The story of Ashdown House
From the end of the Great Depression to the information age, Ashdown (Graduate) House has a long history as home for MIT graduate students, and many stories to tell. As the second graduate dorm established in the United States, Ashdown House was a pioneer in graduate student housing, interactions and culture. The following history, compiled over the years by Ashdown House residents, tells the story, shaped by the world outside as well as its constantly active and diverse society over the decades.
1 1930s: The beginningIn the early 1930s, Princeton had the only campus residence for graduate students in the country. President Karl Compton (a Princeton graduate) wanted to establish one at MIT. President Compton, in an address to the Alumni concerning the need for a graduate dorm, stated
Graduate students now lack almost completely the social contacts which the undergraduates enjoy throughout their manifold organized activities. Their cultural development, and hence their social effectiveness, depend on such contacts. The most natural cultural training comes from free social intercourse between men of differing interests but of equivalent intellectual outlook.The first Graduate House was founded in 1933 with the conversion of three undergraduate dormitories to graduate residences. These dormitories, called the Faculty Houses (Crafts, Nichols and Holman), were situated behind the President's house on Charles River Road. Crafts was named after James Mason Crafts (MIT President from 1897-1900), who the Crafts Lounge is currently named after. Although the desirability of providing a dormitory for graduate students was long recognized, it was not until this time when, because of the depression, many rooms in the undergraduate dormitories were vacant and it was decided to turn these three houses into a graduate house. These houses accommodated approximately 80 students, or approximately one-fifth of the entire graduate school. The men had the choice of single rooms or suites, with dressing rooms and studies. A number of rooms had fireplaces, and all were completely furnished, including attractive rugs and draperies. They had complete porter service. The Houses included a lounge and library. In the basement of Crafts, Dr. Ashdown found a room full of broken teapots and cast-offs, which he got cleaned out and rigged with a kitchenette. He called it the "Buttery" after his grandmother's pantry in New York State. The Buttery was used for bi-weekly gatherings on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, where cocoa was enjoyed, and a discussion of popular topics prevailed.
Dr. Avery Ashdown (PhD, '24), faculty member in the department of Chemistry, was chosen as the first Housemaster. He was Housemaster for 24 years and was the first faculty resident in any of the dormitories at MIT. His enthusiasm for the undertaking, wise counsel, and tact contributed to the success of Graduate House. Dr. Ashdown himself lined up the first group of students - 46 in all. By the following year, the buildings were filled. He was also chairperson of the Graduate House Executive Committee, the student group that presided over house affairs. The students in Graduate House dined together in Walker Memorial at least once a week, usually with several members of the faculty. After each dinner, some distinguished business or professional man gave a short after-dinner address. After a year, when there was a long waiting list of students anxious to obtain rooms, the remaining Faculty Houses (Runkle, Atkinson and Ware Halls) were completely renovated, redecorated and newly furnished as graduate housing to increase the number of graduate students housed to approximately 200 students. For the first time, a substantial number of MIT graduate students had the opportunity to become acquainted. Rooms in Graduate House included the John R. Macomber Room, the Ware Reading Room, the Fabyan private dining room for parties of about fifteen, a small serving room adjoining the Fabyan Room and a ping-pong/recreation room.
2 1940s: Graduate House in ExileOn June 12th, 1943, all residents of Graduate House were moved out and the dorm was occupied by nine-hundred apprentice seamen (V-12 unit) pursuing undergraduate studies of special value to the Navy. The graduate students were scattered in rooms spread over greater Boston and Cambridge. In 1943, a wooden addition, now called the Campus Room, was added to the west side to provide additional mess facilities for the Navy training program. In 1944, the Faculty Houses were used as a temporary Graduate House. In February of 1946, the V-12 unit moved out and graduate students returned back to Graduate House. In 1947, as a consequence of resident interest in improving house conditions, the Graduate House Committee was reconstituted and Leonard Muldawer (PhD, '48) was installed as the first student chairperson of Graduate House. (Leonard was also leader of the house singing group.) In 1948, a food snack bar was installed in the Buttery, which made it possible to get late-night snacks when the Buttery hours were not scheduled. Also, the Campus Room was used for holding large dinner meetings and a much-used television set was put in the Crafts living room. The game room included two ping-pong tables, a pool table and an indoor handball court.
3 1950s: The Cherry Pie SocietyMany of the students have very vivid memories of Avery Ashdown ("Doc" as he was affectionately called). Julian Bussgang (SM, '51) (Chairperson, 1951) remembers:
Residents of the Graduate House, and in particular, members of the Graduate House Student Organization Executive Committee, had a very close relationship with 'Doc', as we used to call him. He had a regular place where he would sit in the Graduate House cafeteria, at the center of one of the longer tables, and we often joined him for meals and conversation.David A. Thomas (ScD, '58) writes:
We often ate meals with Doc Ashdown in the Grad House cafeteria. Always good conversation and discussions - generally better than the food, but it was cheap! Dinner for $1.50 or so, I think.James Slagle (Chairperson, '58) has this memory of Doc Ashdown:
The Graduate House cafeteria workers wanted to stop serving before the official time of 7 pm. To prevent this, Dr. Ashdown would leave MIT so that he would arrive at the cafeteria at 6:59 pm. He did this to help the Graduate House residents.Doc also had to defend Graduate House to members of the faculty. Robert Summers (ScD, '54) (Chairperson, '52-53) recalls his "strong defense of 'rules of the Graduate House' against certain troglodytes in the faculty who objected to the presence of women on the upper floors at various times of the day or night. That may be hard to imagine in these days but that was over forty years ago! One of these complaining faculty would station himself, on an occasional Saturday night, in the lobby and keep a log of who went up and down through the lobby!! Avery Ashdown settled the matter by assuring all concerned that there would be no rendering above the first floor and that he would take personal responsibility for the decorum in the House. That seemed to silence the prudes of the faculty!" David A. Thomas also remembers Dr. Ashdown's office:
From the office door, which was usually open during the day, you could not even see him or his desk, because of 6' high piles of papers and journals that formed a winding path back to his desk at the rear. Before going beyond the door, you called out to see if he was actually in.
