Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Barn Dormers

They had to patch the roof and install new plumbing. They put in windows and wired their own electrical fixtures. They even needed to become handy with a trowel as they wielded bricks and mortar to fill in gaping holes on several exterior walls.

In all, it took more than two months of effort during the summer of 1949. But when the job was completed, these gifted amateur carpenters, plumbers, masons and electricians – who in real life were 12 KU graduate and upper-class undergraduate male students – had turned a former horse barn on Tennessee Street into a home that would serve as a residential cooperative for more than a decade.

After much discussion, they ended up calling it the Hill Co-op, presumably chosen in reference to the colloquial appellation for the KU campus on Mount Oread. And on September 26, 1949, this group of do-it-yourself renovators became the first occupants of one of the more unconventional solutions to KU’s student housing shortage that came in the wake of the post-World War II enrollment boom.

The Hill residents themselves may have done the bulk of the heavy lifting, in keeping with the self-help tenet of cooperation. But in the beginning, much of the brainwork for this residence hall was the product of KU political science professor Hilden Gibson.

Long a staunch and passionate supporter of the cooperative housing movement on Mount Oread, Gibson believed co-ops to be “among the most valuable adjuncts to university life.” As he once said, “They have made it possible for some students to attend college who otherwise would not have been able to at all; and they have made it possible for many others to live on a more comfortable plane than would have been possible otherwise.”

The cooperative housing movement had taken root at KU in 1939 when a group of men founded the Jayhawk Co-op at 1614 Kentucky Street. The next year, several Jayhawk members established a second cooperative residence called the Rock Chalk Co-op. Recognizing the need for a framework that tied the two houses together, members of both co-ops worked with Gibson to form an independent, non-profit entity called the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA). Gibson was elected president of the organization, which soon thereafter purchased the house at 1614 Kentucky.

As the decade of the 1940s neared its end, Gibson remained eager to spread the gospel of cooperation, and found no shortage of disciples amid the University’s serious postwar housing crunch. In the spring of 1949, Gibson conceived of a way to transform an unused structure into KU’s newest student co-op. The object of his attention was an old, two-story brick barn that was already in the cooperative fold, so to speak. It was situated on the property of Harman House, a women’s co-op then located at 1537½ Tennessee Street and owned by the University of Kansas Student Housing Association.

When Harman House had been a private residence, this barn functioned as a stable for horses, and probably carriages as well. Servants’ quarters were said to have been on the second floor; and, in later years, the building may have also been used as an automobile garage. As of early 1949, though, one thing was for sure: the roughly 30-by-70-foot barn had long ago been allowed to fall into a sorry state of disrepair.

Yet where some saw simply an abandoned, broken-down hulk with holes in the roof, holes in the walls, no indoor plumbing, no electricity and an inevitable rendezvous with the wrecking ball, Professor Gibson saw an opportunity to provide up to a dozen KU students with an ultra-low-cost, off-campus housing option. When he presented the idea at a co-op gathering, others saw the light as well. They took on the assignment of recruiting potential residents, and the UKSHA agreed to help finance the renovation.

Recruitment turned out to be one of the simpler tasks. Indeed, so many students answered the Council’s late-spring call for volunteers that “a method of selection had to be established.” As an article in the University Daily Kansan later reported, “grade averages, work habits and general interest [were] the determining factors.” In retrospect, it seems most fortunate that the candidates’ work habits were among the decisive criteria, for as the 12 chosen men quickly realized, “if they were going to have a house they would have to practically build it themselves.”

While this may have seemed a daunting challenge, the initial dozen co-op members were no strangers to serious workloads, let alone the cooperative approach. Nearly half were graduate students and most worked as either graduate instructors or research assistants, and another member was a full-time research assistant. Except for two sophomores, the undergraduates were older with the group’s median age a comparatively mature 22. Half had previously lived in other co-ops.

Only a few, however, had had any direct experience with construction work and, as former resident Richard L. Pfister admitted, “most were rank amateurs.” But what the majority lacked in practical knowledge, they seem to have made up for in gritty determination. Ignoring the doubts many observers expressed concerning their goal of making the barn livable before fall semester classes began on September 19, 1949, “the pseudo-carpenters returned to Lawrence in August to start actual work on the place,” wrote the UDK. They vowed to do all they could to ensure the move-in went forward as planned.

To say they had their work cut out for them would be an understatement indeed. “The walls were there,” recalled Albert Roland, “a half-painted roof, some windows, but very little else.” As the UDK reported, “There just wasn’t anything there but a brick frame with a roof on it – and not a very good roof at that. The ground floor was open on three sides and new brick had to be mortared in to fill up the holes.”

Other essential tasks, remembered Willard R. Brown, included “bricking up the arched entrances, laying floors, putting in room dividers, and connecting water, sewer and gas lines.” Additionally, the stairway leading to the second floor – where the men intended to locate their sleeping quarters, dining area and all-purpose “rumpus room” – had to be rebuilt, new windows had to be installed, and virtually every visible surface was in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. The only positive structural attribute, it appears, was that the barn had a working fireplace.

