Architectural and Social History of Dormitories: A Review of Living on Campus

Yanni, Carla. Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2019.

Reviewed by Jim Wunsch

After leaving for college, students may discover that the campus, if not exactly like those depicted in Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, is in certain respects like a city neighborhood. If Jane Jacobs strolled about the quad, she might point approvingly to high-density dorms set amid old and new buildings, and to students walking from one activity to another without need of a car. Having been raised in suburbs, students arriving on campus may experience, perhaps for the first time, the pleasure and annoyance of living in a crowded place. In any event, since “going away to school” is often considered an essential aspect of the college experience, we can see why colleges borrow billions of dollars to allow students to partake of “room and board” away from home.

imageIn Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus, divisive social, political, and economic forces swirl about the dormitory—often an undistinguished structure that is taken for granted. Monasteries and convents served as models for the dorm and for the campus itself. Walled off from a threatening medieval world, they provided security for contemplation and worship while also serving as a place where learning, the arts, music, horticulture, and other cultural activities might flourish. Equally important, the residential colleges at Oxford and Cambridge (hereafter, Oxbridge) also served as models for Harvard, Yale, and the other American colleges that came later.

In adapting medieval design to the needs of students, college educators and designers struggled to reconcile the need for security, order, and quiet against the need for convivial spaces open to the wider community. Professor Yanni points out that a popular dormitory plan, the “double-loaded” corridor, made provision for rooms on either side of a very long hallway. This design, requiring only two staircases at either end of the corridor, was relatively inexpensive to build; it also facilitated a high level of security since it was easy to see who was coming or going. But for students, the double loaded corridor had all the charm of a cellblock. The pricier Oxbridge alternative, with provision for stairways throughout the building, enhanced access at the cost of security. Both designs, with modifications, are in use today.

Apart from design, the question immediately arose as to who would be allowed to live in the dorms. Initially, the answer was young white men. A problem at Harvard was that its pious founders, having committed themselves to saving “heathen souls” and hoping for supporting contributions from the equally pious, were obliged in the 1640s to construct (right in Harvard Yard) the Indian College where native American students might live and learn, although quite separately from the other students. Since only a few natives showed up, and with supporting contributions failing to materialize, the building was eventually torn down.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, dorms at Yale and Harvard were often derivative of the opulent, Oxbridge model of student housing. (Frank R. Snyder, Interior view of Oxford College dormitory, n.d., Miami University Libraries – Digital Collections, Flickr)

When Oberlin, the nation’s first coeducational college, opened in 1833, young men and women were housed in the same building (initially classes were held there too) with men residing in the attic and women on the floor below. Though few problems were reported, the college built cottages and dorms to separate the sexes. Even more remarkably, just two years after its founding, Oberlin admitted African Americans (both men and women) into its classrooms, dining halls, and dorms. With the coming of Jim Crow after the Civil War, several white students raised objections that the administration immediately rejected, emphatically upholding the integrationist ideal. In 1903, a new Oberlin president sanctioned segregated dining and residence halls.

A final issue: would the wealthy live and dine with the less well off? Yanni writes that at Cornell and Michigan wealthy students could move into elegant, even sumptuous, private fraternity or sorority houses, constructed or purchased by past generations of well-heeled alumni. Often, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, as the star athletes, heads of student government, and organizers of major social events, emerged as campus leaders. To limit tension between the haves and the have-nots, Oberlin and many other progressive schools banned fraternities. Well-endowed Harvard and Yale took a somewhat different tack, copying the Oxbridge model to provide convivial individual colleges, replete with resident faculty in accommodations: sufficiently inviting for the very prosperous. Such efforts did not, however, completely stifle the continuance of exclusive off-campus clubs at Harvard and the fraternities at Yale.

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In 1940, when Mies van der Rohe began work its new grounds, the Illinois Institute of Technology became the first campus since Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (1819) to be designed by a single architect. (Mark L. Brack (1988), Penn State University Libraries, Flickr)

This summary suggests that Living on Campus is as much a political and social as an architectural history. That said, Professor Yanni does write clearly and well on architecture, including on Eero Saarinen’s work at Yale, Mies van der Rohe’s at Illinois Institute of Technology, and Charles Moore and William Turnbull’s on the innovative Italian hilltop campus at Kresge College, University of California, Santa Cruz.

In the end, however, Yanni’s goal is to help us better understand the connection between social and political forces and architectural history. She succeeds admirably in a work that should have broad appeal for general and scholarly readers. Living on Campus may be especially helpful to certain young people, denizens of the dorms perhaps, who may insist, not without reason, that they must break free from confines of campus and head to a great city to come to grips with the racial, class, and gender inequities which beset society. What Yanni might say to them is simply: take a walk down the corridor, stroll around the quads, and then head over to the frat house. If you keep your eyes open, then you will see right before you—in its wonder, complexity and tension—life itself! You could even write a book about it.


Jim Wunsch taught history and educational studies at Empire State College (SUNY) for twenty-seven years. Since 1971 Empire State has operated out of offices and pubic facilities throughout New York State. It has no campus or dormitories. Jim now compiles Cityscapes for The Metropole.

Featured image (at top): Ohio University Bryan Hall Move In (1949), Ohio University Libraries, Flickr.

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