I know that I served for some time with Iain Finnie (now a professor in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering at Berkeley who is an expert on fractures), and that he was Chairman himself for a while. According to these ancient records, I took over at the beginning of the Summer of 1951. Iain Finnie took over in the fall of 1951 or the spring of 1952. As I mentioned to you one reason I remember the Executive Committee under Iain, is that it was composed of Austin Whillier (who became expert on heat removal from deep mines; he was a South African and is no longer alive), Bill Quick (an American from the Midwest), Phil Hartley Smith (an Australian; who later ran big steel works in the US) and myself (born in Poland now settled in Lexington as a retired entrepreneur active in IEEE). We found it truly remarkable that each of the 5 of us came from a different continent (Iain was from Hong Kong).One of Julian's favorite memories is of the Cherry Pie Society:
One day, probably sometime in 1952, one of the members of the Executive Committee suggested that we hold a special dinner once a month in a separate room, invite Doc Ashdown, and dedicate an hour to discussion of topics of general interest, unrelated to Graduate House affairs. The idea was to expand on the casual dining room discussions, get to know each other better and share views and opinions based on our very different backgrounds and experiences.Tom Mix (ScD, '56) (Chairperson, 1954-55) recalls some detective work in Graduate House:
The organization of these dinners was very informal. We invited a few other friends from the Graduate House, but the group was held deliberately small. If somebody new was invited and joined a dinner, they usually became immediately permanent members, so that the composition of the group was extremely stable. I don't remember anybody dropping out, except when they graduated, or left the House, and even then, some continued coming back. Doc was always invited and always came. There were no club dues and no club officers. We were 'members' by virtue of being regular attendees. There was really no club and no organization. We met in two adjoining private rooms, on the same floor as the cafeteria, used occasionally for private functions. Meals were a set menu, prepared and served by the staff. We paid for our meals. While the menu may have varied from time to time, one course was always the same, by Dr. Ashdown's choice, a cherry pie for desert. Dinner was held in one room, and was always followed by a talk and discussion in the room next door. We took turns giving talks. Selection of the topic was completely at the discretion of the speaker. Sometimes, it was review of a book but most often it was a historical, philosophical or moral issue that the speaker had researched. I remember best my own talks having put a lot of effort into researching them. I remember talking once on the history of the oil industry, on another occasion on the Muslim religion, on the conquest of Mexico and Peru (based on the remarkable classics by William H. Prescott), and on the establishment of Cornell University, the first secular university in America, based on the account of its founding president Andrew D. White. The last two topics were motivated by the wonderful books I discovered in the small and little used Graduate House library. Other people's topics were just as esoteric and diverse and generally had nothing to do with their regular field of study. I hope somebody has a record of some of these topics. They were truly interesting. Some of the best minds trained at MIT were in that room. The variety and the stimulating discussion that followed truly enriched our lives in the Graduate House. Once, one of our 'members', Arnold Barnes (PhD, '62), became engaged. After we congratulated him on his engagement at one of the dinners, he informed us, to our great surprise and amusement, that he decided to state in his engagement notice submitted to the newspapers, that he was a member of The Cherry Pie Society at MIT. He was inspired by all the engagement notices he had seen of the Hasty Pudding Club at Harvard, our neighbor up the river.
From then on, we became The Cherry Pie Society. While we were hardly a formal society yet, it was such a logical and fitting name that we kept it and enjoyed it. In 1960, when I myself became engaged, I no longer lived in the Graduate House, but some of my friends were still there. In honor of my fiancee, my colleagues decided to have the very first Cherry Pie meeting to which ladies would be invited. It was a festive occasion and a number of couples attended. I continued to attend a few more Cherry Pie dinners. Eventually, most of the people I knew had graduated and left the House. I am not sure how long the Cherry Pie Society continued, but probably till 1962. I thought it was a wonderful invention and a special experience which I thoroughly enjoyed while I participated. The Graduate House was for me a great living experience, but the Cherry Pie Society made it even more special, providing as it did stimulating conversation, enlightening ideas, and great camaraderie. I still immediately think of it very fondly whenever I am served a cherry pie.
Over a period of a few months, a number of Graduate House students reported that money had been taken from their rooms. There were showers in the basement and, in many cases, the money had been taken from their rooms while the students were showering. From the location of the rooms, we concluded that one of the porters might be the thief. We told the campus security police about the problem, who decided to bring in a detective agency to help catch the thief. In the meantime, we first tried catching the culprit ourselves. Zenon Zannetos, a graduate student who later became a Professor of Economics at MIT, and a few other students set up a watch, observing, through their windows in their rooms, some money left on a table in a room serviced by the porter. Nothing happened over a few days, and the students who volunteered found it far too demanding, given the other commitments they had. The detective agency called and we had their representatives come by when the porters were not around, so they would be free to look around and determine how best to handle the situation. They proposed to have a wallet containing money left on a desk in an appropriate room and to hide one of their detectives in the room to catch the thief taking the wallet. On a trial run, the head of the campus police came into the room in which the detective was hiding to make sure the bait was properly set, and found the detective outside the window, casting a shadow in the room. He complained to the agency, and the detective then, on the second attempt, hid behind a desk in the room. The porter came into the room, discovered and apprehended the detective as an intruder, and brought the detective to the Manager of the Graduate House as the apparent thief. A few days later, a different detective hid in the closet, and tied a string to the door knob to prevent it from opening. The porter came in, saw the wallet on the desk, locked the door, pulled the window shades, looked carefully around the room and under the bed, and then went over to the closet. He tried opening the closet, and was surprised and suspicious that it didn't open. He then yanked the closet door open, and found the detective standing inside, holding the torn string. This detective, however, had chutzpah, and immediately charged the porter with attempting to steal the wallet, to which the porter, in his confusion, surprisingly confessed. The porter had become a compulsive and unsuccessful bettor at Suffolk Downs.Tom also discusses a recurring theme in Graduate (Ashdown) history: the conversion of the dorm to undergraduate housing.
