JULY 29, 2015
Nap pods and gaming arcades. Walk-in closets and private bathrooms. Rooftop pools and maid service.
With modern campuses caught up in what is popularly known as the amenities arms race, it is hard to blame incoming freshmen for expecting cushy suites and flat-screen TVs.
But most colleges have a residence hall or two that you’ll never see on the campus tour: the ones that look suspiciously like the fluorescent-lit dorms of yore.
Actually, they are the fluorescent-lit dorms of yore. Built in the middle of the last century or even earlier, they have survived to shock and dismay new freshmen with their cinder block aesthetic and dingy common rooms. Air-conditioning is a distant luxury. Bathrooms are nasty, crowded and few.
There are compensations. Older dorms are usually the cheapest, and cramped quarters foster friendships, students say. But that does not stop freshmen from looking ahead, with more than a little anticipation, to a new year — and new lodgings.
With incoming freshmen receiving their dorm assignment about now, we decided to cherry-pick a few of the bunkers that former residents like to warn about. The most loathed on their campuses? Indeed, but sometimes also the most loved.
Last fall, when Alexis Block was moving into Hill, her father announced that it looked exactly the same as when he had lived there in the early 1980s. “Not really what you want to hear,” Ms. Block said recently.
A brick fortress surrounded by a moat, Hill was designed by the modernist Eero Saarinen in the 1950s. But its rooms are small and narrow. Some first-floor windows have bars on them. And it can be unbearably hot in early fall (air-conditioning will arrive over the next few years; in the meantime, the website warns to bring fans).
Incoming Penn freshmen tend to prefer the Quadrangle, a century-old Tudor Gothic complex, all masonry curlicues and graceful courtyards. “When a majority of your friends live in the Quad, and they’re talking about how comfortable it is, and you’re talking about how you’re sweating all night, it’s like, well, Hill sucks,” said Alex Kaplan, who lived in Hill for the past academic year (and insists he loved it). Quad, which comprises three houses, has its own flaws. It is also old, leaky and, said Jacob Kahn, who spent last year there, favored by vermin, including “interesting long pink insects, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.”
Quadrangle Hall, University of Iowa
The university is building a new dorm — a $95 million, 12-story complex on the Iowa River with a dining hall, gym and clusters of private bathrooms, to be completed in 2017. But before it opens, Iowa will demolish one of its oldest dorms, a low brick building that was designed as a World War I barracks but now houses freshmen who consider themselves unlucky in the extreme. “It kind of always smells like it’s 100 years old,” said Riley Coyle, a nursing major. “It’s kind of like a mixture of mildew and old people, I would say.”
The water pressure is all but nonexistent, when the plumbing is working. Cockroach sightings are common. Ms. Coyle’s bed is an arm’s length from her roommate’s. But she is happy to have just one roommate. Some rooms house four. She calls it the “insane asylum” aesthetic.
Michael Kessler lived here as a freshman three years ago. “When you’re coming in, that’s not the dorm they show you on the tour,” he said. “Quad is probably your last choice coming into Iowa.”
Still, he emphasized the camaraderie born of mutual suffering. “I would not take it back for the world.”
Andros, University of South Florida
The trouble began as soon as Caitlin Corollo walked into her freshman-year dorm, in a 1960s complex called Andros.
“I was just so mad,” said Ms. Corollo, a business major. “It’s just so depressing.”
Do not ask her about the showers, so small she has trouble raising her arms above her head to lather her hair, with water temperatures that veer from freezing to scalding. Plus, the 60s-era soap holders are an exact match for her grandmother’s.
The scene outside of the Andros complex, at the University of South Florida. Credit Brian Blanco for The New York Times
“There are funny smells, unusual carpet stains, and crazy (sometimes sketchy) things happening,” wrote one former resident in a guide to the university’s freshman housing options. “If you’re going to be living here, make the best of it.”
Recognizing that Andros has aged badly, and needing more student housing, the university plans to tear down its eight structures over the next few years and replace them with a student “village,” including a dining hall, gym, outdoor pool and shops.
For the university, the benefits go beyond student comfort. The project proposal insists that the complex “have a positive impact on prospective students’ perceptions of U.S.F. during the campus tour.”
Low Rises 6 and 7, Cornell University
The squat brick Low Rises 6 and 7 are on the north side of campus, with a reputation for inconvenience and worse. The ceilings are cracked. The toilets are temperamental. The furniture is chipping. The heaters often work at full blast, or not at all, as happened over winter break this year, forcing students who had stayed over the holidays to sleep in the common rooms. Hair so frequently clogs some of the shower drains that clumps of it begin, mysteriously, to accumulate on the side of the tubs.
Even the lights, compared to newer residence halls like Mews Hall, seem “a little bit dimmer,” said Ritwik Dan, who lived in Low Rise 6 as a freshman.
CU Nooz, Cornell’s Onion-style website, put a wickedly fine point on it in October, when it published an item headlined “Students Organize Carwash to Support Suffering Residents of High and Low Rise Community.”
When students received their dorm assignments, some “literally started crying, because they were so upset,” said Rebecca Merenbach, a Low Rise 7 resident for the past year. “We have beautiful dorms here, but this is so ugly.”
A mazelike layout of isolated “suites,” each dorm houses seven students sharing a bathroom. The split-level design was, it happens, an architectural experiment meant to foster community. And Ms. Merenbach and other students say they have come to appreciate Low Rise for just that. Students gather in common areas after nights out or to study instead of retreating to their rooms.
“I actually really like living there,” she said. “It’s made us all become closer.”
Garner Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
In 2011, DormSplash.com, a now-defunct website, ranked Garner the worst dorm in America. But the university had long before acknowledged that the hall, built in 1958, had “outlived its useful life,” as its website says, and the dorm was torn down. The demolition, the year after the ranking, was coincidence, said Kirsten Ruby, an associate director of housing, adding that the “worst” distinction was based on just a handful of reviews.
But even the least frilly dorms can inspire nostalgia among alumni, who include the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson (440 Garner Hall, 1959-60). Some 300 donors remember Garner fondly enough to have paid $150 for one of its bricks. Funds go to room and board for students with financial need.
About 200 bricks are left. The pitch: “Now is your chance to preserve a small part of Garner Hall for yourself and your family. Own a piece of history.”