Tracing Tufts’ history in housing

Miller Hall is pictured on Sept. 4, 2019. Christine Lee / The Tufts Daily

The quality and quantity of residence halls are a subject of frequent controversy at Tufts. The chaotic housing placement system, the ongoing housing crisis, the recent acquisition of former fraternity and sorority houses in a half-hearted response to said crisis, the conspicuous renovations of Miller and Houston Halls and the controversial introduction of tiered housing for the 2019-2020 academic year have secured housing a central location in the collective psyche of the Tufts community.

According to the admissions website, Tufts boasts over 25 residence halls for students, including 11 for first-years alone. Special interest group housing options available only to sophomores, juniors and seniors — number 15. The quality of life in Tufts’ many housing options varies widely. The disparity can be attributed somewhat to the massive age gap between some buildings; the oldest dorm (West Hall) and the newest high-capacity dorm (Harleston Hall) on campus were built over a century apart. In that timespan, Tufts built dorms semi-regularly, increasing the quantity of student housing as the school expanded.

The slow, regular expansion of housing stock over Tufts’ lifetime has been such that today, dorms serve not only as a vital organ of campus culture but also a living record of the university’s history. For guidance in interpreting that record, the Daily consulted Aaron White, the interim director of Architectural Studies at Tufts

Although White emphasized in an email to the Daily that he is “no expert on the dorms at Tufts,” in an interview he described some of the potential sources of inspiration for Tufts’ approach to dorm architecture. One such inspiration may have come from our own backyard: factories built in Lowell, Mass. in the 1830s, which offered housing for young female employees.

“Many of [the employees were] coming directly off the farm, coming to work for a season — until they got married. But needing to maintain their reputation while they’re away from home,” White said. “So in their parents needing the money, but not [being] willing to allow them to risk their reputation by sending them off to the city and who knows what’ll happen, and then they’ll never be able to get married. So they had dorms with really rigorous socialization protocols. It’s sort of like a finishing school [or] factory. So I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the logics of dorm life actually come out of a factory system in Massachusetts.

The factory model of housing grapples with the same question that every dorm must answer in its own way: “What does it look like to house the population?”

The way architects have approached this question has changed drastically over Tufts’ lifetime. When asked how architecture has evolved in the period between the completion of West and Harleston, White remarked, “The short answer is, everything changed.”

He identified two evolutionary forces that stand out above the rest, the first of which affected the discipline of architecture itself.

“I would say that more than anything else, what changed was the notion that architecture was a practice that had its foundations in the past. Meaning in 1871, people are still walking around with the idea that what the architect does — the form of expertise that the architect possesses — is a sort of menu of items in his or her head of precedents, authoritative buildings in and of the past that they reproduce aspects of in the present. So it’s a backward-looking practice, and while that’s starting to loosen up in 1871, nobody’s running around, arguing that architects ought to be able to invent formal languages out of their own heads,” White said. “And I think architects are not invested in that idea very much anymore … I mean that our definition of the architect has come closer and closer to our definition of the artist.”

The second phenomenon White identified was drastic changes in social norms. With changing times came what he called “changing notions of domesticity,” which gradually shifted the vision of the ideal of living space which each new dorm hoped to achieve. In the past, White explained, a rigid, semi-formalized social structure and its corresponding norms of decorum would be maintained in living spaces as well as classrooms. 

“The dorm used to be a concerted continuation of what went on in the classroom, that there was a discipline that was of the classroom but they would continue to the dorm, in the way one comported oneself. And that space was structured around those ideas of discipline. And I think today, there’s very little that remains [of that],White said.

This philosophy is reflected in buildings like Metcalf and Stratton Halls, which included spaces for house mistresses who would maintain student curfews. Many of these older dorms also had spaces such as classrooms or dining halls attached to them. West Hall, which once housed students of Tuftsnow-defunct divinity school, even contained a chapel at one point. This residence-style arrangement also reflected the expectation that students comport themselves in the same way in the dining hall and the dorm room as in a classroom or even a place of worship. With the decline of highly structured, multi-purpose dorms came the rise of social spaces such as common rooms which facilitated unstructured interactions between students.

If architecture has evolved in such a way as to provide architects greater creative freedom over time, one might wonder why older dorms such as West and Metcalf are more ornate than newer ones like Lewis and Harleston Halls. One potential explanation for this is the architect’s increased creative purview, combined with the relaxation of social norms, manifesting in a rearrangement of interior space that would not have been possible before. Thus, architects could approach the balancing act between efficiency and individual expression in new ways. Interestingly, as the efficiency imperative grew with the expansion of the institution of university education, competition drove dorm architecture to look beyond pure function and instead into attracting students. 

“Certainly there was a moment in which dorms started to take on a bureaucratic anonymity and I think that there was a backlash against that,” White said. “As more and more people entered the university, as the universities started to have to compete with each other, that sort of went away. You have to attract these students now. We’re gonna do tours of this thing, and they have to want [it] — there has to be a desire, there has to be an excitement. Not just provision.

As students across campus scramble to empty out their dorm rooms — some for the last time — it’s worth pausing to breathe in the logic of these spaces which give silent shape to our mercurial worlds. Through the lives these buildings imagine for us, the unique character of this institution weaves itself into our personal histories.