Contrary to my own belief, the current site of our shiny new gym did not always house Tufts’ athletic facilities. In fact, Cousens Gymnasium, the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center and the Steve Tisch Sports and Fitness Center all sit on what used to be the George Luther Stearns Estate. Stearns earned a living as a prominent merchant during the mid?19th century and helped to organize the Medford portion of the Underground Railroad before and during the Civil War.
Yet by World War I, all remaining members of the Stearns family had moved out of their grand homestead and George Stearns’ widow deeded the property to Tufts. The University demolished the mansion in 1921 and the lot remained vacant until World War II.
But the abandoned lot was soon put to good use. Thanks to the 1944 G.I. Bill, the federal government picked up the tab for returning veterans who wanted to enroll in college. During the 1946?1947 academic year, 67 percent of Jumbos on the Hill had served in the war.
Tufts soon faced a housing shortage, though, when these veterans arrived on campus. To ameliorate the housing issue, Tufts acquired 12 temporary housing units – containing 80 multi?room apartments in total – from the Federal Public Housing Administration. The former Stearns Estate served as the location for this housing project, which came to be known as Stearns Village, Tufts’ first (and only) all?veteran dormitory.
Though Stearns Village restricted its apartments to veterans, these students also had the option to bring their wives and families to live on campus with them. In fact, so many wives settled in Stearns Village that they formed the Tufts Wives Club in 1946. In addition to organizing poetry readings and social events, the Club also founded a “cooperative babysitting league.” In 1949, the group renamed itself the Stearns Village Nursery School, an institution that eventually morphed into the Elliot?Pearson Children’s School, which still exists on campus today.
Despite my aversion to 1950s gender roles, I found myself warming up to the idea of a suburban oasis populated by dutiful housewives and broods of rosy?cheeked baby boomers living here on campus. Fortunately, this Stepford?esque vision of domestic bliss shattered as I investigated beyond the cheaply constructed facade of Stearns Village.
The first tipoff came from a Tufts Weekly article, which stated that all apartments came equipped with “modern implements” including “winter insulation” and “coal stoves.” Sure, coal stoves might seem like a quaint, homey touch to any apartment, but these “modern implements” were only ironically noteworthy because the apartments were not outfitted with more advanced forms of heating like furnaces or radiators.
Privacy also became a luxury in the Village. Thin floors and walls permitted neighbors to hear each other’s every movement, and a few unfortunate tenants had their apartments exposed to the entire Village when the end of one building collapsed and turned the families’ living quarters into a cross?section for everyone’s viewing pleasure.
Despite their new homes’ shoddy construction and confined quarters, most of the veterans were pretty good?natured about the situation. As one optimist pointed out, “At least it’s better than living with your mother?in?law.” if living in a drafty, rickety apartment with your wife and screaming children while trying to study for a chemistry exam was comparatively better, I can’t even imagine what sort of family the poor fellow had married into.
By 1955, just nine short years after its initial construction, Stearns Village was razed and our current athletic complex took its place. And while I admire Tufts’ effort to give back to our veterans, I just can’t help but feel they deserved more than glorified houses of cards.
Alanna Tuller is a senior majoring in English. She can be reached at Alanna.Tuller@tufts.edu.