The Dorms (and Rules) Have Changed, But Roommates Remain Key to Student Life

From buildings with coal stoves to today’s apartment-style spaces, students have forged lifelong friendships in residence halls at Tufts

The place: Carmichael Hall. The date: Move-In Day, 1998. The Jumbo: Mark Tang, E02, wondering which of the incoming students around him was Amit Kothari, his soon-to-be roommate.

The two had spoken once on the phone for about 15 minutes a few weeks earlier. Otherwise, Tang didn’t know much about Kothari, E02, M07, other than their shared status as first-gen only children and that Kothari, like him, had checked “neat” as his living style on the roommate questionnaire. It wouldn’t take long, though, for Tang to come to find that, in terms of tidiness, the exact opposite was true.

“If anyone walked into that room, there was a clear line between our sides. He gamed the system,” Tang recently recalled, with a smile and more than a little admiration.

Kothari later laughed. “No comment.”

While some students may have met this make-it-or-break-it realization with a dark shower curtain strung up along the divide, Tang and Kothari allowed the dorm room to be what it was: a tight space for great expansion—of empathy, compromise, and high jinks; of the growth of good habits and the shedding of bad; and of the many intangible traits that raise us up to adulthood and, in their case, incredible friendship.

Roommate drawings have been held at Tufts since at least 1900, according to early editions of The Tufts Weekly. It’s a rite of passage even older than painting the cannon. In fact, stronger perhaps than the attachment to the name Tufts is the affinity many Jumbos feel when they meet another alum and ask, “Houston? South?”

How amazing that a singular word can spark such a surge of memories and emotions. Let’s take a look at the origins of our homes away from home.

Two students sit on a bed in a dorm room

Ezekiel Navarro, A23 (BFA), (left) and Izaiah Rhodes, A23 (BFA), shared a dorm room in 2019, when they were first-year students at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Dorm life has been a fixture of Tufts since the cornerstone of Ballou Hall was laid in 1853. Referred to as College Building or College Hall, Ballou housed everything in the early days: classes, laboratories, a museum, administrative offices, a chapel, a library, and, of course, living quarters for the first dozen or so students.

Originally known as Building A and Building B, Packard Hall and Richardson House were built in 1856 and 1857, respectively, to alleviate crowded dormitory conditions as the college grew. East Hall followed in 1860. Room and board cost $10 a year, plus an extra $2.50 a week for fuel and laundry service. By 1864, another dollar was added annually to pay for the dormitory monitor, a predecessor of the resident advisor.

Tufts’ very own Hogwarts, West Hall, joined the academic quad trio in 1872. Initially housing students of the Divinity School and the college, with a small chapel on the first floor, West is prized today for its turrets and Oxford-like architecture, a style that wouldn’t be replicated anywhere else as each subsequent dorm was added to the family.

Cast iron stoves that burned wood and coal heated the first student quarters. White tablecloths and bone china were a feature of the original in-dorm dining rooms (not a Hodgdon burrito in sight). And the light on the Hill (or at least in its dorms) went electric in 1918.

Despite the formalities of these early years, dorm shenanigans abounded, according to the Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History.

In 1913, the residents of East Hall petitioned then-President Hermon Carey Bumpus for a recreation room and use of a discarded piano to “decrease the number of ‘roughhouses’ and to improve the general behavior” of their dormmates. The room and piano were granted, along with a gift of apples. The follow-up thank-you note gives a glimpse of student life a century ago, and how some things never change: “The fellows are getting together and having ‘sings’ and incidentally becoming closer friends … the discordedness … is fast dying away.”

A black-and-white photo of two women sitting in a 1920s dorm room

Two Jackson students sit in a dorm room in 1920, when college pennants were a common decoration. Photo: Melville S. Munro, courtesy of Tufts Archival Research Center

After women joined the student body in 1892 and Metcalf Hall, the first women’s dorm, was built, more social romps ensued.

The front page of a May 1923 edition of The Tufts Weekly featured “Jacks Perturbed Over Ban on Light Fantastic,” an investigation by distressed Jackson College students into the embargo of their daily doses of pre- and post-dinner dancing “that go far producing that intangible thing called college spirit!” However, the rule was dutifully observed for the time being—dancing “relegated to far-off roof tops.”

Linda Zimmerman Willner, J62, remembers shivering in her dress code-required skirt as she trekked from her residence, Fairmount House, built in 1921, to her dining hall, Hodgdon, in the snow. She and her dormmates petitioned to eat at the closer Carmichael Hall. “Or if we couldn’t eat at Carmichael, could we wear pants to dinner?” she recalled asking. The answer to both questions: No. “So we trudged to Hodgdon every night [in skirts] and froze.”

A black-and-white photo of three young women standing around a radio

In this undated photo, Jackson College students gather around a radio in their dorm. For decades, strict rules governed dorm life for Jackson students, with curfews, requirements for chaperones if going off campus, and limited visiting hours. Photo: Melville S. Munro, courtesy of Tufts Archival Research Center

Photographs of early women’s dorm rooms show modest decorations, such as pennants from Tufts, Harvard, Brown, and Yale. Dan Santamaria, director of Tufts Archival Research Center, thinks the students may have collected them at football games or from friends and dates at other schools.