The second development concerned a plan the MIT administration was considering which would tear down the Graduate House and replace it with an undergraduate dormitory, moving the graduate students into the dormitories behind what was then the MIT President's House on Ames Street. Edwin Ryer headed a committee looking into this possibility, and I was appointed to the committee to represent the graduate students. After looking at the undergraduate dormitories, considering the modifications to them which were proposed, and talking to Avery Ashdown and the Graduate House Students about the alternatives, I decided the plan would not be desirable from the graduate student point of view. Fortunately for the graduate students, in my view, eventually enough other members of the Ryer committee also came to agree that the plan was undesirable and the plan was rejected.
4 1960s: ChangesIn 1962 after reaching the age of mandatory retirement (and three years after retiring from the MIT faculty), "Doc" Ashdown had to relinquish his role as Housemaster of Graduate House. He moved into Bexley where he spent his remaining years at MIT. Francis Bitter (Professor of Geology and Geophysics) and his wife became housemasters in the fall of 1962. Adam Carley (Chairperson, 1964-65) writes in his executive committee report on some turbulent times during the years after the Dr. Ashdown retired and Dr. and Mrs. Francis Bitter became Housemasters:
The casual observer will note that this report is substantially thicker than any before or since. This is because this, and the year before, were very special in the history of the House. If I may indulge the reader, I would like to give some personal historical perspective in rather informal language. Our secretary and my political archenemy, Pete Benjamin, always used to say that the secretary held the ultimate power on the committee because "You guys can fuss or fume but nothing really takes place in a meeting unless the secretary says it did." Now, as I assemble Pete's minutes, I hold that same power in putting this last word on - 5 years after the fact.In the fall of 1965, Dean of Residence Frederick Fassett Jr. became Housemaster for a year. Dean Fassett was the first MIT Dean of Residence and inaugurated in 1951 the faculty residence plan under which selected faculty and their families live in the undergraduate houses. In the fall of 1966, John Irvine Jr. (Professor of Chemistry) became Housemaster. Dr. Fred Greene (Emeritous Professor of Chemistry) on Dr. Irvine:
The Institute, in its great wisdom, decided around 1961 that the Housemastership needed young blood and Doc Ashdown was put out to pasture. Under Doc, the GHEC met dutifully in his apartment, much humbler than the present Suite, once a week or every other week, and discussed the placing of garbage cans in the hall or some such. All matters of substance were done the same as they had been for 20 years - nobody questioned that. The institute spent many months and some $80,000 enlarging the Housemaster suite to attract the proper distinguished MIT personality back from Suburbia. Their catch was Dr. Bitter of magnet fame, and his wife Kate. Doc was moved over to Bexley. Dr. Bitter was a kind person but his wife was strong-willed and ran him and wanted to run the house. That was the seed of the great period of turmoil that followed. The House was Doc's closest kin, and a change of title did not remove him from house affairs. The conflict between what Mrs. Bitter wanted and the way things were always done was just beneath the surface during the first year, with the committee in its usual passive role. Then during Wai Tang's committee, Dr. Bitter suggested privately in the most diplomatic terms to Doc that it might be better if he didn't attend every GHEC meeting. Doc was most hurt by this and didn't attend a meeting for about a year. Mrs. Bitter role became more and more unacceptable under Wai's committee. Random house residents were invited but not welcome at GHEC meetings in the Bitter Suite. Spectator attendance was about 1/3 person per meeting. On rare occasions, Mrs. Bitter even used temper tantrums and crying to get her way.
I was TV chairman at the time. Mrs. Bitter thought there was too much TV watching in the house and so the TV committee got the short end of the AHEC budget. At one point, I bought a non-working black-and-white TV set for $10, fixed it, traded it for a non-working color TV, and spent a month fixing it in the circuits lab so the house could have color TV. This was the beginning of my interest in house politics and the intense conflict between myself and the Bitters. Many other felt as I did. I assembled three and we ran as a group to take control of the GHEC. On hearing of my running, Mrs. Bitter suggested that all candidates be approved by the Housemaster before appearing on the ballot. Even the worst rubber-stamps on Wai's committee balked at that. Only two of us were elected. Although we didn't get our way by fiat as planned, we gradually got it anyway. First, Mrs. Bitter stopped coming to the meetings after a confrontation with me in one meeting. Then Dr. Bitter was diplomatically informed that it might be better if he didn't attend meetings of the Steering committee, which he was anxious to be involved with. At one point, later on, Dr. Bitter confided that Mrs. Bitter felt so unwelcome in the house that she hadn't passed through the lobby in six months. Then I decided the house should be named Ashdown House and pushed the idea secretly through the necessary channels. Finally, I was re-elected by the largest plurality in the history of the house and Dr. Bitter resigned a few weeks later for reasons of health. Doc's dear friend, Dean Fassett, was the next housemaster.
The conflict was one of personality and involved nearly a dozen figures but was also one of ideology. Many residents sincerely agreed with the Bitters and what they were trying to do. For want of a label, I will call the Bitters, Pete Benjamin, etc. activist liberals, and myself an activist conservative. The majority of involved students were liberal while the overwhelmingly majority of silent house residents were conservative. This is why the device of the referendum was heavily used. In terms of specific issues, I'm using the term liberal to apply to the concept of an in-group of leaders who felt the majority were knurds tooling in their rooms (actual quote from Richard Fow [Chairperson, 1964]) not really able to appreciate the kinds of house activities they (the leaders) advocated. The conservative philosophy is more of a lowest common dominator philosophy which judged house activities by their popularity/cost ratio. More specifically, liberals might support games room parties or hallway paintings while conservatives would spend money on television or mixers, for example. The administration, mostly in the person of Dean (of Student Affairs) Wadleigh, took the Bitters' position whenever possible.
