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Memories of Co-op Dorm Living: 1931-1955


Charlotte Enger Jones

From The University of Iowa Archives Historical Papers Collection (RG01.01.03)

[The following essay is based on correspondence and reminiscences Ms. Jones gathered in 1995-1996 from alumni who lived in Co-op Dorms at the University of Iowa during the 1930s and 1940s.  Her research records are inventoried on the finding aid for RG02.09.14; The finding aid also has biographical information about Ms. Jones.]


During the summer of 1944, after a year at Ole Mississippi, I finally talked my father into letting me transfer to the University of Iowa. (We were Midwesterners temporarily living in the South.) I applied and was accepted as a student, but was not able to get a dorm room at Currier Hall, Hillcrest, and the Law Commons were filled. The housing office sent a list of private homes where rooms were rented out to female undergraduates, but that seemed like a bleak and lonely prospect. I then wrote to my old friend, Leo Martin, a law student who worked in the housing office. He had formerly lived in co-ops and had been a proctor so suggested that I move into Dean House, a recently opened dorm at the corner of Capitol and Bloomington at 7 East Bloomington. Dean House had once been a men's co-op, but was closed when the male enrollment shrunk because of the war. It was to be re-opened that fall semester as a women's co-op and he knew of some openings.

"I know some of the girls who will live there," he said. "They have a tendency to be bohemian and arty; you'll fit right in." I was intrigued that, as no one had previously indicated that I was "Bohemian and arty". On the other hand, I wasn't sure that I wanted to live in a thirteen room house with nineteen girls; it sounded a bit claustrophobic. However, another old friend, Leo's sister, Phyllis Martin, was also to live there so I decided to try it. I  could always move out to a rooming house if I didn't like it.

Dean House was a comfortable, but shabby Victorian house, badly needing a coat of paint. It had an open porch to the front and a wrap around screened porch to the side, and was set in a large yard enclosed iron fence with gates at the front, side, and back. On the ground floor, were a reception room, parlor, dining room, kitchen, pantry, bedroom, and bath; upstairs, three bedrooms, two study rooms, a sleeping porch, a utility room, and two bathrooms. Storage space was available in the attic; we washed out clothes in the basement. From what I remember and former co-opers have told me that was fairly typical, although some houses such as Kellogg House, a former school house on the west side, held up to thirty men or even more.

I was assigned the front bedroom upstairs with my friend from childhood, Phyllis Martin of What Cheer, Pat Watson of Council Bluffs, and Doris Matheson of Williamsburg, Iowa, furnished with two double-decker bunks, two study tables and chairs, two chests of drawers, and one easy chair in front of the fireplace--old well-worn serviceable furniture. Closet space was minimal. It amazes me as I look back, how well we functioned, with so little friction. But we had few possessions compared to today's students and many of our girls came from large families so were used to crowded conditions.

I quickly got to know everyone in the house and we formed many long-lasting friendships. Tensions, resentments, and rivalries arose: stolen boyfriends, arguments over the use of the one phone, and impatience concerning the shower schedule, but usually we got along surprisingly well.

The co-ops started at Iowa about 1931, according to Everett Sterner who lived at Kellogg House, in the late thirties. "Robert Rienow, the Dean of Men, found an old abandoned elementary school building, located on the west side, a few blocks behind the Children's Hospital, by the name of Kellogg, occupied by about ten students, acting as squatters with no utilities, getting inadequate food. Dean Rienow conceived the idea of starting a co-operative dormitory and presented the idea to the University officials." "Bob Rienow was a saint to all of us." Robert Day commented. (Day and his wife were honored by being named Distinguished Alumni by the University in 1995.)

Rienow's plan was to have a proctor at each house. (The University owned many large houses: some had been used as faculty homes, some were donated, and some were bought at reduced prices because of the depression.) The proctor, an upperclassman or graduate student, managed the house, made up the menus, ordered the food, organized work assignments, was responsible for discipline, with the help of a judiciary council, and was the liaison to the office of student affairs. The proctor was then given room and board as remuneration. Work assignments included: cooking the three daily meals (except Sunday supper since there was no dining service on Sunday night), washing the dishes, and cleaning the common rooms.  By working in the co-op we greatly lowered fees for room and board.

