Living on Campus in Larimore Hall

The Wesley College Documentation Project has long simmered on the back burner, but I haven’t lost track of it. This weekend, I read Carla Yanni’s Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory (2019), and it helped me understand and contextualize a few of the more interesting features of Larimore Hall.

The first floor of Larimore Hall featured two rooms who function, arrangement, and features confused us at first.

The first room is a space was a space originally marked as Room 7 on early one-line plans of the space and it stood at the south (left) side of Larimore Hall before it widens out to form the lowest level of Corwin. 

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The space was entered by a double door with an elaborate wood frame:

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The ceiling preserved the lines of the central hallway, but these were coved to great a more interesting and elaborate space. The windows were likely decorated with wainscoting and more elaborate trim than the windows elsewhere in the building and there is evidence for a picture rail running just below the coving on the ceilings.

This more elaborate, common space was characteristic of women’s dormitories at the turn of the century. These spaces were often larger than their counterparts in men’s dorms for a number of reasons. They provided a chaperoned space for men and women to interact as well as a spaces for women to perform domesticity. The need for these kinds of spaces reflected not only turn of the century social critics’ fear that lesbianism might might arise from women living together without the company of men, but also the restraints on the social movement of single women in outside of campus. 

The opposite end of the same floor in the building was another similar space that spanned the entire width of the structure on the northern side of the building (and on the one-line plan above is divided from the hallway by a later wall). The earliest floor present in this space preserved a series of wooden slats set into the concrete floor. These served to support a floating floor. More evidence for this comes from the baseboards which are set over two inches above the concrete floor into which the rails were set. This gap allowed for space for a wooden floor to stand. It is likely that this space supported a wooden gymnasium type floor for a fitness or exercise room. Like the parlor on the building’s south side, this too spanned the entire width of the building and was entered through another pair of double doors. 

The presence of an exercise room in a women’s dorm initially struck us as a bit odd. Yanni’s book, however, argues that at the turn of the century university leaders were as worried about the physical health of women as their social standing. The inclusion of fitness facilities in the women’s dormitory was not particularly unusual.

Yanni’s book also revealed the spread of the “double-loaded corridor” style dormitories at the turn of the century and demonstrated remarkable parallels from the across the U.S. The similarities in plan, for example, between A. Wallace McRae’s Larimore Hall (1908) and the York and Sawyer’s Martha Cook dormitory (1915) at the University of Michigan, show both similar educational philosophies to residential life as well as solutions to practical problems. The double-loaded corridor plan allowed administrators to limit access to the building at key points to manage visits from outsiders, particularly men. The arrangement of closets along the outer walls of the dormitory rooms dampened the noise from the hard floors of the public hallways. The arrangement of rooms as two rooms suites ensured some social interaction between residents of the dorm and served to socialize residents.

In the end, the book’s clear-eyed and historical treatment of the priorities of campus life offers relatively few surprises to anyone familiar early 20th century higher education and campus plans. At the same time, Yanni’s attention to the practical execution and implementation of these priorities – from socialization to the forming of gender norms and educational philosophies and practices –  offers a distinct perspective on the way in which university administrators hoped that architecture would make a campus work. 

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