Sunday, May 26, 2013

A home away from home: the house dorms at Douglass College

Pick any four-year college in New Jersey, and it's likely you'll find a bunch of old houses on campus, renovated for educational purposes. Some are grand, like the Guggenheim mansion that now serves as the Monmouth University Library. Others are are more modest Victorians or Colonials converted to office space as the school grew around them.

Then there are the houses that were built by schools expressly for the purpose of, well, housing students. Why would a college build a bunch of what look like one-family center-hall Colonials when they could build a big dorm instead? Good question. The story goes something like this:

When New Jersey College for Women was founded in 1918, resident students lived in the large house on George Street which is now known as College Hall. Dean Mabel Smith Douglass knew that the school would grow, so she and the board started exploring housing options for the anticipated student body. However, the search for funding to build dormitories was difficult. No lending institution would extend credit to a women's college, fearing that the school would fail to attract students and would be forced to close before paying its debts.

One bank, however, agreed to an innovative solution: build housing that litterally was houses. By constructing what was essentially a subdivision, NJC would gain a substantial number of dormitory rooms for its students. If the school defaulted on the loan, the bank would have a much easier time unloading individual houses than it would face in selling a large building.

A few of the Corwin houses on the second horseshoe.
Two residential campuses were built, both a fair distance from the college's academic buildings on George Street. Each of the campuses - now known as Gibbons and Corwin - is comprised of several houses containing at least nine bedrooms, plus a kitchenette, living room and basement study rooms. A central lodge on each campus acted as a meeting place and communal lounge. Corwin houses were built on two semi-circular roads, with larger 40-woman houses at each end of the two "horseshoes." True to the plan, each of the houses could easily be sold to private owners as cozy one-family homes, should the bank need to take possession. Each of the nine-bedroom houses had virtually identical floor plans, but the exteriors came in several varieties, just enough to add a little individuality for a potential buyer.

Renamed Douglass College in 1955, the school continued to grow and prosper, prompting the construction of more traditional dorm housing closer to the central campus. Expansion also meant that additional academic buildings were built closer to the Gibbons campus, making that housing more desirable. Corwin, on the other hand, was separated from the rest of Douglass by several Cook College buildings. While generally considered 'last resort' housing, those relegated to living in Corwin were fiercely loyal to their homes on the horseshoes. The coziness of the houses, plus the familiarity that comes from living in close quarters with 16 other students, engendered a unique kind of camaraderie among housemates.

Though the Gibbons houses are still in use as housing, Corwin stands largely vacant. A handful of the houses have served as offices for various university departments, but for the most part, the campus looks like a dated subdivision awaiting its first families to move in. Given the costs of retrofitting more than 20 houses with fire suppression systems and internet access, and the university's zeal in building new housing, it's not likely that Corwin will ever serve as dorm space again.


  1. Thank you for this post! I lived in the first horseshoe in 1996-7 (oops!), after all of the rooms had been converted to singles, while they were all still "specialty" dorms (language houses, 9-month housing for working students, LGBT support etc.) I'm sad to hear that they are not inhabited anymore!

    1. Thanks, Jessica! I lived in the first horseshoe, too, when just a few of the houses were special-interest housing. It would be really wonderful if students could once again have the experience of living there.

  2. I lived in the first horseshoe, too! I lived in Corwin C when I was a freshman in 1986. I loved it! Truly a shame the dorms are not in use anymore.

  3. Thank you for sharing this history! One of the reasons I chose to go to Douglass was because of the special interest housing in Corwin. I lived in the Global Village's "La Casa Hispanica" or Spanish House and was heartbroken when I found out future generations would not have the same experience. I have the best memories of living in Corwin and wish that they would renovate all the homes and offer the same residential learning community that I fell in love with to incoming students.

  4. 1972-77. The two horseshoes at Corwin had excellent tennis courts. With he tall trees around them, and the houses gave it all an elegant air. Yes, people had intense pride in their houses. What a shame Rutgers did not continue maintaining them as residences.