Another positive in the face of this dilapidation was psychological. “You know,” said co-op resident Bill Brown, “I don’t think we would have gotten along half so well if we hadn’t had so much damn work to do.” Stan Kelley agreed, observing that there’s “nothing like working together to make people happy and friendly toward each other.”

Additionally, in keeping with the mutual aid doctrine at the core of the cooperative movement, a number of residents from other Mount Oread-area student co-ops volunteered to help out with the renovations during the months of August and September 1949. Two of the most valued individuals were Bob Campbell, a KU grad student in economics, and his brother John, a college senior, who together served as the project’s co-foremen. With the Campbells’ assistance and under their supervision, the soon-to-be residents themselves worked tirelessly throughout those precious few weeks, spending their days hammering nails and mortaring bricks and their nights bunked in other nearby co-ops, recovering their strength to begin anew come dawn.

The result – to seemingly everyone’s astonishment but their own – was that they overran their self-imposed deadline by a mere seven days. And while there was still a great deal of interior refurbishment to do, furniture to procure, and innumerable minor chores to accomplish before the residence could be declared complete, on September 26, 1949, the 12 men moved in to their new home at 1539 Tennessee Street, which strangely enough still bore no official name.

“It had been ‘the barn’ for a long time,” Albert Roland wrote in the 1949-50 edition of the Jayhawker yearbook, “but people now objected to this name,” especially after so much effort had been expended to wipe away its “barnish look.” “‘It’s the sort of name a fat old dowager would choose for a million-dollar mansion,’ one would say. ‘It reminds me of getting up at dawn and going out in the cold to milk the cows,’ another realistically commented.” Thus, Roland further explained, “The barn co-op was discarded, but as always when you discard tradition and tread new paths,” he added, “it [is] difficult to rally a majority in favor of any one proposal.”

“The suggestions flocked in,” Roland continued, “no sooner made than laughed off; the sky was the limit, and experimentation the watchword.” Finally, after several weeks of creative stalemate, the men called a house meeting, brewed a large pot of coffee and, in a “smoke-filled room,” vowed to end their collective namelessness “before the night was over.”

“‘Since we can’t agree on any original name,’ somebody hesitatingly said, ‘why don’t we find an extremely conventional one? Extreme conventionality can be as good as striking originality,” this unidentified idea-man submitted. “Convincing or not,” as Roland put it, “this was a possibility for a new approach to the problem. Half an hour later, we lifted out cups and drank to ‘the hill co-op.’”

(Perhaps to season this informal KU name for Mount Oread with a dash of originality – or perhaps to temper their commendable architectural achievement with a touch of modesty – the men did indeed originally spell “the hill co-op” with all lowercase letters. To conform to conventional grammatical rules, though, most contemporary sources and accounts, and even most of the former residents themselves, have taken to calling it “the Hill Co-op.”)

Organizing themselves around the traditional “Rochdale Principles” of cooperative living, the residents of the Hill Co-op conducted all house business according to the “one man, one vote” format. Although technically a pure democracy, there was at least a nominal hierarchy with KU political science grad student Stan Kelley at the top. It was his responsibility as Hill Co-op president that first year to “preside over the house and the ‘interpersonal relationships’ of its members,” each of whom had his assigned weekly task – such as cleaning, dishwashing, floor-scrubbing, food purchasing and, of course, cooking. This assured, among other things, as resident John Howieson put, that “we all learned to be cooks after a fashion.”

It was, in fact, their generally fine cuisine that the UDK made particular note of in its December 21, 1949, profile of the nascent co-op. “The housewife’s complaint that cooking one’s own meals takes all the joy out of eating doesn’t apply to the members of the Hill Co-op,” the paper further observed. “They cook their meals and like them.” As Stan Kelley confessed, “Most men have a suppressed desire to cook and we get to realize ours.”

Another central hallmark of the Hill Co-op was non-discrimination on any racial or religious grounds. Residents regularly included African Americans as well as foreign students from Africa, the Middle East, and India. “I was thrown among people from many countries and economic backgrounds quite unlike mine,” recalled William Ives, “and thus probably received an educational aspect more useful to me in the long run than anything I got in a classroom.”

Willard Brown agreed that “integration was an important goal” as, for that matter, was full racial equality in the still largely segregated city of Lawrence. “Many demonstrations in area restaurants and movie theaters,” he recalled, “were attended by [Hill] co-op members.”

Yet race and creed were hardly the only areas in which diversity reigned at the Hill Co-op. Another was in the ideological realm, something that was especially attractive to Kenneth Miller (1949-51), another poly-sci grad student. “What I remember most,” he wrote in a 2001 retrospective, “is the almost continuous series of freewheeling ‘seminars’ – others might call them bull sessions – about politics, literature, co-ops, and the world generally as we sat around the dinner table. I don’t know that we solved any problems,” he added, “but we certainly covered most of them.”

