June 18, 2018 | ° F

YANNI: Construction of Rutgers 'River Dorms' marked transition to modernity

Opinions Column: Past Imperfect, Remembering Rutgers' History


In 1953, the Rutgers College Dean of Men, Cornelius Boocock, did not welcome the idea of high-rise residence halls. He wanted the college to house 1,000 young men in low-slung, U-shaped buildings in the area near Bishop Quad, in imitation of Demarest Hall. He requested that the new residence halls should be a “traditional type of architecture to harmonize with existing buildings.” Former Rutgers President Robert C. Clothier objected to the tall River Dorms. He noted that the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia were envious of rural and suburban campuses like Rutgers. He thought it was a mistake for Rutgers to build “city dormitories.” For him, the turn away from the small-college atmosphere toward the hustle-and-bustle of densely packed dormitories came with a sense of loss.

Neither Boocock nor Clothier got his his way. In January 1954, the architectural firm, Kelly and Gruzen, along with President Lewis Webster Jones, took campus design in a new direction. The "River Dorms," built in 1955 and 1956, were the first modern-style, tall dormitories at Rutgers. The choice to build high-rises was partly generated by the small site, but it was also entirely in keeping with the fashion in dormitory design in the 1950s. Even universities with plenty of land, such as the Ohio State University and Michigan State University, built skyscraper dorms. Kelly and Gruzen lobbied for tall buildings when he told the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Trustees that it was any architect’s responsibility to insist on “1954 architecture for 1954 students.”

The architects and the Dean of Men had a disagreement about balconies. Without uttering the word, “suicide,” Dean Boocock argued against balconies so high off the ground, saying such a feature in a college dormitory was “not desirable and might even be dangerous.” In one set of plans, the balconies were outside of each lounge, and this in itself concerned Boocock, but when another set of plans showed balconies on every room, he was apoplectic. He ticked off many reasons why this multiplicity of terraces was a terrible idea: Students would store food and drink (probably beer) outside and students would dry their clothes on the railings. Indeed, the dean implied, the balconies themselves were an invitation to slovenliness and mischief. The balcony design ended in a compromise — the lounges had outdoor terraces, but the individual rooms did not.

As irritated as he was, Boocock wrote to President Jones to say he did sympathize with the architects who were trying to avoid the look of “a low-cost housing project.” Modernism — the style of architecture that rejected the use of applied ornament and historical details — was used extensively for low-income housing. A single slab-shaped building with a repetitive facade made up of rows of identical windows would bring to mind public housing, and three such buildings would summon up images of housing projects even more readily. In that regard, Boocock’s remark was apt. On the other hand, as the architects could have reasonably countered, tall modernist housing rose in wealthy urban neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village in New York and Society Hill in Philadelphia. One subtle difference between low-income public housing (“the projects”) and middle-and high-income housing was that expensive apartment blocks tended to have balconies, which is probably why the architects included them.

The "River Dorms" included classrooms below the level of George Street. These instructional rooms were not exactly underground — they were below grade on the George Street side but above grade on the canal side. Each classroom was square. These were designed for traditional small classes of 25 persons. The classrooms looked out at the trees above the canal, as the nearby portion of Route 18 had not been built yet. The University boasted that the seating capacity for teaching was 1,500 students. Oddly, University officials did not see the sharp increase in student population as a reason to build larger classrooms at this time. Either that, or the long, thin shape of the "River Dorms" did not lend itself to large classrooms, a fact that was lost on later architects who renovated the instructional space by combining square classrooms into nonfunctional rectangular ones.

The Ledge, now known as the Student Activities Center (SAC) on the College Avenue campus, was located between Frelinghuysen and Hardenbergh. Rutgers did not yet have a student center, so this recreation center, with a lounge, snack bar and music room, was especially important for the social life of the young men. The Ledge was originally designed to include a roof terrace, accessible from a side staircase. The main room was a unified high-ceilinged volume, with a wall of windows that looked out over the Raritan. Gracious and open, the space was a point of pride. The Bruce Springsteen Band (as it was once known), among other major musical groups, played there in the 1970s.

The "River Dorms" soared above everything else at Rutgers College. The three identical slabs were uncompromising in their modernity. The simple, sleek, money-conscious style was a statement of the future-focused goals of state-funded higher education. The "River Dorms" announced that was no longer a cozy, liberal arts college. It was a modern state university.

Carla Yanni is a professor in the Department of Art History. Her column, "Past Imperfect: Remembering Rutgers' History" runs on alternate Mondays and is in collaboration with Benjamin Justice and Paul Clemens.


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Carla Yanni

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