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A Brief History of The College Dorm

Updated: Sep 20, 2019

Smithsonian: Carla Yanni, author of Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (Univ. of Minnesota Press), details the history of undergraduate college dormitories, from the first purposefully built lodgings in colonial America to dorm takeovers during the student protests of 1968. As Yanni writes, ‘Residence halls are not mute containers for the temporary storage of youthful bodies and emergent minds’; they reveal and ‘constitute historical evidence of the educational ideals of the people who built them’ … The first US colleges were sponsored by Protestant denominations and tended to be isolated, in rural locations or small towns, to distance students from the corrupting influence of the city … so the undergraduate experience took on a semi-monastic aura.”


“By the 1920s and ’30s, dormitories had become crucibles in which deans and other university administrators, acting in loco parentis, transfigured children into adults … All students would, ideally, live on campus to get the full benefit of the collegiate experience … But thanks to the GI Bill after World War II, a new influx of students challenged this emphasis on campus living; there simply wasn’t enough space to house all of them. This led to the growth of … cookie-cutter dorms that were relatively quick and inexpensive to build … These residence halls made students feel anonymous, more products than people.”


In the 1960s, at the “Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz … the residential area … included not just dormitories but cafés, launderettes, meeting spaces, and classrooms in what were termed ‘living-learning units’ … Americans have come to accept dormitories as an essential and integral part of the undergraduate experience, one that should help students achieve academic excellence and fulfill their demands for apartment-like and therefore independent adult living, while also providing opportunities for meaningful interaction.”