One example was the Thirsty Ear nightclub. It began as a GHEC subcommittee with chairman (Al Hollander) picked by me, but once on its feet with GHEC (and GSC) money, it began to act autonomous with (frequently overt) Bitter-Wadleigh support. One time The Ear was raided for having no liquor license, but the GHEC was never informed. On another occasion AHEC demanded its share of leftover funds at the end of the year and was informed, the funds were moved to where the AHEC couldn't touch them. I considered such absconding with funds highly improper and took the issue with Dean Wadleigh. Roger Sullivan and I represented AHEC, Pete Benjamin and Al Hollander the Thirsty Ear Committee. Pete and Al presented the usual arguments: their cause was right and justified ignoring the rules. Roger and I were shocked when Dean Wadleigh refused to take sides, which of course meant taking their side. Fortunately, the Thirsty Ear treasurer was more honest and had, unbeknownst to anybody, disobeyed the order from Pete and Al to move the funds.
Such issues were only part of the story, as I've said. Conflicts between personalities were present throughout. This had a curious beneficial effect. The level of interest in House affairs skyrocketed. The number of people actively involved became 40 or 50. Most committees really were committees, not just chairman. No chairmanships went begging, instead there were multiple applicants seeking posts and even campaigning for them. Poor chairman were fired. The weekly AHEC meeting was heavily attended, and 3 or 4 additional AHEC meetings in a given week in my room were commonplace, as well of factions. There were approximately 6 social events per week, including a mixer held every Friday night following FAC (Friday Afternoon Club) plus two extravaganza mixers per term. Approximately half the committees on the books were created during this period. Some lasting accomplishments of the period (1964-66) might be listed:
1. Changing the name to Ashdown House.
2. Making the house coed.
3. Rewriting the entire house constitution.
4. Defining the role of Housemaster as friend, not leader.
5. The photofile.
6. The finest TV facility in any dormitory anywhere, with 3 TV rooms (2 color) and high-power roof antennas.
7. Having showers put in all bathrooms, and all spring-loaded faucets replaced with mixing faucets.
8. Making AHEC meetings truly public.
9. Parking sticker by lottery.
10. Many small items such as a new pool table, microwave oven, and oh yes, the flashing light at the basement stop at the east elevator.
I note with pleasure that two issues I fought for and lost have been won by subsequent committees: bringing room assignments and FAC under AHEC control. My three years as TV chairman, 2 years as Steering Committee (Student Committee on Graduate living) Chairman, and two years on AHEC (GHEC) were, in retrospect, quite an education. All the time required set my degree back about 2 years, but, alas, did not get me the Ashdown award, which was mysteriously not given out this year. I don't think Dr. Bitter voted for me. But it could be worse. Poor Pete Benjamin spent so much time on House business, he flunked out. [Pete did graduate with an SM in 1966.]
R. John Withers Irvine, Jr. was associated with MIT for forty-five years. He was born on July 15, 1913. Upon graduation from Missouri Valley College in 1934, he came to MIT, obtaining a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry in 1939. After a four-year interval as a research associate in physics at MIT (1939-43), he rejoined the MIT Chemistry Department: assistant professor, 1943-47; associate professor, 1947-58; professor, 1958-79. His research work was primarily in the area of radiochemistry-separation methods, production of radionuclides, solvent extraction, anion exchange studies, radioactivity, organic scintillators. In the year 1957-58, he was Scientific Liaison Officer for the United States Office of Naval Research in England. From 1966-79, he was the Executive Officer for the MIT Chemistry Department, serving in that capacity under four chairmen (Professors Ross, Berchtold, Deutch, and Kinsey). He had a great deal to do with the planning and details of the Dreyfus Chemistry Laboratories, Building 18, which was dedicated in 1970; and he returned in 1980 for a celebration of the tenth anniversary of the dedication of that building. In addition to all his other responsibilities, he was Housemaster of Ashdown House from the fall of 1966 to the fall of 1974. He and his wife much enjoyed that association. He retired from MIT in June, 1979, and moved to Arizona.Dr. Irvine remembers Ashdown very fondly:
When I was appointed housemaster, I already had some graduate housing experience. From 1934-1938, I was a resident in the first Graduate House- the east wing of the Senior Houses. Avery was the first housemaster there. This experience did not really qualify me for the job so I asked Dean Wadleigh, a friend and neighbor in Belmont, just what Fredna and I were supposed to do. His reply was not very helpful. 'You're just to lend tone to the joint.' As we got acquainted, we found that a great many of the students, immersed in their studies and thesis work, were not involved in any social life in the House. Many of the students didn't know their next door neighbors on their floor. Past experience with my own students had shown us that the best way to get their attention was to feed them. We started the floor suppers. Each week for five weeks in the fall, we invited the residents on one floor to a buffet supper. By knocking on each door, we were able to hand out at least to one resident in the suite a written invitation with all the necessary information and emphasized the informality. A common reply was 'We're too busy.' Our answer was 'you have to eat, eat with us and leave.' Many accepted on this basis but very few left early. They enjoyed getting acquainted with their neighbors. Attendance ranged from about 40-110. The Master's apartment had a very good condition. We would cook as many as two hams and six eye-of round roasts, serve several kinds of good breads from a deli in Belmont, lots of raw vegetables and fresh fruit, and Fredna would make up 14 batches of my mother's brownie recipe. Five or six boys from a nearby fraternity were brought in for service and cleanup help. These parties often ended with music, since the apartment was furnished with a Steinway grand. An architecture student would play a Chopin Nocturne. A metallurgist who was also a concert pianist would entertain us with Beethoven's 'Appassionata' Sonata, and then would accompany the romantic Russian singing 'Dark Eyes' or the Spaniard playing bullfight music on his trumpet. We tried to have one or two faculty couples for each supper, but there was one guest who attended all of them, Avery Ashdown. As long as he could, he came under his own steam. When things became too difficult for him, the Campus Patrol brought him over and took him back to Bexley Hall. As might be expected, there was a group of students around him all evening. Our get-acquainted buffet suppers were a major part of our contribution to our stay at Ashdown, but we took away many fond memories of the wonderful people we were with every day, and of several weddings where we were able to help. Brides and grooms from Japan, Taiwan, Brazil and the Philippines, with whom we are still in touch, were married in the Chapel and had their wedding reception at our Ashdown House apartment. At one reception, I told the officiating priest that the MIT Chapel was so very attractive that my wife and I often wished we had been married there. He said 'Come on over and we'll do it right this time.'Arnold Reinhold (MA, '69) (Chairperson, 1969) remembers the first few years when Ashdown House became co-ed.