Eventually co-ops spread over the near north side of East campus and a few on the west side of the river. Some of the other names that come to mind are: Fairchild House at Fairchild and Capitol, The Gables 21 North Dubuque, Russell at Capitol and Davenport, Jefferson at Jefferson and Capitol, Folsom near where the Veteran's Hospital is now, Whetstone, 20 Byington Road, Breen House near Currier Hall, Tudor House at 17 East Fairchild, Coast at Clinton and Church, Bloomington House, Wilson House on North Capitol, and The Manse on Market Street. Most of the houses, on valuable land, have been torn down to make way for Burge Hall, Stanley Hall, Kate Daum, the Veterans Hospital and various buildings connected with University Hospital.

In the early fall when we arrived at the University for a new academic year, the proctor assigned cleaning crews to get the house in shape for the coming year. Although the work was dirty and strenuous we liked to come early to get acquainted with the new girls in the house who were there for orientation and perhaps meet new men on campus. Food service wasn't available until classes started so we had the excuse of checking out recently opened restaurants. Another advantage of that pre-semester period: no hours. Impromptu parties were common.

Food was important in the thirties the big problem was poverty; in the forties it was food rationing. The University Stores filled our orders and sent large quantities of farm surplus food such as milk, apples, and various canned goods. We had Italian or blue plums frequently.  I can't remember having them since.

We also had our share of spaghetti, potatoes, peanut butter, macaroni, cheese, stews, soups, brisket, white fish, tuna casseroles, and chili. During the war we observed meatless Tuesday, and no meat was served on Friday, or course. Gourmet was not in our vocabulary, but we didn't go hungry.

When I saw a food fight circa 1935 in the movie Green Fried Tomatoes, it didn't ring true. Food was taken seriously in the 1930's and 1940's. We didn't throw it around.

Mishaps occurred in the kitchen every once in a while. "On one occasion I had peeled potatoes...and was carrying the large pan of dirty water and peelings back to the kitchen. On the way I stumbled and the entire pan of dirty water and peelings was pitched forward into the kitchen doorway, just as our proctor, Chuck Watson of Humboldt, stopped out of the doorway, dressed in a tuxedo and headed for a big medical school party. Oh boy!" wrote Earl Shostrom.

Our best eating day was Sunday. A typical Sunday meal included ham, sweet potatoes, buttered corn, jello salad, and apple pie for dessert. Left over ham was used for scalloped potatoes and ham, ham and bean soup, ham hash, ham omelet, ham sandwiches, or ham salad. We never wasted a morsel if we could help it.

We were allowed to eat peanut butter, toast, and apples; to drink milk or coffee between meals. Eating leftovers was taboo because the cooks tried to use them for future meals. Only once do I remember any trouble. The proctor announced that some beef pot roast leftovers were missing and a heavy fine would be placed on the offender.

"Shooting, hanging, or exile to a hostile country?" one girl joked. (I think it was Doris Matheson.) It stopped after that.

On the other hand, everything is fair in romantic intrigue. Ronald Stowe BSC 1933, who lived at Kellogg House writes, "On the menu one day was cherry pie. We made eight pie shells and baked them in the oven. We opened two number ten cans of cherries, prepared the filling. We put eight pies in the fridge to cool. When time came to serve, only seven pies could be found. That night, after dark, I went courting over on Brown Street. The pie was good strategy. Our fifty-eighth anniversary was September 12, 1995."

Breakfast and lunch were quite casual, but at 6:30 we were supposed to show up for dinner, neat and clean. We could wear slacks or jeans, but we were obliged to put on a presentable blouse or sweater. After we gathered at chairs around the three tables in the dining room, someone tapped a glass with a spoon, our cue to sing grace:

"Be present at our table, Lord.
Be here as everywhere adored.
These mercies keep and grant that we,
Can work in harmony with thee."

After dinner we often gathered around the piano in the dining room while one of the girls played, we sang the popular songs of the day. "Candlelight and Wine" and "Polka Dots" and "Sunbeams" take me back.

