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In 1986, in the spring of her freshman year, Pamela M. Conover ’89 expected to move down Dunster Street to Eliot House, where she and her rooming group had been assigned. Instead, she was informed that she would be living in Wigglesworth, only one entryway over from her freshman year room.
Conover and her four future roommates had been thrilled to be placed into Eliot, their first-ranked upperclassmen House.The women had friends who were already in the House, and were attracted to Eliot’s proximity to the Yard and its prime view of the Charles River.
Eliot House, Conover recalled, seemed “as good as it gets.”But that summer, the women learned that Eliot did not have room for them.
Instead, the five sophomores would be moving into Wigglesworth Hall, a freshmen dorm, when they returned to campus in the fall. “We were quite distressed,” said Conover. “It was not the big change we were looking forward to.”
In fall 1986, Conover and her roommates were five of about twenty Winthrop and Eliot sophomores who were sent to live in Wigglesworth.Another two Winthrop sophomores had to live in the Winthrop Master’s Residence with then-Masters James A. and Martha J. Davis.
The 1986-87 academic year saw widespread housing shortages and upheaval due to enrollment miscalculations, renovations in the Quad, and a separate system for transfer students. But despite the inconveniences caused by the housing shortage, alumni said that their unusual housing arrangements in fall 1986 brought them closer together. House life, many alumni said, was even sweeter when they were able to move into their assigned Houses.
CROWDED ON THE RIVER
In the fall of 1986, an unusually low number of undergraduates took time off or chose to live off campus, leading to an atypically low attrition rate.With more students than beds in the river Houses, administrators turned to non-traditional housing options to ease the crunch.
According to Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67, who was Assistant Dean for the House System at the time, his office chose Wigglesworth, one of the dorms closest to the river Houses, in an effort to minimize the distance between the sophomores and their classmates in the Houses.
But some of the students who were unable to move out of the Yard as sophomores were disgruntled at being denied this rite of passage. An outraged Crimson editorial reported that one sophomore was so surprised by his Wigglesworth room assignment that he thought it must have been a joke .The editorial also suggested Harvard’s promise that the residential house system served as a home was “a cruel farce.”
Brooke A. Masters ’89, who covered the housing upheaval for The Crimson, recalled that students were frustrated because they believed that Harvard had broken its promise to provide all upperclassmen with its unique brand of residential housing. “Harvard markets itself as, ‘You’re going to be in the Houses, you’re going to have on-campus housing,’” Masters said.
Even sophomores who were able to move into their new Houses were upset by the housing arrangements.Gillian Darlow ’89, who lived in a cramped triple bedroom in Eliot that fall, recalled being disappointed that Conover’s rooming group, which included several of her close friends, was so far away.“They were completely isolated from us,” Darlow said.
But Darlow said that the space constraints that she and her roommates faced as a result of overcrowding proved to be a blessing in disguise. The crowded conditions, she said, “made us all a lot closer. We were so on top of each other and it made us have to get to know each other.”
NO SPACE IN THE QUAD
In the mid 1980s, Harvard launched a multimillion dollar renovation project to bring the substandard Quad housing up to par.In fall 1986, Cabot’s Eliot Hall was renovated, displacing about fifty Cabot House sophomores to apartments at 29 Garden Street.Additional students in North House, now Pforzheimer, spent the semester living in the Botanic Gardens Apartments at 28 Fernald Drive, while Moors Hall and Holmes Hall underwent construction.
David J. Schiffman ’89, a Cabot affiliate who spent the first semester of his sophomore year living at 29 Garden Street, recalled the disproportionate impact of the housing shortage on sophomores. “We were definitely the lowest on the totem pole,” Schiffman said. “It really was not a good way to get integrated into the house by being three blocks down in an apartment building.”
John C. Reece II ’89, another displaced Cabot sophomore, was disappointed by what he viewed as the unfulfilled promise of the Harvard housing system. “You have this Harvard rooming group mentality of a common room with the rooms off of it and all the social interaction is formed by that,” he said. “And then you get put into a regular apartment off a hall.”
Displaced Quad affiliates also described their temporary housing as uncomfortable.Schiffman remembered 29 Garden Street as a “smelly old place” where even in the winter “you couldn’t keep the heat on because it was just so hot.”
But Schiffman’s memories of his semester at 29 Garden Street are not all negative.That semester, Schiffman met John T. Schiavone ’89, his roommate at 29 Garden Street, who became one of Schiavone’s “best friends from college.”
NO ROOM FOR TRANSFERS
In June 1986, the College informed new transfer students that it could not guarantee them a spot in a residential House due to the housing shortage. All new transfer students would have to find housing either in Harvard-affiliated apartments or on their own.
At the time, one transfer student told The Crimson that he was so dismayed by Harvard’s transfer student housing policy that he almost went to Stanford instead.
But L.D. Wood-Hull ’88, a junior transfer student from Wheaton College, said that he chose to come to Harvard despite knowing that he would not live in one of the twelve residential houses. “I was sitting down with all my possibilities and options,” Wood-Hull recalled. “Coming to Harvard without being in one of the residential houses was the best option, so I was happy to have that choice.”
With the start of the second semester of the school year, the housing situation improved for some students who had been affected by the shortage. A more normal attrition rate that spring allowed some of the sophomores in Wigglesworth to move for the first time into Eliot and Winthrop. Conover recalled being “really excited” to finally move into Eliot House, which was nearer to the river and closer to her friends.
By January, displaced Cabot residents were also allowed to move back into their House after renovations of Cabot’s Eliot Hall were complete.
Reece described the experience of moving into Cabot House as a second-semester sophomore as analogous to “going to the Ritz-Carlton.”“Everything was perfect white, the floors were all redone,” he said. “It was amazing. We felt very spoiled.”
For Reece, after a semester of living among adults in an apartment building, being in Cabot meant that “suddenly you’re back among kids.”
Despite having missed a semester, Schiavone remembered that he and the other sophomores had no difficulty integrating into the House community when they moved into Cabot. “I didn’t feel like we were odd men out,” Schiavone said.
The housing outlook even began to look brighter for transfer students.In March, Harvard announced that it would subsidize rent for any students who wished to live in Harvard-affiliated apartments.
“Some students were really excited about the idea,” said then-Housing Officer Lisa Colvin Zengilowski. “Even though there was this challenge and this crunch in housing, it turned into a win-win situation that allowed us to think about how to better look at transfer students.”
Today, as Harvard anticipates another housing shuffle resulting from the upcoming House renewal project, Dingman said that the 1986-87 housing shortage provided administrators with important lessons about how to best manage a housing crunch.
Dingman said that administrators learned the importance of providing contiguous and high-quality space for displaced students, as well as a robust residential staff of tutors to help ensure community.Still, he admitted that temporary housing is “not the same as living in the House proper.”
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Amy L. Weiss-Meyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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