It all seems a tad sophomoric, but I guess it was a time of change. Grad House (Doc Ashdown was still with us) was co-ed when I got there in the fall of '65. But all women were segregated on the third floor West, I think). It was the same hallway as the housemaster suite. We wanted to increase the number of women living there and had identified the suite of rooms opposite the 3 East entry. It was close to the existing woman's room, had its own bathroom, could be closed off, etc. We went round and round with the administration who sort of agreed but had this objection and that objection and on and on. About a year later no one cared any more and the entire dorm was declared co-ed.During this time, a new graduate dormitory was being planned. Arnold writes:
I was also on a committee that helped design Westgate II (completed in 1972), now Tang Hall. I think we affected the design in useful ways, like maximizing the number of single rooms in the building. Anyway, at one meeting the architect suggested fluorescent lighting in the living rooms. I remarked that they might be harsh. The architect went on about how one can now get warm fluorescent tubes and the representative from the MIT administration gave me the don't-you-know-anything look. About a year later I was on a committee for the renovation of Ashdown. Again the issue of living room lighting came up, complicated by the wiring dating from 1901 or thereabouts. I mentioned that I had heard somewhere (I didn't remember where till after the meeting) that warm florescents were available. The (different) architect made a disparaging remark and the same representative from the MIT administration gave me the same don't-you-know-anything look. Maybe my favorite story was when I was asked to review a draft of the brochure that would go out with next year's admission packets. The manuscript began "The Avery Allen Ashdown House houses 435 men and women in single, double and triple beds."In early 1969, the lobby was remodeled into its present form, with the front entrance shifted away from the south side facing Memorial Drive to the north side facing Amherst Street.
5 1970s: Coffee HourOn July 15th, 1970, Doctor Avery Ashdown (1891-1970) passed away. He was a friend to graduate students for close to 40 years and still attended AHEC meetings until a few months before his death. Barbara Lewis (SM, '71) (Chairperson, '70-71) wrote in her annual report, "Dr. Ashdown will be fondly remembered by all of us who have lived in the house during his lifetime, and I hope the house will continue to function and succeed in a way that Dr. Ashdown would be proud of." Dr. Irvine writes "It was during our tenure at Ashdown House that Avery died. At his request, we buried his ashes in the court at Ashdown House."
From 1973 to 1974, the House underwent extensive renovations in two phases, with one half of the House being renovated at a time. New plumbing, carpeting, electrical wiring, furniture, and windows were installed. The bathrooms were remodeled, and kitchens and floor lounges were added. George Phillies (ScD, '73) (Chairperson, 1971-72) (the 1996 Libertarian candidate for the Massachusetts US Senate seat) wrote an interesting history of his time in office in his 1971-72 Annual Report of the Ashdown House Executive Committee:
While slightly late, I hope that some aspects of it may be of value to the current residents of Ashdown House. The particular details of history may not be as interesting as formerly, but you should realize that history tends to repeat itself. Problems which have disappeared for ten or fifteen years tend to surface to confront a new generation. 1971-72 was the peak of the Vietnam war disturbances. MIT effectively closed its classes for several weeks after the Cambodian incursion. President Nixon had just imposed wage and price controls, in a vain effort to prevent what proved to be the hyperinflation of 1975-82. Student interest in AHEC was very limited, so that in 1972 we had perhaps 6 candidates for AHEC, It was often hard to fill committee chairmanships; those that were filled often did little work. Attendance at Butteries (the Tuesday-Thursday coffee hours) ran 25-50. By the standards of the past, my committee was not terribly effective. Indeed, to avoid being drafted, I had joined the Army reserves (as a Dental Assistant) and spent Sept. 1-early January in the army. In my absence, very little happened. From the standpoint of House activities, the most important activity was performed by the House Treasurer, Alan Berger, who set up a property book - a list of the possessions, closets, ...belonging to the house. When I took office, I found sealed closets, cabinets of unlabelled keys,...which we tried to put into order. It hadn't been done in years. The notion of remembering what property the house owns is, in the long run, very valuable, and worth continuing. My own major effort was in rebalancing room rents. (By current standards, the rents must sound tiny.) The Institute for many years had done this by tacking a few dollars onto each rooms' rent, so that things had become very inequitable. Residents of closet doubles were paying nearly as much as were residents of good singles. I straightened this up, to an extent. Major house failures were the launching of renovations, and a failure to defend the Ashdown Dining Hall. Admittedly, the house needed renovations. However, it should not have sold off the good house furniture, and replaced it with the inferior materials which later showed up. Before renovations, each resident had a reasonably large and comfortable bed, a chest-height dresser, desk and filing cabinet, largish bookcase, and a separate desk and comfortable arm chairs. Most rooms also had a round sitting table and a floor lamp. Similarly, while improving kitchenettes was a good idea, we lost the most pleasant doubles in order to do so. We could have sacrificed some of the closet doubles. The House Dining Hall was a great benefit to house social life. Alas, when MIT built the Student Center, it also added the Lobdell Dining Hall, which put the system seriously over capacity in eating space. Bureaucracies cannot easily admit errors; their correction came out of the backs of the Ashdown residents.Robert (Professor of Physics) and Carol Hulsizer became Housemasters in the fall of 1974. They have very fond memories of Ashdown House.
