Living on Campus is a lively, intriguing history of dormitories that combines social and architectural history to provide a glimpse of something most readers know about but may not have realized they did. Anyone who has gone away to college—or taught at one that has residence halls—is probably aware of many of the things Carla Yanni describes without being fully conscious of where this knowledge came from.

Unsurprisingly, the inspiration for the American system of housing students came from England, from Oxford and Cambridge in particular. As Yanni notes, most European universities do not provide on-campus housing (although a few do), but both men's and women's dormitories were often arranged in quadrangles with semiprivate green space. In American higher education, there has been, almost from the beginning, a desire not only to teach but also to shape the character of students. When the first dormitories for women were built, female students were “protected” in ways males were not. Women were almost always housed in dormitories with double-loaded corridors and housemothers guarding single entries, while men usually lived in buildings with entryway plans (also called staircase plans), which provided residents with direct access to the outdoors. Administrators felt no need to guard the men's virtue. The first high-rise dormitories appeared in the 1950s when college enrollment increased exponentially as a result of the GI Bill. Coed housing did not appear until the 1960s, and even then, the sexes were separated by floor, often with separate elevators for men and women. Racial integration did not begin until the 1960s, and it too developed slowly. Segregation was so much a part of the story that the first dormitory in America, the Indian College at Harvard, was built around 1655 to accommodate Native American students separately from white students, who lived in a mixed-use three-story, wood-frame academic building constructed in 1642.

Yanni tells the story of college housing entertainingly, concentrating on a limited number of influential examples; these come mainly from Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Dickinson, Howard, Oberlin, and the Universities of Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Illinois Institute of Technology, NYU Uptown (now Bronx Community College), Ohio State, Rutgers, and Kresge College at the University of California, Santa Cruz, are also featured, and buildings at Williams, Smith, and Arizona State are mentioned as well.

Yanni does not aim to tell the complete story of collegiate architecture in America.1 She focuses instead on student housing and the attitudes toward students that the buildings reveal. One reason college officials initially built dormitories was to provide alternatives to unregulated boardinghouses and to the fraternity houses where prosperous students often lived, making social contacts that would benefit them later in life. In purpose-built dormitories, the Gothic Revival dominated, as it did in academic buildings, although the earliest college buildings at Harvard and at William and Mary were built in a sort of Georgian vernacular. At Yale, the Gothic Revival buildings were integrated into the urban grid, as in England, while at Princeton and at most later U.S. schools, college buildings were set apart from the commercial core, since contact with city life was considered undesirable, even dangerous, in much of the country.

Yanni devotes considerable attention to the first coeducational institution in the United States, Oberlin College in Ohio, founded in 1833, without fully emphasizing how radical it was. At that time, the first women's college (Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia, founded in 1836) had yet to open. During that same year, Oberlin completed construction of the first women's dormitory, Ladies' Hall. The college had initially housed men and women in the same building where classes were held. A vaguely colonial wood-frame building, Ladies' Hall was replaced in 1865 by a brick building of no particular style, housing about one hundred women. It was destroyed by fire in 1886 and replaced by smaller stone buildings that looked like large single-family houses.

Oberlin educated women decades before the well-known women's colleges on the East Coast opened beginning in the 1860s, although Mount Holyoke had started out as a female seminary in 1837. Founded by abolitionists, Oberlin was also racially integrated. It admitted black students in 1835, but, as Yanni notes, there were some racial tensions during the post-Reconstruction era. A professor objected to white and black women sharing rooms, although the students had no problem with the arrangement. The college president at the time defended mixed-race housing, even though his successor forced black women to live off campus in 1903.

In considering the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Yanni concentrates on ambitious midwestern college buildings at the Universities of Chicago, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and on Howard University's impressive Women's Dormitory (1929–31, now called the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle), before returning to Yale to discuss James Gamble Rogers's Harkness Memorial Quadrangle (1917) and John Russell Pope's Gothicizing Calhoun College (1932–33, now Grace Hopper College). She describes Henry Ives Cobb's collegiate Gothic campus for the coed University of Chicago (1892–93), with its efficient courtyards within a larger rectangle and a number of fine collegiate Gothic buildings, and York & Sawyer's work at the University of Michigan: the Martha Cook Building (1915), a grand dormitory for women where the residents were discouraged from becoming too academic (and therefore less marriageable), and the Law Quadrangle (1922–23), which looks more like Yale than much of Pope and Rogers's Yale.

Moving into the modern era, Yanni discusses Eero Saarinen's Morse and Stiles Colleges (1958–62) at Yale, which employed a modernized Gothic idiom at a time when historic styles had become anathema to many. With irregular plans and hunks of stone on their concrete exteriors, the colleges were intended to resemble Italian hill towns. Most American college buildings of the era were conceived in the International Style, but there is nothing Miesian about these. Yanni mentions and includes only one photograph of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's buildings at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (1943–57). In her view, they did not contribute to the history of dormitories. At IIT, housing and everything else was treated in the same austere Miesian way.

As campuses increased in size during the postwar period, many university administrators chose to build modern, multistory dormitories. Yanni discusses the three modern high-rise River Dorms (1955–56) at Rutgers that initially inspired her research. (One of her administrative colleagues, immune to the structures' modern charms, had asked her why such things had ever been built.) The nine-story buildings on the Raritan River by Kelly and Gruzen, with classrooms on the ground floors, were the first step in once-private Rutgers's transition to a state university with nineteen thousand students (as opposed to the previous five thousand). Their red brick exteriors and riverside siting helped to ease the change. Yanni explains that administrators chose the design reluctantly, turning to modern high-rises only because of the economic advantages they offered in accommodating more students on less land.

Other modern dormitories discussed here include the Julius Silver Residence Center (1956–61), Marcel Breuer's humane, coed dormitories for New York University's (temporary) uptown campus in the Bronx, and the oversized Morrill and Lincoln Towers (1963–67) at Ohio State University. When NYU later moved back to Greenwich Village and Bronx Community College moved into its former campus, Breuer's dormitories became offices—with showers. At Ohio State, Schooley, Cornelius, and Schooley's mammoth, twenty-four-story, honeycomb-shaped towers for 3,840 students were built so large not because the university lacked land, but to complement the equally oversized football stadium on the campus's opposite side. Every school has its priorities.

UC Santa Cruz's postmodern Kresge College (1967–73), by Charles Moore and William Turnbull, redefined dormitory living radically. Here, the architects sought “the intimate urbanism of an Italian hill town,” inspired by Giancarlo De Carlo's plan for Urbino and Eero Saarinen's Morse and Stiles Colleges at Yale. But they went much further, as did many aspects of this peculiarly experimental college. “Kin groups,” each made up of twenty-five students and two faculty members, one male and one female, occupied buildings with white walls and balconies that overlooked a meandering interior foot path. Earthy brown walls faced the forest beyond. One part of the complex had no interior divisions; students could put “walls” wherever they wanted them. Some tried to create family-like groupings.

Although Living on Campus focuses on college campus housing, it is most interesting for what it reveals about American values in a broader sense, including concepts of class and attitudes toward appropriate roles for male and female students. With this book, Yanni highlights the variety of architectural solutions to a problem as old as campus design itself.


That story has been well told by Paul Venable Turner in Campus: An American Planning Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984). Meanwhile, an international perspective has been provided by Jonathan Coulson, Paul Roberts, and Isabelle Taylor in University Planning and Architecture: The Search for Perfection (London: Routledge, 2011).