Making OHIO Home: The History of Housing and Residence Life from the 1800s to the Present

In recognition of Ohio University’s Founders Day 2019:

Living on campus has been a defining experience for generations of Ohio University students. Starting with the first students residing in Cutler Hall in the early 1800s and reaching peak occupancy with over 9,000 residents in 1970, today more than 7,300 students live and learn in 39 residence halls, the housing and residence life experience is woven into the fabric of Ohio University life.

Throughout most of the 19th century, OHIO students who chose to live on campus were housed in the first University buildings, known then as the Center Edifice, the East Wing, and the West Wing, and eventually renamed as Cutler, Wilson, and McGuffey halls, respectively. Meanwhile, other students turned to private families in the Athens community for their housing.

However, by 1896, enrollment at OHIO had grown to over 200 students, creating the need for increased housing options on campus and resulting in the construction of Women’s Hall which had a reported occupancy for 30 female students. Ohio University leased this new residence facility from its original local business owners, the College Place Improvement Company, before ultimately purchasing it in 1908 and renaming it Howard Hall, in honor of former University President Solomon Howard.

Enrollment at Ohio University continued to bourgeon during the early 1900s, fueled largely by the introduction of the two-year programs of the so-called “Normal School,” which attracted dozens of young women who aspired to gain entry into the professional workforce as primary and secondary school teachers. Recognizing that providing adequate housing for new and prospective students was essential to the University’s desire to attract and retain more students, OHIO President Alston Ellis declared in 1905 that additional accommodations would be necessary.

Subsequently, by the fall of 1906, Boyd Hall, named in honor of OHIO’s first female graduate, opened on Park Place as the residence for 88 female students, and within the next year, extensive renovations began on Women’s Hall that would eventually increase its occupancy to 100 students.

As student enrollment continued to climb through 1913, Dr. Irma Voigt, a pioneer in the relatively new field of female college deans, began her tenure as Ohio University’s first dean of women. Under Dean Voigt’s guidance, a director of housing managed the women’s residence halls. Similarly, the administration of Scott Hall, OHIO’s first male student residence which was built in 1936 and named in honor of former OHIO President William Scott, was managed under the direction of the dean of men John Reed Johnston.

As enrollment at OHIO continued to grow, especially as female enrollment increased, University-owned housing became the standard as the initial residence for new students at the University. So, it was only natural that through Dean Voigt and her office, the first formal residence life student programs began to take shape beginning in the 19-teens. Thus, just after the Dean retired in 1949, her successor Leona Felsted declared that, “Dormitory life at Ohio University is an integral part of an educational experience . . . which would allow women to achieve personal satisfaction while fostering quality character, leadership, cooperativeness and good citizenship.”

Meanwhile, student enrollment at OHIO and residence hall occupancy fell drastically during World War II, as male students especially left universities across the country to serve in the military. Nevertheless, throughout the 1940s, OHIO residence hall staffing underwent dramatic philosophical and physical changes as professionally trained and qualified residence hall counselors began displacing male “head residents” and their female “matron” counterparts. Present-day resident assistants, more commonly referred to as RAs, emerged from this professionalization of OHIO residence life staffing.

After the war, as military veterans rushed to OHIO and other campuses across the country to take advantage of the G.I. Bill, OHIO’s enrollment increased over 300% in the ensuing years. As an emergency response to the urgent and immediate need for student housing at Ohio University, the University quickly constructed 23 barracks-style residence halls in the low-lying, often-flooded area that is known today as the East Green. These barracks on so-called “Hog Island” housed 740 male students.

But the Hog Island barracks were merely a temporary fix, as the University prepared for more massive construction projects to permanently address the boom in enrollment that was predicted for the 1950s and 1960s. The construction of 12 new residence halls on what became known as the East Green began in the early 1950s, concluding with the completion of Lincoln Hall in 1959. As enrollment continued to soar well into the 1960s, the University received renewal funds for the purchase of adjacent land and the construction of eight new West Green residence halls. As enrollment spiraled upward toward 19,000 by the end of the 1960s, with projections for it to reach 25,000 by the middle of the next decade, 15 mod-style residence halls were added to South Green. 

However, by the time that these new halls were scheduled to open in the early 1970s, enrollment had begun to decline; falling to a little over 18,000 and a little over 17,000 in successive years, precipitating the eventual closing of several of the new residence and dining halls. Reacting to this decline, in an effort to raise revenue to “meet operational costs and debt service costs,” the OHIO Board of Trustees adopted a new Parietal Rule, mandating that “all freshmen and sophomores must reside in University-owned housing and participate in the associated mandatory board plan.”

Indeed, by 1975, enrollment at the University had fallen to just over half of the originally projected numbers, as only 12,814 students enrolled for the fall quarter, and residence hall occupancy dropped from an all-time high of over 9,000 students during the last years of the 1960s to 5,500. The establishment of the College of Osteopathic Medicine on the OHIO campus helped to soften the blow as some of the West Green’s former residence halls were repurposed as classrooms and laboratories. But enrollment at the University would never approach 25,000 and OHIO’s residence halls would never again house 9,000 students. 

During the 1980s and 1990s, as residence hall occupancy held steady between 6,000-7,000 residents, students welcomed new technologies into the halls. Returning to campus in January 1995, students found their rooms wired for cable television, an amenity previously available only in the hall lobbies. Computerized ID cards, also introduced in 1995, and included “Bobcat Cash” which could be used in laundry facilities, among other campus conveniences. In response to the Board of Trustee’s computer requirement resolution, installation of personal desktop computers and printers in every residence hall room began in Fall Quarter 1999. However, this was a short-lived program as the computers were removed by Fall Quarter 2005.

As demand for varied on-campus accommodations grew, suite-style residence halls were constructed beginning with Adams Hall, opening in 2007, over 30 years after the last new residence hall of South Green had been completed. Additionally, Carr, Luchs, Sowle, and Tanaka Halls opened to residents of South Green in 2015. As the campus community welcomed these new residence halls, six “New South Green” halls were demolished between 2016 and 2017, enabling this property to be considered for other eventual University needs.

Renovations of residence halls have continued in recent years with improvements made to Boyd, Gamertsfelder, James, Tiffin, and Washington Halls. Jefferson Hall received a full renovation in 2017 and now includes a first-floor, living-learning area complete with study rooms, a game room, and multipurpose spaces available for use by students and the rest of the University community.

Looking forward, Housing and Residence Life is dedicated to the continued enrichment of the on-campus living experience for Ohio University students through renovation of physical spaces and continued innovation by professional and para-professional staff, including the nearly 300 resident assistants in the halls today. By developing inclusive communities where students engage, learn, and thrive, Housing and Residence Life makes OHIO home.

February 14, 2019
Dana Wright and Bill Kimok