The events that come to mind seem mainly to revolve around food, but behind that lies the substance that really represents the quality of life of the House. Somehow, it was a period of remarkably good and open relationships and a growing sense of community among the students living there. Our history began in 1972 when the MIT administration announced that it was considering closing the Ashdown dining room because it was losing money. At that time there was a big kitchen behind the east wall of what is now called the 'Hulsizer' room and also storage and work space in the basement underneath it. Three meals a day were served. Breakfast and dinner customers were mainly Ashdown residents, but the lunch became a popular focus for other students, faculty and staff, mostly from the Mass. Ave. end of the campus. A physics graduate student and Ashdown resident came to me as a Physics professor who enjoyed meals there, to ask for support for the Ashdown students' opposition to the Administration plan. I met with Administration officials to find out what the problem was and learned that the dining service was indeed a financial drain. However, because I believed the facility was extremely beneficial to Ashdown life, I went to the next faculty meeting and asked the faculty to support its continued operation. The faculty voted to back my request, but unfortunately the Administration felt that it had no choice and the dining service was closed.In 1978, Donald Petersen (Chairperson, '78-81) became the first three-year chairperson of Ashdown House besides Dr. Ashdown.
In the spring of 1974, the then housemasters, Professor and Mrs. Irvine, announced their retirement and the students at Ashdown nominated us to the Dean of Students as possible successors. We were in Paris at the time where I was on sabbatical leave, serving as a Visiting Professor of Physics at the University of Paris. No one wanted to make a decision about the position until we could come back and talk to the students and to the Dean in person. So, on a warm day in July of 1974, we met with AHEC in the courtyard. They asked me why I was interested in accepting the position. I described how my father had graduated from MIT in 1910 and how I had come to MIT with a M.S. in physics in 1942, worked at the Radiation Lab, got my Ph.D. and left to teach elsewhere. In 1964, I returned. Over the years I had developed a strong affection for the Institute and its students. The next question, a much more practical one, was addressed to Carol: "Do you bake good cookies?" Carol's response was no, but that she knew where to buy them. The interview continued well and in the end we and the students both decided to try it. The Dean asked us not to sell our suburban house for three years, but to rent it out until everyone agreed that things were working out satisfactorily. (I'm happy to report that we stayed on at Ashdown for eleven years.)
When we started, in the fall of 1974, we followed the examples of our predecessors and invited 60 students at a time, every two weeks, for dinner in our apartment. After two semesters of doing that and getting to know the house better, we did some simple arithmetic and realized that with 450 residents, our dinners were offering each student two social events a year.
One feature was interesting to us - many students from other countries had special taste in teas and, when they returned home, would mail us their favorite tea to serve. The format was informal so students could just come in on their way back from their laboratories or the library. Some would just stroll down in their pajamas. Carol and I usually worked behind the counter, so we could greet students as we served them. If someone needed help or had questions, we were there to talk with them without their having to make a formal appointment or come to our apartment. The Coffee Hour soon became an Ashdown institution. At first only 60 or 70 students showed up but when it became better known about 350 would wander in between 9 and 11 p.m.. The administration gave us enough tables and chairs so that everyone could sit and talk.
As a weekly occasion the Coffee Hour gave house residents opportunities to enlarge their circle of friends and gave us, as Housemasters, a chance to know individual students better and learn about their lives - and as well, for them to get to know us as a faculty family. We have fond memories of almost two thousand students who passed through Ashdown during our years. We were honored, when we left Ashdown, that the students asked the Corporation to name the dining room the 'Hulsizer' room. We were also touched that some students borrowed one of our ice cream scoops on the pretext of needing it for a party, silver-plated it in their laboratory and had it engraved "In Honor of the Ashdown Coffee Hours.
6 1980s: RenovationsIn March 1980, the administration announced a plan to switch Senior House and East Campus residents with Ashdown House residents due to a housing shortage for graduate students. Undergraduates in Senior House and East Campus would move into Ashdown and the soon-to-be-completed Next House. Walker Memorial would also be renovated as a graduate student center. The administration aired the proposal to the MIT community before making any decisions with the Corporation having the final say because of the substantial costs of the renovation. However, the Undergraduate Association president at the time complained that he and the Dormitory Council president had not been consulted before the announcement of the proposal. Residents of Senior House and East Campus strongly opposed the proposal. In May of 1980, the administration withdrew the proposal, calling it a "pre-proposal." Preservation of house identities and lifestyles and the need for further study were the main reasons cited by the administration.
In September of 1981, the lobby was dedicated to Clarence V. Wilson Rin recognition of 41 years of generous friendship and loyal service to the residents of Ashdown House. Mr. Wilson passed away in 1997. From 1984 to 1989, the summer term was synonymous with renovations; each summer term, a single Ashdown floor was chosen for minor renovations (painting the walls, sanding and revarnishing the floors, etc.). In 1987 and 1988, the east basement was reconstructed to provide a number of new suites for residents (thereby making Ashdown the largest dormitory on campus in terms of number of students!).