We often invited our boyfriends or other friends we met on campus over for dinner. In 1946, that cost us twenty-five cents a meal. We also invited members of the faculty and staff for dinner. I always despised those occasions because I then had to watch what I said. Having our own world of students, roughly our own age, seemed so comfortable, that the intrusion of grown-ups seemed unnecessary.

Keeping the house in order was of prime importance. We were all responsible for keeping our rooms presentable, while a cleaning crew was responsible for the rest of the house. Each week one proctor, Lois Studley, awarded a stuffed teddy bear named "Godliness," to whichever room was cleanest. It rotated around the house. Occasionally, an inspector from the co-op housing office dropped in to keep us on our toes. I remember Bob Cotter was especially vigilant. A crew from the Health dept. came about once a month to swab our dishes for bacteria and make sure our hygiene practices were sufficient. We had a primitive sterilizer: a rack filled with washed dishes that we dunked into boiling water. It must have worked since we never had any epidemics.

We sometimes had to ask for help from the campus police. Once we had trouble with an exhibitionist-peeping Tom, who stood outside the kitchen window watching the girls wash dishes (some erotic scene!) and exposed himself. The campus police didn't find him, but they authorized putting up a flood light in the back yard, so he never came back. Once a girl came home from a date beaten up. The young man involved was warned to stay away from Dean House, which he did, and we had no more trouble with him.

Women had hours: ten-thirty on week nights and twelve-thirty in weekends, except for special parties when we could stay out until 1 a.m. In some ways, I suppose, we were over-protected, but we felt safe and the rules gave structure to our lives. Actually we had more freedom in the co-ops than we would have had in a larger dorm since we had no House Mother. We did try to maintain a well-managed, disciplined house so that the Office of Student Affairs remained happy with us and we could stay open.  An implied threat, that if f we didn't behave the house could be shut down, was always there.

Discussions were lively at Dean House and we had a plethora of points of view. Betty Davis (Sanders) commented in a 1945 Memoir, "My new home Dean House...exposed me to many new concepts and thoughts, as well as totally different cultures. One of my roommates was Jewish, one Catholic (she left the church at the end of the year), and the third a Methodist. Also in the house were a Quaker, a Syrian Agnostic from Brooklyn, New York, a Catholic from Panama, an atheist from Pennsylvania, and a few Protestant "believers." For most of us it was a time of questioning the beliefs we'd grown up with, and we made a practice of visiting churches of many denominations. I left the Baptist flock within a month." (She later became Unitarian.) I remember one ongoing discussion of "good and evil" in Thomas Mann, Aldous Huxley, and George Santayana's work from "Philosophy in Literature," a course many of us took.

Besides our work in the co-op most of us had a job outside either at the libraries, clerical work in University offices, jobs at the Union, housework, yard work, hospital jobs, and baby-sitting. Some students held down three jobs. Part of the New Deal, the NYA (National Youth Administration) funded by the Federal government, was a great source of support for college students. We also had to keep a C+ grade average. But somehow, we, being young and full of enthusiasm, managed to thoroughly enjoy ourselves most of the time.

In those days our student I. D. let us into all the athletic events, plays, concerts, art exhibits, and public meetings at the University.

We tried to take in as much as we could. Inexpensive entertainment was abundant. Sometimes our house mates were in the plays, sang or played in the concerts or exhibited in the art show. Ruth Burghardt was the mother in AII My Sons and Connie Coldren played Elizabeth Barrett Browning's sister in The Barretts of Wimpole Street at the University Theater (now called Mabie Theater).

Intramural sports were popular especially in the men's co-ops. Earl Shostrom wrote, "The co-ops participated avidly in the intramural sports program. Whetstone was always one of the stronger teams and came within a whisker of winning the university basketball championship in the 1941/42 season, winning the co-op league and beating the Quad champs, the professional fraternity champs, before losing to the town league champs in the finals. One of our players was Bob King, who later was Larry Bird's coach at Indiana State. Strangely enough, I was the player/coach of that team."

About twice a semester, after-hours we held a "hen party." (A politically incorrect term in these days.) A jug of cider and donuts were our usual refreshments. It was our time to be our craziest selves in a group we trusted, house mates who would not judge us too harshly. Some of the girls, especially those in the dramatic arts and music, made up skits and musical parodies, usually corny inside jokes we thought hilarious. Phyllis Martin found some old coveralls in the laundry basket, and wore them doing a funny, loose-jointed dance to a jazz record: Feelin' no Pain.

