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Fridays with Fred: Postwar Campus Housing Riddle

Fred Burwell ’86 answers the riddle of how the campus accommodated an influx of students post- WWII.

A dozen identical one-story buildings huddle close together on West Shirland Avenue in South Beloit. Unassuming rectangles painted uniform gray, windows at each end sporting their only decorative touch—maroon shutters. Metal chimneys sprout from their roofs, like unusually tall mushrooms. And yet these ordinary looking dwellings provide an intriguing answer to a Beloit College trivia question. How did the college cope with the vast influx of students at the end of World War II?

During 1944-45, the last year of the war, 369 students attended Beloit College, only 48 of them men. Although the following year saw enrollment jump significantly, with more and more veterans completing their service and with the G.I. Bill in place, 1946-1947 brought a then-record enrollment of 1002 students. Planning ahead, the college had begun constructing two women’s dormitories, Centennial (Aldrich) and Maurer. College officials, however, must have felt something akin to panic when faced with hordes of veterans anxious to enter college for the first time or ready to take up studies they’d had to abandon for military service. In two years, male enrollment jumped from 48 to 586.

Early in 1946, the college announced that the United States government had allotted Beloit a set of prefabricated wooden barracks dismantled from army camps in Wisconsin and Missouri for use as housing for single and married veterans. Each furnished unit would include plumbing, water, coal stoves for heating, and, for married couples, a kitchen. The college planned four units for married veterans and their families set between Emerson Hall and the new dormitories. Another three would sit on the hill between Pearsons Hall and old Chapin Hall. Single veterans would occupy units placed on the lawn between Haven and North (Wood) dormitories and the Sigma Chi and Beta Theta Pi fraternity houses, with one more unit west of the dormitories near the Field House.

Construction began in July and the college hoped to have everything in place when students returned for the fall semester in September. The first delay, as the Round Table reported, resulted “from critical shortages of millwork, flooring, plumbing, and labor. These shortages persisted…” and so the college put off the start of the term by two weeks and predicted that the units would be ready by mid-October. Progress continued at the proverbial snail’s pace due to continued labor issues, including a plumber’s strike, so the college had to come up with—they hoped—even more transitory measures. As autumnal winds brought frigid weather, many men took up residence on bunk beds in the Smith Gymnasium and squeezed into the inadequate Beta Apartments on Chapin Street.

Curious students shuffling through fallen leaves on their way to and from classes could mark the progress of these “temporary” structures everyone called “huts,” despite the college insisting upon “lodges,” which they named after beloved past faculty members. Among them were J.J. Blaisdell, T.C. Chamberlin, Hiram Densmore, S. Pearl Lathrop, Rollin Salisbury, and William Porter. A college press release described their architecture:

“The appearance of the buildings is improving as the work nears completion.The green composite roofs blend well with the imitation yellow-brick siding. The structures sit off the ground on stilts and the composition skirts to the ground. Landscaping will be completed as soon as practical.”

That November, the first of the units was ready at last, as the press release noted:

“Early this week smoke started pouring from the chimneys of several of the apartments and the Milwaukee contractors have promised to stoke up the other stoves as soon as possible.”

For many long-separated couples, their new homes were the perfect present for the holidays:

“A married veteran and his wife have a compact apartment of some comfort thanks to extensive insulation and double-flooring. He has a living room, a dinette and kitchenette, a bathroom, and the housemaker can step out onto a neat little front porch for her milk. There are space heaters and cooking facilities. There’s a clothes line in back for the washing, strung to poles simulating the rustic.”

Initially, plans called for razing the housing after three years, unless a shortage still existed. As it turned out, the college maintained the lodges well into the 1950s, even as late as 1957, when the government allowed the sale and removal of some of them. Today, as we complete the answer to our trivia question, the college’s makeshift housing for veterans still exists nearby, on the Wisconsin and Illinois border, 70 years later.

Fred Burwell ’86
March 18, 2016

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