From the first dorms in 1929, campus housing has come a long way

From early housing cooperatives during the Great Depression to fights for racial and gender parity on campus, housing has been on the frontlines of the battle for student welfare throughout UC Berkeley’s history. Listen to "Sleeping with the Light On: Housing and Community at Berkeley,” the first episode of season four of the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, about the history of campus housing.

Read a transcript of "Sleeping with the Light On: Housing and Community at Berkeley:”

[Music: Berkeley Remix theme music by Paul Burnett]

Intro by Martin Meeker: Hello and welcome to the Berkeley Remix, a podcast from the Oral History Center of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m Martin Meeker, director of the center. Founded in 1954, the center records and preserves the history of California, the nation and our interconnected world. This season, we’re bringing to life stories about our home - UC Berkeley - from our collection of thousands of oral histories. Please join us for our fourth season, inspired by the university’s motto, "Let There Be Light: 150 Years at UC Berkeley.” This is episode one, "Sleeping with the Light On: Housing and Community at Berkeley," produced by the Oral History Center’s Amanda Tewes.

[ Audio from 1963-64 video, Which Campus?]: "Berkeley, oldest and largest of the university campuses... You can live in a variety of student residence facilities on this campus, but it’s more likely you’ll live off campus or travel back and forth each day. But many worlds are here within the complex world of a big, bustling campus.”

[Natural sound: noises from move-in day]

Students and parents gather outside of Unit 2 for UC Berkeley’s move-in day in 2018. (UC Berkeley photo by Keegan Houser)

Like college campuses across America, move-in day at UC Berkeley marks a pivotal moment in the lives of new Cal students. It’s the beginning of their college careers.

[Natural sound: noises from move-in day]

"Think how much you’re going to miss me,” a parent tells a student.

Parents say tearful goodbyes, students anxiously meet roommates. And moving into on-campus dorms symbolizes becoming part of the campus community, becoming a Golden Bear.

We’ve come to think of communal living as a tradition for students, a rite of passage and a valuable lesson in community building for young adults. Ruth Norton Donnelly, a student in the early 1920s, recalls her time at Cal.

"I think we learned more in living with each other than we could have learned in any other way,” said Donnelly in an interview in 1966. "I learned to sleep with the light on, with the radio going, and with a card game going on in the room. I don’t know a better way to find out these things than to live with a group of people who care about you.”

The scene she describes is a familiar one. But it hasn’t always been the norm at Berkeley. For much of its history, the university didn’t even have dorms. It took Berkeley years to address campus housing, and this issue became an important platform for student activists.

[Music: "Dirtbike Lovers” by Blue Dot Sessions]

From early housing cooperatives during the Great Depression, to fights for racial and gender parity on campus, housing has been on the frontlines of the battle for student welfare throughout the university’s history.

Despite a few experiments with campus housing, it wasn’t until 1929 that the school opened its first dormitory - Bowles Hall - which boarded about 200 students, all of them men. About a decade later, in 1942, Berkeley opened its first dormitory for women: Stern Hall, which accommodated just over 130 students. Both of these projects were funded through private donations - not the university budget.

A July 2, 1926, photo of Bowles Hall under construction. It opened as the campus’s first dormitory in 1929. (Photo courtesy of Bowles Hall Foundation)

Bowles Hall was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

But two dorms couldn’t house the entire student body, which was over thirty thousand. So students rented rooms at boarding houses, pledged into the Greek system, and joined co-ops.

During the Depression, a weak economy meant Cal students had to compete with locals for affordable housing. Many of them turned to co-operatives like the University Student Co-operative Association - or USCA. These were communally owned units that the students ran themselves. Berkeley alum Marguerite Kulp Johnston lived in the co-op at Stebbins Hall.

When I came to Berkeley in ’39, I had applied over a year before to the USCA, the co-op houses, because that was the only low-cost housing around,” says Johnston. "Everything was very expensive compared with it. Let’s see, they had about 600 students, I think, then in the co-op. There was one girls’ house of about a hundred, and about four or five men’s houses altogether. That was $24.50 a month, [for] three meals a day, seven days a week. I think then Bowles was running $60 a month, something like that, so it was less than half.”

This made Johnston one of the lucky ones. She says housing conditions at the time were miserable. And students were largely on their own.

"When we were in school, the university’s stated position was: ’We’re not concerned with where students live. We provide the education, and students provide their own housing.’ This was a general policy,” says Johnston.

Johnston was a member of the Student Welfare Council and the Associated Students’ Executive Committee. She pushed back against this policy.

"All of us who were interested in student welfare and student housing were screaming about this, saying, ’Here you’ve got all these students living in hovels and living in basements. And people charging exorbitant rents for nothing but a pallet and a toilet down the hall that doesn’t flush,’ and so forth, and promoted dormitories where kids could live healthfully,” she says.

But while administrators debated whether to build more university-controlled dorms, the problems with housing intensified. This was especially true for international students and students of color. Without guaranteed university housing, these students faced discrimination in their off-campus searches.

