. Velucci—who were opposed to the idea of a tax-exempt organization such as Harvard taking over an even larger share of lucrative Cambridge real estate.

But, according to alumni from the era, in an age when administration-enforced parietal hours restricted visits from Radcliffe girls and when jackets and ties were still required at every meal, students were not concerned about College housing policy.

TOP-DOWN CHANGE

The debate over whether to assign incoming freshmen into upperclass Houses took place almost entirely between administrators and faculty members.

Dean of Harvard College John U. Monro ’34 argued that relocating freshmen to the Houses would only make it easier for the class to get to know one another. In the spring of 1960, Monro told The Crimson that the main debate was over building new Houses or overfilling older ones, discounting other administrators’ claims that the new plan would profoundly affect the Harvard social community.

But some House Masters saw the proposed changes as having potentially profound effects.

John J. Conway, then the Master of Leverett House, opposed the plan to convert the Yard dormitories into three distinct Houses because, as he told The Crimson on April 22, 1960, the Yard, as the historic “core” of the campus, was “the best place for Freshmen to learn what the College is like.”

John H. Finley ’25 and John M. Bullitt ’43, the Masters of Eliot and Quincy Houses, respectively, echoed Conway’s concerns, citing logistical and cost issues. Only one House Master, Elliott Perkins ’23 of Lowell, voiced his support for Monro in The Crimson.

As for the student reaction to the plans—which, if enacted, would have significantly altered the course of the Harvard undergraduate experience—there seems to have been little other than the Freshman Council’s vote on May 11, 1960 to oppose the plan.

And given the Council’s chief complaint—that assigning freshmen to upperclass Houses would no longer allow “men to choose their own Houses and roommates in accordance with their individual preferences and interests”—the relatively limited student reaction appears to have focused on one specific consequence of the plan, rather than to the University’s failure to consult undergraduate opinion before instituting the change.

BOTTOM-UP INDIFFERANCE

According to Charles M. Strauss ’60, the very idea that the administration would—or should—bother to gauge student feedback before, say, altering the house system, was entirely foreign in 1960.

In fact, Strauss said, the idea that undergraduates themselves should be concerned with administrative affairs was equally foreign, even in cases where their experience was at stake.

“You’ve got to understand what Cambridge was like then. It was really decayed, basically like Pittsburgh,” he said, adding that Harvard Square was a haven in bleak, industrial Cambridge.

“We thought we had landed in paradise,” he said of arriving the Square . “There were four bookstores, five bookstores, nice haberdasheries, poets’ theatres, and plays and concerts galore. We were just not disposed to question the way things were.”

Strauss, who arrived at Harvard on scholarship in the fall of 1956 from his hometown in Providence, R.I., said that he was merely glad to have been admitted. But he attributes part of that disposition to the culture of the 1950s.

“You have no idea how different the ’50s were from the ’60s,” he said.

“And we’re all children of the ’60s now. The idea that undergraduates had any say in the way things turned out was unimaginable.”

Of the proposed changes to Harvard’s housing system—either the intended creation of three separate Yard houses, the planned purchase of the MTA yards, or the construction of the new facilities near the River—Strauss said that as far as he was concerned, “this was far above us.”

Charlton “Carl” S. Smith ’60 echoed that sentiment. He said that he first learned that the old MTA yards actually contained platforms and an abandoned subway terminal only after he had heard of the University’s plans to buy that land.

“We were content, you know? We’d been through the war, the economy had rebounded,” Smith said, adding that the only discussion he recalls among fellow undergraduates over the proposed housing changes had to do with the architecture of the new buildings. According to Smith, a former resident of Leverett House, the issue was that the new buildings like the Leverett Towers “were modern and square and very utilitarian and did not have the grace and charm the old buildings did.”

Ultimately, the University pursued neither its plan to divide incoming freshman among the Houses nor the construction of President Pusey’s “Tenth House” on the site of the Bennett Street yards, which it finally purchased in 1966 after more than a decade of negotiations with the city of Cambridge.

For many students at the time, however, the issue of housing changes left little impression 50 years later.

Unlike future students—who have gone so far as to storm University Hall in two later clashes over the administration’s policies—several other members of the class of 1960 all said that they were oblivious or indifferent to the University’s authority over the housing system, a significant feature of student life.

“We had troubles of our own,” Strauss said. “We had exams, majors, theses, and just the general day-to-day existence.”

Despite the central role House life may have played to the undergraduate experience, what the administration decided was “really none of our business,” he said.

In an age in which even the removal of hot breakfast has elicited a strong student response, the indifference both Strauss and Smith describe is emblematic of the silence that gave the Silent Generation its name.

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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House LifeHarvard in the CityStudent LifeCommencement 2010Class of 1960