The co-ops also sponsored two co-ed parties a year. During my day, the Turkey Trot in autumn, usually the weekend before Thanksgiving sometimes held at a closed pavilion in the City Park or at the dining room at Fairchild House, a big room with a row of windows looking west toward the river. An annual banquet was held in the Rose Room, upstairs at the Jefferson Hotel which was downtown at the corner of Dubuque and Washington.

Unofficially we threw a few other parties and picnics. Every Saturday before Christmas vacation we planned some kind of holiday party in a bar downtown or out at one of the roadhouses. The one in 1946 was a huge success. We reserved a long table in front of the fireplace at the Mayflower (the present site of the Mayflower Apartment Complex run by the University.) The Club was theoretically private; you had to buy a year’s membership of a dollar to be admitted. Our dates brought liquor and bought set-ups because it was illegal to sell mixed drinks in a public bar or restaurant in Iowa until 1965. About 8 or 9 couples showed up. We danced to "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" on the Jukebox that magical snowy evening. At one o' clock, after we literally pushed our dates out the door and were locking up, a young man started pounding on the front door. When we opened the door, he demanded admittance because his car broke down in front of our house. Ever the stickler for protocol, when the spirit moved me, I had just evicted my boyfriend so I wasn't about to let a total stranger in.

"I'll call a taxi," I said, "or a garage if you like, but we can't let you in, it's after hours."


"What kind of person are you? Here I am freezing to death, in a blizzard and you won't let me in."

Actually it was about 28 degrees, calm wind, and a few lacy snowflakes fluttered down from the sky. The man was well protected from the elements with overcoat, stocking cap, and gloves.

"It's against the rules to let anyone in after hours," I said. One of the other girls was calling a cab.

"I'm not going to attack you," he screamed. "Let me in. What is this place?"

"A co-operative dorm," I said, still barring his entrance.

"Some cooperation," he said. Just then the cab arrived as the taxi stand was only three blocks away. "I'll remember you girls--no holiday spirit, no heart," he said as he stomped off.  "Some co-operation dorm.  You call that co-operative?"

"Merry Christmas," Betty Davis (Sanders) called as he left. It was so like her. I feared a churlish reappearance, when he came after his car, but we never saw him again.

Gene Tujetsch 1940-1942, tells of a memorable party in the early forties at Fairchild House (it was later a women's dorm) which turned out quite different than most as he says.

"Will start out by saying we had good cooks and the day of the party they began to form with the other fellows of the house. About 1 p.m. someone came in with some spirits and the party started early. We warned the cooks to take it easy and get on with the meal. About 4 p.m. they headed for the kitchen and locked the doors behind them. They were now in control.

"The first sign of party time started when Mr. and Mrs. Phillips, the Dean of Commerce, arrived as our chaperones. I had Dean Phillips for Money and Banking and liked him very much. We exchanged pleasantries; all at once the door burst open and the waiter, tray held about as high as he could get it, pranced in with his bow tie askew. This was our quiet waiter - a man of few words - now rambling on.

"As the food was brought in, it was soon carried out again. The potatoes were burnt, the meat unfit to eat, the home made rolls were black (they had rolled them out on the kitchen floor, on their hands and knees, and flour all over the floor). I was sitting next to the proctor (Leo Sweeney from Cedar Rapids who was later a professor of Economics) and in a low voice he asked me, "How long do you guys expect to stay in college?"

"The party didn't end there, but it could have. We saw they had made a bowl of punch, which tasted good as they had added a bottle of rum. Also, the cake had been baked ahead of time and was swimming in rum sauce so it made for a great dessert.

"Dean Phillips and his wife were very understanding through all of this. I often wondered if they had sons of their own."

And this at a time when the University absolutely forbid liquor in any University building. Leo Sweeney, the proctor, must have been mortified.

