Carla Yanni


On her book Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory

Cover Interview of September 11, 2019

A close-up

The black-and-white photograph shows a group of professional women posing in front of a brand-new dormitory. The year is 1928. It is a cold day. The women are bundled in fashionable cloth coats with fur collars. An African American woman, fourth from the left, is especially proud, as she deserves to be. A leader among educators in the US, Lucy Diggs Slowe, Dean of Women at Howard University, has completed the successful construction of a state-of-the-art quadrangle for women at one of America’s premier black colleges. The photo was taken at their annual conference where almost all the attendees were white. This remarkable image communicates one main theme of the book: that the dormitory was inextricably linked to the professional role of student deans and student deans were responsible for creating morally-centered citizens. The particular residence hall was the site for making friends and character-building, but it was much more. In the case of Howard, there was acute pressure on the young women who lived in this building, because, as Slowe explained to them, they represented not only Howard, but also their race and gender, to judgmental neighbors.

rorotoko.comLucy Diggs Slowe, Dean of Women at Howard University and a highly-regarded educator in the nascent field of student affairs (front row, fourth from the left) standing outside of the newly completed women’s dormitory with the national professional organization of deans of women in February 1932. The fact that the organization chose to stand with Slowe suggests the extent to which Howard was at the forefront of all universities, not just historically black colleges. And the fact that the deans of women posed in front of these state-of-the-art residence halls shows that they equated their work with the safe housing of their charges. Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

The end of chapter 2 takes the reader to the University of Michigan in the 1910s and 1920s, where one patron, William W. Cook, hired the same architects to design two residence halls, one for women and one for men. The plans differed: the women’s dormitory was based on the doubled-loaded corridor plan and the men’s dorm was a quadrangle with many entrances leading to staircases, with rooms off the stairs. The porosity of the men’s dormitory was not suitable for women. I was not the first person to notice this gender difference in planning college dwellings, but the case at the University of Michigan is a kind of natural experiment, since so many of the variables remain the same, but the plans for men emphasize freedom of movement while the plans for women rely on surveillance. The dormitories at the University of Michigan are carefully crafted buildings that garnered much attention when they were new.

rorotoko.comPostcard. Martha Cook Building, University of Michigan, 1915. Architects, York and Sawyer. On the garden side of this women’s dormitory, female students could use a generous terrace that stretched along the side of the long, thin rectangular structure, which had its main entrance on the street. Collection of the author.