One solution to this discrimination was the expansion of the International House model that began in New York. The idea was to create a multicultural residence that would house international students and scholars, fostering intercultural connections. But when I-House opened in 1930 on Piedmont Avenue in Berkeley, it faced pushback from the local community. Rev. Allen C. Blaisdell was the first director of I-House. He recalls:

The idea behind International House, which opened in 1930, was to create a multicultural residence that would house international students and scholars, fostering intercultural connections. It was also the first coed living space on campus. (UC Berkeley photo by Steve McConnell)

"Realtors and others who owned apartment houses took the attitude that International House was to relieve them of the problem of racial housing,” says Blaisdell. "I protested, in one case, to a realtor in regard to prejudicial matters and refusal to rent to national minorities and nationality groups. And his reply to me was, ’Well, International House was built so that we would not have to be faced with this matter.’ And I said, ’On the contrary, International House was established to set the pattern for everyone to follow.’"

Blaisdell wanted to show what inclusive housing could look like. I-House wasn’t just available to students of color; it was also coed. This policy defied social norms of the time and put I-House directly in conflict with the university.

"Well, the rules of the university were that any recognized housing unit at the university could not house men and women, so that International House was never on the approved housing list of the university in those days,” he says. "The Dean of Women’s Office cooperated in many ways, but they were basically opposed to this principle.”

The Dean of Women’s Office opposed coed housing because Berkeley, like other college campuses, was responsible for protecting the "virtue" of women undergrads. So, to get around university regulations, I-House became what Blaisdell describes as "almost completely graduate student in nature."

"But it was a problem at the beginning, largely because no man or woman could live in an approved boarding house, or rooming house, or residence hall, where men and women live under the same roof,” says Blaisdell.

Stern Hall, that women-only residence the university built in 1942, was still the only dormitory for them to live on campus. Rosalie Meyer Stern funded the building, and insisted on its decorations: a bright Diego Rivera mural and giant panda rugs. But the decor couldn’t completely erase the austere environment that Stern Hall provided. Dorothy Walker, a former Stern resident, attributes this to the strict and paternalistic rules imposed on women students.

"It was also a very stifling environment,” says Walker. "First of all, of course, there were the Dean’s rules at the time, which were very in loco parentis.”

Walker was a student in the 1940s, when the university took that phrase - in loco parentis -- very seriously. School administrators saw their role as surrogate parents for students, especially women. And in Walker’s case, that meant a strict parent.

"Women basically could not leave their dorms in the night, in the evening unless they were going to the library, and you had to be home by 10:15 p.m. if you were going to the library,” says Walker. "You could sign out for an evening event, but basically, if you were not home by midnight, you were locked out and you were in serious trouble. And there was a whole system of punishments and a board you would meet with if you ever violated the rules, so it was very strict.”

The comparison to parental figures was so strong that students even referred to their chaperones as "dorm mothers" and "house mothers." While some, like Walker, chafed under these watchful eyes, others embraced the bonds.

"The sorority was like a family; you don’t go every place with your family when you are growing up, and yet there was always a family to come home to,” said Ruth Norton Donnelly, the student quoted earlier from a 1966 interview.

Donnelly lived in Sigma Kappa in the early 1920s, and described it as an integral part of her Berkeley experience. Before Berkeley built more dorms, many students like Donnelly looked to sororities and fraternities for places to live on campus.

But not everyone felt as welcome in the campus Greek system. Frank Inami, whose parents were Japanese, arrived in Berkeley on the eve of World War II.

"When I started at UC Berkeley in 1939, I stayed at the Japanese Students Club, because the fraternities and the sororities would not allow us in,” says Inami.

Many fraternities and sororities at Berkeley didn’t admit Jews or students of color. So some students, like Inami, created their own communities.

"There was a Japanese Students Club, a special dormitory just for us... we used to call ourselves Jappa Sappa Chi... JSC. Japanese Students Club. We wanted to make it sound like one of the fraternities. There were about 255 of us, I guess, Japanese Americans. And like the fraternities, it was by invitation only.

When Frank Inami (back row, fourth from right) arrived in Berkeley in 1939, he stayed at the Japanese Students’ Club, founded in 1913. (A Japanese Women Students’ Club was founded in 1928.) Because many fraternities and sororities at Berkeley didn’t admit Jewish students or students of color at the time, some students, like Inami, created their own communities. "We used to call ourselves Jappa Sappa Chi - JSC. Japanese Students’ Club,” said Inami. "We wanted to make it sound like one of the fraternities.” (Photo from the 1940 Blue and Gold yearbook)

[Music: "On Belay” by Blue Dot Sessions]

By 1942, 2 1/2 years after Frank Inami started school at Berkeley, he and other Japanese American students were removed to internment sites away from the West Coast. Inami was eventually released, but he never returned to Cal.

It took a concerted effort by students and the administration to push for desegregation of the Greek system at Berkeley. Jackie Goldberg was a Cal student and activist in the 1960s. She applied to live in two places: a co-op and a dorm. She didn’t get into either. So Goldberg joined Delta Phi Epsilon, one of the few campus sororities at the time that accepted Jewish women.

"I was the Panhellenic representative,” says Goldberg.

