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Avery Ashdown (1933-1962)

Avery Ashdown, Ashdown's 1st Housemaster
Avery Ashdown,
Ashdown's 1st Housemaster

Dr. Avery Allen Ashdown (1891 - 1970), Professor Emeritus, was the first housemaster of the Graduate House, renamed in his honor as Ashdown House.

Born in North Collins, New York, Dr. Ashdown received his master’s degree in 1916 from the University of Rochester and his PhD degree in Chemistry from MIT in 1924, having held the Institute's distinguished Grasselli Fellowship. He later served as a member of the faculty of the Department of Chemistry from 1925 to 1957.

When the first Graduate House was founded in 1933 with the conversion of three undergraduate dormitories - Crafts, Nichols and Holman Halls of the Faculty Houses (now Senior House) - to a graduate residence, Dr. Ashdown was chosen as the housemaster. The first faculty resident in any of the dormitories at MIT, Dr. Ashdown himself lined up the first group of students - 46 in all.

In 1937, MIT acquired the Riverbank Court Hotel at 305 Memorial Drive. A leading proponent of the purchase, Dr. Ashdown supervised its renovation into a dormitory. On September 19, 1938, the new Graduate House (Building W1) opened its doors to over 400 graduate residents and Dr. Ashdown continued as housemaster.

From the beginning, Dr. Ashdown drew residents into a friendly and supportive community, demonstrating by his actions how much he cared about the general welfare of the graduate student. For example, “Doc”, as he was affectionately called, would arrive for dinner promptly at 6:59 p.m. – one minute before the end of dinner service – to ensure that no students would miss dinner if the dining hall workers were tempted to close early. Dr. Ashdown also guided the beginnings of graduate student government and served from 1938 to 1947 as Chairman of the Graduate House Executive Committee, the student group that presided over House affairs.

In addition, Dr. Ashdown started the popular Buttery Hour, a bi-weekly gathering on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, where cocoa, coffee and cake were enjoyed. It was later revived in 1974 by housemasters Robert and Carol Hulsizer as Coffee Hour. The Cherry Pie Society was also founded during Dr. Ashdown's tenure. The Society was so aptly named since the meetings would consist of a discussion of a non-technical topic of general interest over dinner followed by Doc’s favorite dessert, cherry pie.

After 28 years of service to the Graduate House, Dr. Ashdown reached the age of mandatory retirement and had to relinquish his role as housemaster. In his honor, the Graduate House was renamed as Ashdown House on Alumni Day, June 14, 1965.

In the years following his retirement, Dr. Ashdown remained active in House affairs and still attended AHEC meetings until a few months before his death. Doc passed away in 1970 and his ashes were buried in the court at W1 at his request. The name Ashdown House moved with the graduate community when they transitioned from W1 (now Maseeh Hall) to NW35 in 2008. A portrait of Dr. Ashdown by Gardner Cox of Boston, which was commissioned by grateful residents before he stepped down as housemaster, currently hangs in the Ashdown House lobby.

The above information contains information gathered from personal interviews, MIT Tech articles, the MIT Museum Collections and MIT webpages.

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