While we’ll never know for sure, “records created by students like newspaper articles, correspondence, or candid photos can help us imagine everyday life here from 1852 to the present,” said assistant archivist Alexandra Bush.

“It’s funny to think of me putting up my Alice in Chains posters on the walls of this building that housed Tufts women for 100-plus years,” said former Metcalf resident Marcy Archfield, A02.

A group of students sit in a dormitory lounge

Undergraduates gather in a common area in Stratton Hall in December 2018, a few months after the space was renovated. Photo: Alonso Nichols

During both World Wars, Tufts opened its dormitories to the troops to use as barracks. Stratton Hall and Wilson House, purchased in 1927 and 1936 respectively, dot the decades between the university’s early builds and the post-war dorm boom that was spurred in part by the GI Bill. Those dorms still make up much of the university’s student housing today: Carmichael and Hodgdon (’54), Bush and Miller (’59), Tilton (’61), Houston (’62), Wren (’64), and Haskell (’65).

Tang well remembers moving with Kothari from Carmichael with its clean layout, uniform rooms, and classic brick façade—hallmarks of the mid-century dorms—to Edwardian-era Stratton for their sophomore year. “The room was just cavernous,” he recalled. “There were little booths in the hallway that must have been for pay phones and doors to an old dumbwaiter that led to the basement.”

One of Archfield’s best memories is climbing to the Metcalf roof at night via an old ladder. The historical touchpoint isn’t lost on her or Tang. “Living in those places, you felt connected to everyone who came before you,” Tang said.

A black-and-white photo of a student unpacking a doll and tennis racket as another student watches

Two first-year Jackson students unpack in 1965. Photo: Courtesy of Tufts Archival Research Center

America’s social transformation is reflected not only in the architecture of Tufts’ student housing, but also in how its students live in those spaces.

The late ’60s saw the additions of Carpenter House, home to the Afro-American Culture Center, which is now the Africana Center in Capen House, as well as Hill Hall and Lewis Hall, the first coed dorm and the site of 1969 protests concerning hiring practices during its construction. While curfew for Jackson students (such as midnight for first-year students on a 1967 weekday) was upheld longer than that for male peers, gender-based rules finally ceased in 1970.  

Specialty houses like the Crafts House emerged in the early ’70s to celebrate and provide a home base for cultural identities and shared interests. Current students can apply for language-immersion living in multiple houses, as well as housing with a focus, such as LQBTQ+, neurodivergency, healthy living, and sustainability. Simpson House, formerly Carpenter, now offers substance-free living; the residence was recently renamed in recognition of a gift from Emmy Award-winning comedian Hank Azaria, A85, H16, known for voicing many characters on The Simpsons television show.

A black-and-white photo of four college students sitting on a couch

Students gather in a dorm room, probably in Houston Hall, in 1974, two years after the advent of coed residence halls. Photo: Courtesy of Tufts Archival Research Center

Sophia Gordon Hall, Tufts’ first building constructed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, was a state-of-the-art boon for campus when it was added in 2006. And in 2018 and 2019, Tufts created a coveted alternative to off-campus rentals for juniors and seniors: CoHo (short for Community Housing), a cluster of 13 wood-frame Medford houses alongside campus that provide fully furnished apartment-style residences. 

But when more students in the Class of 2025 enrolled than expected, the university housed about 100 Jumbos in a nearby Hyatt Place for the 2021–2022 academic year—the first time that undergrads landed in hotels since the late ’70s. In response, a sprint of summer construction in 2022 produced the Court at Professors Row for first- and second-year students.

A Facebook poll last winter asked alums to name their most memorable dorm moments. Regan Sharkey, J93, wrote of Carmichael radiators that “would get the rooms so hot that we’d wear shorts and T-shirts” to the dining hall in the dead of winter. Benno Rothschild, A81, recalled the Carpenter House fire: “A serious bonding experience for many of us who lived there and are still good friends many years later.” Others also remembered somber scenes, such as watching Barnum Hall burn through the night in 1975.

A student with cake on his face smiles in a bathroom beside another student

Mark Tang, E02, washes up after a “birthday cake smash” in Stratton Hall as his roommate Amit Kothari, E02, M07, stands by. Photo: Courtesy of Mark Tang

Most had a similar response: meeting their roommate. And, in cases like Tang, Kothari, Archfield, and even me (Hey, Kristy Endo, A05!), sticking with those roommates through the years.

“I got my best friend out of this random roommate match,” Kothari said. The two each served as best man at the other’s wedding. And, despite Tang living in Boston and Kothari in Los Angeles, even their children are friends; I spoke to Kothari after he and Tang had just taken their respective 7-year-olds to a UCLA basketball game.  

“That friendship is one of the best things I took away from Tufts,” Kothari said. “I’m thankful to have found someone who’s always been there for me—and taught me a little b-ball.”

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