This means she sat on a council that made decisions for all campus Greek organizations. Along with the Dean of Women, Katherine Towle, Goldberg came up with a plan to make the sorority pledging process more inclusive.

"We cooked this up in her office, getting all of the sororities to sign the non-discrimination pledge,” says Goldberg.

At first, her fellow Greek members weren’t on board with the idea.

"... They weren’t going to. And they weren’t going to basically because their national controlled this decision.”

"And she and I said, ’Well, these young women like to think of themselves as liberals, as not racists. Why don’t we let them see the face of racism?’”

So Goldberg and Dean Towle invited the national leaders of the sororities to a forum at the campus Panhellenic Council.

"We had them all come, and these southern white women just horrified these young girls by talking about their rights to pick their friends and their rights to pick whom they associate with.”

Goldberg hoped that her fellow Berkeley students, when confronted with the beliefs of those dictating membership policies, would break from the national practices.

"And every one of the sororities signed after those women left,” says Goldberg. "They just didn’t want to have anything to do with that.”

"So they did all sign?” asks interviewer Lisa Rubens.

"They all signed,” says Goldberg.

A dorm room in the early 1970s. In 1972, UC Berkeley students with disabilities pushed for more inclusivity by advocating for off-campus housing. This became the Center for Independent Living. (Photo from the 1973 Blue and Gold Yearbook)

[Music: "On Belay” by Blue Dot Sessions]

By the early 1960s, a postwar boom had expanded the UC system, forcing the university to finally build more extensive housing options. Of course, the fight for inclusion wasn’t over.

For students with disabilities, there were still barriers to campus housing - even with the new dorms. Where could a student in a wheelchair live? Or a student with a visual impairment? These were the questions Edward V. Roberts asked when he arrived on Berkeley’s campus in 1962. He was the university’s first student with severe disabilities.

"But it wasn’t going to be easy, Oh my God,” says Roberts. "The biggest obstacle became real soon: Where would I live? And I think we almost gave up because of that.

Roberts contracted polio as a child, and the illness left him with quadriplegia. He needed housing that could hold the iron lung which helped stabilize his breathing. He also needed attendants around-the-clock. In an era before the Americans with Disabilities Act, these accommodations made his housing search more difficult.

"It seemed like wherever we went, it was like, those places are too freaked out to deal with me,” says Roberts.

Finally, Roberts met Dr. Henry Bruyn. Dr. Bruyn was the medical director of the Student Health Service at Berkeley. He suggested that Roberts live at Cowell Memorial Hospital, an ivy-covered student infirmary on the east side of campus.

"He said, ’Why don’t we open the hospital? And you could live here.’ And I started saying, ‘But I could live there like a dorm, right’’ I said, ’I know about hospitals; I don’t want to live in a hospital.’ And he said, ’We can work those things out.’”

Roberts was worried about living at Cowell, because until then, the hospital only temporarily housed students recovering from surgery or who had illnesses like measles. He was looking for a community of his own.

Roberts was the first student to live at Cowell full-time, but he was not the last. Over the next decade, many others came to call the hospital home as part of the Cowell Residence Program. Their quest for housing informed the Disabled Rights and Independent Living Movement on campus, which began in the late 1960s.

Then, in 1972, UC Berkeley students with disabilities pushed for even greater inclusivity by advocating for off-campus housing. This became the Center for Independent Living.

[Natural sound: noises, talking from move-in day]

It took nearly 100 years for Berkeley to build the large-scale student housing we now associate with undergraduate move-in day.

Although a 2016 survey from Berkeley’s Office of Planning and Analysis reported that the number of Cal freshmen who experienced "inconsistent access to housing" is at 8%, challenges remain. And the fact that the Bay Area has the most expensive rental market in the country directly impacts Cal students.

But, housing has improved at Berkeley. Blackwell Hall, Berkeley’s newest dorm, opened just in time for the 2018 school year. And in a recent message, Chancellor Carol Christ reinforced her commitment to expanding student housing.

Yasmine Kasra (right) and her new roommate, Sofia Schmidt, rearrange their new room in Blackwell Hall in 2018. (UC Berkeley photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

The ongoing challenge of student housing highlights the long struggle to create community at Berkeley. But the history of student housing at UC Berkeley also demonstrates the key roles Cal students and administrators played in pushing for social justice on their campus and in their community.

[Natural sound: noises from move-in day]

Which brings us back to move-in day here at UC Berkeley, where a new class of freshmen are building their own campus community, and defining the issues that will shape their experiences, and the mark they leave on Cal.

[Music: Berkeley Remix theme music by Paul Burnett]

Outtro by Martin Meeker: This podcast was written and narrated by Amanda Tewes, with assistance from Shanna Farrell, Francesca Fenzi and Oral History Center staff. Editing by Francesca Fenzi, and special assistance by Allie Cheroutes. Digitization by David Dunham and student employees. The Berkeley Remix theme music by Paul Burnett, and additional music by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to the Bancroft Library. All interviews in this episode are from the Oral History Center collections. To learn more about these interviews, visit our website listed in the show notes. I’m Martin Meeker. Thank you for listening to the Berkeley Remix, and please join us next time.


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