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Change to University of Chicago housing tradition upsets some

Among its historic Gothic buildings, the University of Chicago will soon add a sweeping, modern Jeanne Gang-designed dorm to its campus.

The Hyde Park university — which has frequently been likened to the fictional Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — announced in 2013 it would build the new residence hall and dining commons on the north end of campus, part of Dean John W. Boyer’s goal to try to get 70 percent of students to live on campus. It’s also intended to house students closer to campus.

And despite much-needed modern amenities and space for 800 undergraduates, not all students are pleased with the new addition.

In mid-April, the university announced in meetings with students that a beloved housing culture at nine houses — Blackstone, Breckinridge, Maclean, Wick, Talbot, Palmer, Tufts, Henderson and Midway — would soon end.

The university will close five aging residence halls, relocating those residents to the Gang-designed residence hall. But nine house names will be “retired.” The long history of the homes will be celebrated throughout the 2015 school year, the school said.

Some of the soon-to-be shuttered houses are named after streets, others after famous alumni. Maclean is named after Norman Maclean, an alumnus and author of “A River Runs Through It.”

The university says it will continue house culture in the new dorm, with eight houses of about 100 students each — and with all new house names.

James Townsend lives in Breckenridge House and was invited to the U of C Lab School to show students the house flag and talk to them about designing and making their own flags. |  Provided photo

James Townsend lives in Breckenridge House and was invited to the U of C Lab School to show students the house flag and talk to them about designing and making their own flags. | Provided photo

But some students say the shift to a larger dorm won’t be for all.

“The really great thing about the University of Chicago housing system is that it’s much smaller,” said Henry Stone, 21, a senior. “It allows you to get a much more personal community … the things that make housing real special for us have to do with that tight-knit community.”

Students dine together, study together, network and participate in intramural sports. There are 38 houses at the university, in 11 residence halls.

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, students are sorted into four houses and compete against each other yearly for the House Cup. There’s no sorting hat at the U of C; undergraduates enter a lottery to be placed into one of the houses. But the house with the most sports victories in yearlong intramural games is awarded the Maroon Cup.

To recent graduate Adam Coleman, taking away the historic house names is taking away a big part of the university’s history and an indication the university isn’t paying attention to what the housing culture means.

“The current dorm closings are just kind of continuing this trend of ignoring student input and really not seeking input at all,” said Coleman, 23.

“There’s a lot of house pride that goes along with living in those houses,” Coleman said. “If you meet another University of Chicago student, it’s always like they first quietly ask you what house you were in.”

Coleman said alumni who come to visit often come back to play intramural sports with members of their house. They also participate in an annual scavenger hunt, which frequently brings in visiting alumni.

“When houses close, there’s no place for alumni to come back to,” Coleman said.

Sarah Manhardt, deputy editor-in-chief of the university newspaper Chicago Maroon, believes the school is struggling to build new dorms while retaining the house culture.

“I think the university has a dilemma with housing because it wants to retain a higher percentage of students in housing — which it’s doing through building larger dorms — but also to market house culture — which tends to be associated with smaller houses,” Manhardt, 20, said via email while studying abroad in Spain.

She, too, believes the university doesn’t care enough about a smaller house culture.

“These larger dorms … don’t tend to have the reputation for house culture that smaller dorms do,” Manhardt said. “I think there is a bit of contradiction in these two aims, and the university’s lack of communication with students is unfortunately only one example of an apparent disregard for student input or concerns.”

Students play a card game in the quote-covered Maclean dining room. | Provided photo

Students play a card game in the quote-covered Maclean dining room. | Provided photo

Manhardt, who wrote a three-part series on housing culture last year for the newspaper, lived in Graham House last year.

“It’s where I made my first friends, learned how to navigate the CTA and got advice about the university,” Manhardt said. That included trips downtown for dinner, weekly study breaks and trips outside the city, together, as a house, she said.

The university says it will continue the house culture in its new dorm, where eight smaller house communities of about 100 students each will live. Each house will be structured around a three-story lounge and will be given spaces to sit together in the dining halls.

In a statement, Boyer touted the new upgrades to the Gang-designed dorm, including room for senior faculty members and advanced graduate students — called resident masters — to live within each house and to engage with students in events like theater and sports outings, afternoon teas and guest lecturers.

“House culture is a distinctive aspect of college housing at the University of Chicago, and it is an integral part of planning for the Campus North Residence Hall and Dining Commons, designed by renowned Chicago architectural firm Studio Gang,” Boyer said in a statement.

The houses being retired will be given the option of moving together to the new dorm collectively. With eight houses in the new dorm, and nine houses being closed, students have been told two houses will be asked to merge. Which ones has yet to be officially determined.

All Maclean rooms are singles, so students often mingle for hallway study sessions. | Provided photo

All Maclean rooms are singles, so students often mingle for hallway study sessions. | Provided photo

Stone lives off campus after three years of dorm life, but is a frequent visitor at Maclean, where his girlfriend lives. To Stone, a three-story lounge is not the same as what he experienced living in Maclean, a retirement home turned residence hall.

“There’s a certain type of student who pretty much prefers being in an outlying dorm, like MacLean, like Breckinridge. These dorms are being closed. There’s a quirky nature to them. It’s much less important for those students to be with a large quantity of people. It’s a completely different experience,” Stone said. “They absorb different students and Dean Boyd has specifically said he wants to eliminate those satellite dorms and to have central big modern buildings.”

Stone said students were told the new house names would be named after donors. The University of Chicago would not comment on the pending names.

“The thing that I think is crucial is that in moving a bunch of people from one building to another and then taking away those names to sell it to the highest bidder, they just broke the continuation of the culture,” Stone said.

In the Maclean lounge, there’s a quote on the wall: “Not all who wander are lost,” from a poem in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

It’s a quote that helped Stone’s mother, a university graduate herself, realize the school was for her son.

“Any place that has the quotes of great literature strewn across its walls does pretty quickly feel like a home,” Stone said. “I believe [her] words were actually ‘Oh look! Not all those who wander are lost! You’re home here.’”

A quote from a J.R.R. Tolkien book is on the wall in the Maclean lounge.  There are many quotes on the walls of the residence hall. | Provided photo

A quote from a J.R.R. Tolkien book is on the wall in the Maclean lounge. There are many quotes on the walls of the residence hall. | Provided photo