Housing shortage: not a new campus phenomenon

by Robert Koch

Cashiers earned 50 cents an hour, a pound of coffee cost 48 cents, and University sophomore Al Sandvik was one of thousands of World War II veterans looking for a place to live while attending college on the GI Bill.
In 1947, Sandvik and his new bride, Lois, routinely rushed out to pick up the early edition of the Minneapolis Star. The classifieds were not encouraging.
Typically, there were 100 ads seeking rooms against 60 seeking renters.
So when the Sandviks went to view their future south Minneapolis abode, it came as no surprise to them to find other prospective tenants.
“There were people right behind us,” Sandvik said. “That’s the way it was — people lining up everywhere, to get the paper, to get the places.”
Sandvik said he and his wife paid $10 a month for the 10-by-12 foot upstairs room. The young couple shared the bathroom with six others. The two-burner electric hot plate, at least, was theirs alone.
This fall, as incoming students wrestle with vacancy rates near 2 percent, they might remember their predecessors.
Between 1947 and 1960, students coped as best they could as University planners moved forward with a bold on-campus housing expansion plan.
Before the expansion
As Sandvik commuted to school in his 1932 Chevrolet, dropping his wife off at work along the way, other University students competed for a limited number of units in a limited number of residence halls.
Pioneer Hall, built between 1930 and 1934, was the first of the four Superblock residence halls. The men’s dormitory gave veterans and Minnesota residents preferential treatment, read a 1947 University general information bulletin.
For women, there were Comstock and Sanford halls, the latter without its tower until 1964. But there was also Meredith Hall on the St. Paul campus, Powell Hall near the hospital, and the Cooperative Cottages. With the exception of Sanford Hall, all are now gone.
Superblock completed
The postwar influx of students prompted completion of the Superblock and conversion of some residence halls to coeducational dormitories. Indeed, the expansion was part of a larger campus construction phase. Fully 21 buildings were under construction in 1950.
One of those buildings was Centennial Hall, the next in the Superblock.
Territorial and Frontier halls followed in 1958 and 1959. At the end of the decade, the Superblock housed 2,360 students.
The Superblock halls boasted phones in each corridor, laundry pressing equipment, libraries and unrestricted hours: “You may come and go as you please,” read a brochure from the period.
Meanwhile, Bailey Hall sprang up on the St. Paul campus in 1959, making room for 152 women and 156 men, followed by Middlebrook Hall on the West Bank 10 years later. Today, they accommodate more than 1,200 residents.
Dorms seeking tenants
Ralph Rickgarn came to Centennial Hall in 1957. The former coordinator of student behavior for Housing and Residential Life recalls on-campus housing as a mixture of old and new.
“At the end of the decade, there were (Territorial and Frontier halls),” Rickgarn said. “But at that point, there was also Powell Hall, and then there were a number of cottages.”
The latter were the Winchell Cottages, once located along University Avenue near Sanford Hall. The cottages housed 135 undergraduate and graduate women in “small, comfortable units, where the women share in the work expenses,” according to the 1959-1960 University general information bulletin.
Otherwise, hall rates ranged from $229 to $266 per month.
“I worked in the kitchen for 99 cents an hour,” said Rickgarn, who later served as the director of Centennial, Territorial and Middlebrook halls.
Married students
Had the Sandviks sought on-campus housing in the late 1950s, they perhaps would have found a place.
In 1947, the Student Housing Bureau listed housekeeping rooms, sleeping rooms and private apartments for married students. Otherwise, an “emergency housing project” comprising trailers, Quonset huts and prefabricated houses stood between the two campuses along Como Avenue. Again, veterans were given priority.
Ten years later, however, Commonwealth Terrace, University Grove East and Thatcher Hall had appeared on and adjacent to the St. Paul campus, housing more than 220 families in efficiencies, one- and two-bedroom apartments for between $45 and $70 a month.
What had been a housing crunch only a decade earlier evolved into a surplus, and in the fall of 1959, fully one quarter of men’s dormitory rooms stood vacant, according to a story in the Minneapolis Tribune.
But as University officials said at the time, and as the Sandviks now can attest, the expansion program was valid at the time.

— This article originally appeared in the Aug. 7 edition of the Daily.

Robert Koch welcomes comments at [email protected].