What are we doing at Ashdown, anyway? A good questions that we sometimes ask ourselves, and that we answer at Coffee Hour with a resounding 'because it's fun!', or when a former student/friend returns - 'because we like him/her,' or because we really do this together. We arrived 11 years ago- can you remember that far back? - in very early August at 3 am in THE MOST HORRENDOUS rainstorm we can remember. We drove in exhausted from cleaning our previous place and found the little courtyard by the trash compactor axle-deep in rain water. The drain was overwhelmed. I thought that we would not be able to open the door, but we did, and left all our junk in the car to rot until morning, glad to be on dry land inside. The drive from Wayland that night was along the turnpike. At that time there were hardly any cars to follow and the side of the road was invisible, because it was covered with a SHEET of water! One had to judge where the edge might be from such trees as there were. If you drove faster than 25 mph, the car began to plane dangerously, like a drunk. But we were as sober as a judge. We crawled upstairs and dried out. Fortunately we did not go through the laundry room on that night. A year or so later when there was a similar cloudburst, the drain in the laundry room backed up. The floor was a brown sheet of roaches such as I [Vernon] had never seen before. Not your usual familiar Ashdown roaches, 1/8 to 1 inch long, but these were the size of a fat Havana cigar cut in half. REVOLTING! Beth tells me that this is normal for roaches in Georgia where she grew up. So much for a Southern upbringing! Things have improved greatly - we have hardly seen a single roach in the last 6 months. Various rooms in Ashdown were a surprise to us when we first arrived. Wandering through the dorm late at night [when sleepless!] we would here a persistent clickety-clack with no particular pattern to it. This emanated from behind a closed door in the East basement to which we had no key [thank the Lord]. It turned out on closer inquiry that this was an old mechanical telephone exchange purchased second- or third-hand to service the entirely student dorm telephone system at MIT. It worked intermittently, only when attended by certain select undergrads, who wore halos, and were treated with the utmost respect by other students. This was eventually replaced by a real (solid state??) switching system, that is reliable, though no doubt much more expensive. The space occupied by the telephone exchange made room for new graduate student dorm rooms, 29 spaces, as did Lee Birks' store rooms, George Lindsay's workroom and the gang shower room much beloved by the male athletic community at MIT. The other notable basement room that had to make way for students' rooms was the Mosque of the MIT Islamic Community (and much of Boston also). They moved to the west side of the building giving them street access. Remarkable to a non-Muslim was the extensive collection of devotional books in what constituted a very nice library. The only basement room that has escaped the renovation is the photographic dark room. The renovations themselves made a welcome addition to our housing stock. It came at a price, though. It was financed by the accumulation over time of a portion of graduate students' rents. Another cost were the 7 am jackhammers every morning! But we welcomed the additional students. That recently renovated space is currently occupied by Sigma Kappa upperclasswomen, while they look for a house of their own. A colorful addition to Ashdown with different traditions. But do not think that we spend all our time in the basement, not even the cavernous, and frightening, hell-hole where the furnace used to be. We also spend much time in the Hulsizer room, where the weekly Coffee Hour had been introduced by Bob and Carol Hulsizer. A marvelous tradition that persists 51 weeks of the year, with the help of many students. We were introduced by Bob & Carol to the mysteries of making tea in urns from loose tea in our upstairs apartment and precariously wheeling the hot and teetering urns downstairs. There was not enough electricity available (now there is). But that way of making tea became too difficult when we could no longer easily obtain loose tea [now you can again], and we switched to the modern tea bags. The original Crafts lounge had to be closed from time to time, because the parquet flooring tiles would become dangerously loose. Fortunately, Larry Maguire of Housing fame completely renovated and carpeted this heavily used space. That was a god-send. I won't dwell on some of the other very necessary hygienic renovations done by Housing - after a fight! However, the battle to reopen the large dining room and kitchen, once the best on campus, was lost. In all, Ashdown remains an upbeat, lively community, with a few problems, but much more joy.John-Paul Mattia (SM, '92) recalls his first meeting of Beth and Vernon.
As an undergraduate, I interviewed both Beth and Vernon Ingram to be Housemasters at the East Campus undergraduate dorm, I think in 1985. In order to get to know them better, we invited them to roast marshmallows (and other undergraduates). By the end of the event, they met our three criteria for housemasters: great wisdom, even keels, and terrific senses of humor. We chose them as the new housemasters, but unfortunately for East Campus, they turned down the offer and I never heard why.Whay Lee (PhD, '89), who became chairperson for the second half of the '86-87 term, has memories of organizing Ashdown Colloquia on Technology & Society ('86-87), raising house tax to reduce AHEC's accumulated debt and to support new activities for promoting a diverse cultural atmosphere in the house ('86-87) and designing the Ashdown House 50-year celebration T-shirt (the design that looks like a 50 cent stamp) ('88).
Ashdown House celebrated its 50th anniversary with a series of colloquia and a potluck dinner, cooked by Ashdown residents.