One of the most exotic parties ever put on at a co-op was held in the late spring of 1947. (Unfortunately, I was in New York that semester and missed out on the occasion.). Mina M., a speech and radio major from Calicut, India, owned thirty or more saris. One of the girls said, "Wouldn't it be fun for all of us to wear saris to a party sometime?" Mina liked the idea and from that the girls decided to have an "Indian Picnic."  They found small rugs to put all over the lawn, back of Dean House for couples to sit on. Mina supervised the cooking of curry dishes and found authentic sitar recordings to play on a portable record player. For one night the Dean House yard became a South Asian paradise. I can imagine the giggling and fuss as the girls put on the saris in the upstairs bedrooms. From what I've heard saris aren't easy for a novice to manage.

Most of the students who lived in the co-ops did so to save money. It was a great bargain from seven dollars a month for board and room in the early thirties, to twenty-five dollars in the late forties. Foreign students stayed in the co-ops because as C. Woody Thompson, the Dean of Students, said "they do better in a small dorm." Two girls from Latin America said that they had never washed a dish or made a bed before they came to the co-ops. They soon learned. Some students on campus looked down on the co-ops. I remember once a girl I met at some all-campus committee meeting saying in a patronizing tone of voice, "I'll bet that living at Dean House is just as good as living at Currier?"

"I wouldn't live anyplace else," was my reply and I certainly meant it. I who had moved around from town to town found a home. When I graduated, I didn't want to leave.

As more and more young men were drafted into the armed services, the men's co-ops dorms were closed. By the time I came on campus in the August of 1944, there was only one men's co-op left. It closed soon after. Dean, Russell, and Fairchild were women's co-ops until the 1950s. Dean House was turned into a preschool in 1951 and then in the late sixties, it was torn down. The lot contains a playground near where the Anne Cleary Walkway was made. It breaks my heart not having our old beloved Dean House standing there for old times sake.

Reunions of old co-opers have been held through the years. Dean House had a reunion in 1966 and we've talked about having one since, but somehow never mustered the energy and organization to get it done. I've kept in contact with Dean Housers all through the years through letters, Christmas cards, telephone calls, and all too infrequent, but precious, visits.

The men I've heard from in doing this article, write of reunions. One, Thor Swanson, said, "In Iowa City, seven of us got together at lunch. Later one of the reunionees wrote: 'We are fond of telling our friends that Grover-Whetstone co-op produced a bumper crop—a college professor, a doctor, a corporation attorney, an FBI special agent, a bank president, and a C.F.O."

Most of the women I knew went on to become wives and mothers, but later in their late thirties or early forties, after the children were launched, managed to have careers outside the home. One friend, Thelma Richardson McDaniel, taught Dramatic Arts at Eastern Michigan University, Betty Davis Sanders managed and is still involved in several businesses, the late Violet Larson Olsen wrote and published children's books, and Louella McReynolds Yannacone, a one-time legal secretary, went back to college and became an elementary school teacher. We were an ambitious bunch, as we knew the dangers of not being prepared to make our way in the world. We didn't expect more than a modest living, but many of us became affluent beyond our expectations.    Perhaps, across the board, the most economically successful generation in the history of our country. Of course, when we were young, we had no way of knowing that "boom and bust" after World War I would not be repeated after our war.

"Co-ops gave me a home and a group identity on campus. It gave me companionship, role models, learning experiences. I find it hard to imagine a better opportunity," said Betty McKray 1938-1942, Wilson and Russell House.

 

Co op Houses between 1931-1955:

Bloomington House (M) on Clinton & Bloomington

Breen House (W) on Clinton near Currier

Chesley House (M) 3 East Market Street

Coast House (W) Clinton at Church

Dean House (M&W) Bloomington at Capitol

Fairchild House (M&W) Fairchild at Capitol

Folsom House (M) West side near Kellogg

The Gables (M) Between Iowa and Jefferson

The Grover House (M) Byington Road

Jefferson House (M) Jefferson at Clinton

Kellogg House (M) West side near Vets Hospital

The Manse (M) Market St

Russell House (W) Davenport at Capitol

Tudor House (W) Near Currier

Whetstone  House (M) 20 Byington Road

Wilson House (M&W) North Capital near the old University High

The houses were either men or women's dorm; never co-ed.   I'm not sure why they were rearranged so often.