In Willard Brown’s recollection, Kenneth Miller himself – holder of one of KU’s prestigious Summerfield Scholarships – was an exceptionally vigorous and informed debater, as were two other Summerfield Scholars in residence that first year, those being Stan Kelley and Elmer Rusco.

“In looking at the list of occupants of the Hill,” wrote Pfister in 2001, “the proportion who went on to get their PhDs, MDs or LLDs is really impressive. Even those who were not strong academicians at the time found the atmosphere stimulating.” (For his part, incidentally, Pfister went on to complete his own PhD in economics and later embarked on a 30-year professorial career at Dartmouth and Indiana Universities.)

“Because of the presence of so many Summerfield Scholars,” Brown continued, “our house always had a very high academic rating and was among the upper 10 in academic ratings. This spurred all of us on to do better. One year we all managed to make the A honor roll, and we were the top academic house on campus.” Brown further attributed this level of academic excellence to the predominance of “more studious and less socially oriented” graduate students among the Hill Co-op ranks.

That’s not to say, however, that the men were anyway averse to having a good time. After all, admitted Richard L. Bradley, one of the reasons Hill Co-op had so many graduate students was to allow them to “circumvent KU rules that undergraduate houses had to have a housemother.”

“I remember returning from an evening spent with out-of-town friends,” wrote Willard Brown, the prolific chronicler of Hill Co-op life, “and finding a party in progress in the living room. I was totally shocked! Totally shocked to find this group of staid, intellectual graduate students clad in pajamas dancing with women from the Graduate Girls Co-op. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Needless to say,” he admitted, “I joined the fun.” According to Brown, among the more wholesome outcomes of such “spontaneous parties held between the men’s and women’s co-ops [were the] marriages of several of our members.”

Described as the Hill Co-op’s “unmistakable natural leader” and one possessing “great organizational skills,” house president Stan Kelley was yet another resident to have met his future wife while living at 1539 Tennessee Street. Even more interesting, though, was that, in addition to his house presidential duties, Kelley himself actually performed marriage ceremonies long before he ever personally took the plunge.

As related again by Willard Brown, there was apparently a “lack of candidates for Justice of the Peace” in the 1950 Douglas County elections. A well-known and well-liked graduate student in the KU Department of Political Science, Kelley – at least in the minds of his friends, colleagues and fellow co-op members – seemed a natural choice to fill the post. Accordingly, wrote Brown, in the weeks before the balloting, a particularly energetic band of his admirers “went around and very quietly got people to register and write in Stan Kelley’s name – and amazingly,” when all the votes were tallied, “he won!” “We were all very excited and learned a valuable lesson in the political process of the United States.”

For Brown himself, his friend’s victory was especially sweet. “The next month I took advantage of this event, and Stan married me to Mary Campbell of Henley Co-op (incidentally, a sister of the two Campbells who converted the barn to the co-op). I am not sure if we were the first couple Stan married, but it went off without a hitch and 50+ years later,” Brown was pleased to report in 2001, “we still celebrate the event! Stan went on to marry several other couples in the co-ops during his reign as a Justice of the Peace.”

There were, however, some disputes at Hill Co-op – particularly in the early days – that not even the eminently able Stan Kelley could easily resolve. “Twelve people aren’t many,” allowed Albert Roland, but “when it comes to getting them to agree on a color scheme for the living room, or on whether to paint the woodwork the same color as the wall, twelve people are far too many.” From the Irishman who wanted everything painted green to another student’s inexplicable obsession with Chinese red enamel, it fell to Kelley to enforce some semblance of domestic tranquility. In this case, acting on the suggestion of fellow resident Kenneth Robinson, Kelley finally decreed, “When in doubt, paint it maroon.”

The solid foundations built by the original group of Hill Co-op members helped enable this residence to endure through the 1959-60 academic year. It “lasted longer than anyone would have predicted,” observed Fred McEhlenie, KU’s associate director of student housing. Despite (or perhaps because of) the Hill Co-op’s “humble beginnings,” it also “served as an incubator and launching pad for many young men who might not have otherwise been able to attend the University.”

The old horse barn structure at 1539 Tennessee itself remained standing until the early 1980s. But in spirit, this little known onetime monument to KU student ingenuity remains a symbol of a generation’s earnest postwar pursuit of education no matter the circumstances or hardships.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: Much of the content of this article was made possible by the sizable and invaluable collection of reminiscences compiled by Fred McElhenie, associate director of the KU Department of Student Housing for his Hill Co-op Retrospectives project. The other sources consulted are: University Daily Kansan (December 21, 1949), p. 3, and Jayhawker yearbook, vol. 61 (1949-50), pp. 236-238.]