7 1990s: Housing CrisisJohn-Paul also recalls the term of chairperson (1991-92) of Satyavolu S. Papa Rao (PhD, '96) and his second meeting with Vernon and Beth:
After a few years in the working world, I came back to graduate school and began rooming with S.S. Papa Rao in Ashdown. I can't remember when he became chairman; I didn't keep track of such things because I swore off house governments as an undergraduate student, and I swore a solemn oath that I would never waste time with such matters as a graduate student. Well, Pops (as he is called) had a way of asking people to do things. Pops' tenure as chair is legendary, and he created a wonderfully inclusive environment inside the house. He could do this because he is the world's nicest person, and if you contemplate saying no to the world's nicest person, you just know you're going to spend some time in hell. Thus, when the AHEC secretary position came open and Pops wanted me to fill it, he invoked the nice voice, and I chose to break my oath rather than to do time in hell. "I arrived at the first AHEC meeting, and who should be sitting there - Beth and Vernon. It was not long before I remembered why I had chosen them a few years previously. If you're reading this and you want to be a housemaster, I would recommend that you follow the Ingrams around for a year and take copious notes. Above all, they still had their terrific senses of humor, which I'm sure is a requirement of surviving the job."Paul Fieguth (PhD, '95) (Chairperson, 1993-94) remembers on his time living in Ashdown House and as chairperson:
In my first year in Ashdown House I knew dismally little about AHEC, and enjoyed the things which Ashdown had to offer without thinking very much about the organization behind them. Consequently my introduction to AHEC was rather indirect and involved some arm- twisting. Another student in my suite was AHEC treasurer in the 1992/3 year and was leaving for a whole semester on Monday. Exhibiting great foresight, he dropped by my room on Sunday, looking for someone to replace him; in a moment of weakness (and feeling slightly sorry for him) I acquiesced - and I never regretted it! I can strongly recommend the position of AHEC treasurer. It doesn't require a huge time investment, but it gives you an incredible overview of the Ashdown committee structure and the breadth of activities that are undertaken: everyone that spends any money on any activity has to go through you. A good preparation for being AHEC chairperson, really. Overall the 1993-94 year, my year as AHEC chair, seemed to reflect the personality of the chairperson: no scandals, conservative, and financially moderate. I also have this aversion to long, drawn out meetings, and I dislike discussions which lead in circles, so the AHEC meetings were short, characterized by efficiency (to a fault, perhaps?), and an agenda that was rigidly adhered to. I suppose the only source of grief regarded financial disbursements: I was quite happy to hand out money, but only if the proposing party could give me some sense that (i) the purchase was a reasonable deal, and (ii) that Ashdown students were interested in the purchase; as we discovered, some other members of Ashdown were used to a more informal arrangement. Not a big deal, really, just a difference in organizational style. During this year there were occasional rumors, as there had been in years past, that Ashdown would be converted into an undergraduate dormitory. I dismissed these rumors, these having surfaced too often and too haphazardly for me to take them seriously. Little did I know that in the following year I would be spending a great deal of effort addressing these rumors, which turned out to have a great deal more substance than I had anticipated.Paul refers to the discussions in the administration of building a new graduate dorm and converting Ashdown House into an undergraduate facility that occurred in Tom Burbine's first term (Chairperson, '94-96). In October 1994, the Strategic Housing Plan Committee (SHPC) proposed major changes to the campus housing in order to alleviate undergraduate crowding. The SHPC proposal had many options, but most of them included eliminating graduate students from Ashdown and converting it into undergraduate housing. Several Ashdown residents put in a lot of work (and lost a lot of time on their theses) communicating the value of this graduate dorm. Ashdown provides economical housing that is centralized to the campus, which allows students safe transit back home after a long night's work. The community in Ashdown is unparalleled in any of the other graduate dorms, and it smoothes the transition to graduate school for a large number of students. Eliminating graduate students from Ashdown would be throwing away a valuable asset to the graduate program. John-Paul recalls Beth and Vernon during this housing crisis:
Beth's southern charm and perfect hosting draws out the quietest of students. During my four times on AHEC (I'm really terrible at oaths) she taught me an enormous amount about people through her insightful comments. She has also had several brainstorms with enormous effects on the house. As an example: the Dean's office insisted on housing 50 undergraduates in Ashdown in the middle of a graduate housing shortage. Beth suggested that we invite a sorority. I laughed, because I thought she was joking. However, it was a brilliant stroke; the sorority wanted their own house, and we wanted the spaces, so everybody involved had the goal of returning the spaces to the grads. And the grooming habits of the Ashdown men noticeably improved. As for Vernon, let me mention the moment he defined himself to me. I ran into him at the east end of the Infinite Corridor while we were both walking back to Ashdown. Vernon has always had a friendly and unassuming manner about him, so I naturally thought I was walking next to an average human being. We were discussing a strategy to keep Ashdown House a graduate residence when his colleague interrupted to tell him about an experiment. They finished up and Vernon explained how they were working with some material that was more expensive than diamond, so the experiment was critical. We continued our discussion until we were interrupted by an administrator who needed his opinion for some Ashdown issue. A few steps later, one of his graduate students interrupted. The next interruption was from a freshman in the Experimental Study Group, a freshman alternative program that he leads. All the while, we passed about a million people who waved. By the time we reached the west end of the Infinite Corridor, I stood in awe of a man who defines what MIT is about. With his friendly and unassuming manner, he has done more for the MIT community than anybody I have met. He was managing to live four or five lives better than I can handle one. I mean, I can't even keep an oath.
Used paper towels. Gigantic wads of it. And tangled masses of hair. An old sponge. Wha'?? A paint brush? Rusty razor blades and other neat sharp metal objects. Ahh, I LOVE unclogging the Ashdown vacuum cleaner. There were a few times while unclogging and cleaning out the Ashdown vacuum cleaner (as was my unofficial job) that I seriously wondered about MIT's admissions process. I wondered how they could admit a student who actually found it okay to suck up huge wads of used paper towels or razor blades with a vacuum. Wait a minute...how many people do we know in the dorm who paint? Not many... Anyway, I reserved the word idiot for those special occasions when I was called by a resident who desperately needed the vacuum repaired because it doesn't work. After glancing at the cleaner for, oh, A QUARTER OF A SECOND, I plugged the vacuum hose where it was supposed to go and WHIRRRRRR. Maybe it's just because I'm a Mechanical Engineering major.In 1996, Christina Manolatou (SM, '95) became chairperson marking the 50th consecutive year that Ashdown (Graduate) House has had a student chairperson. During the winter of 1996-97, the Exercise Room was completely renovated. In 1997, Thomas Lee became chairperson with Debbie Hyams and Megan Hepler being the first Sigma Kappa undergraduates elected to AHEC. The sorority moved out of Ashdown and into their own house in 1999.
8 2000s: More Crises and a New HomeIn 2001 Beth and Vernon Ingram decided to retire as Housemasters after 16 years of service. In the Spring of 2001, Prof. Terry and Ann Orlando were selected to fill the extra large shoes left by Beth and Vernon. Terry and Ann officially became Ashdown Housemasters in July 2001. Beth and Vernon were extremely helpful as mentors for the Orlandos in their new position.
The pressure to convert Ashdown into an undergraduate dorm continued. This was further increased by a desire to build another graduate dorm in the northwest part of campus, joining the Warehouse (opened 2001) and Sidney and Pacific (opened 2002) to create a large residential graduate community.
9 Ashdown (Graduate) House Chairpersons