For much of the 1940s, a three-story wood frame dwelling situated less than a block away from the main entrance to the University of Kansas annually served as home for some 20 KU women students not affiliated with a sorority.
Known as Hillcrest House and located at 1225 Oread Avenue, its tenure as one of the University’s approved organized living units may have been relatively brief. But according to the reminiscences of several former Hillcrest residents compiled by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing in summer 2002, there were many moments that made it fun while it lasted.
Biloine Whiting Young remembered many evenings when Hillcrest’s front porch and hallway “turned into a ‘passion pit’ as couples shared a last fervent kiss before the housemother turned on the lights and locked the doors.”
Jo Ann Roberts Allegre recounted living in a room that “was so homey,” and had “a warm feeling about it.” Indeed, this “large front south bedroom on the second floor” – a “prize lodging” as she described it – was apparently so inviting that “quite often, the other girls in the house would gather in our room for a gabfest.”
Betty Jo Lorbeer McMillen, who lived at Hillcrest from 1946 to 1948, recalled a moment of youthful enthusiasm when she and a group of housemates busted an old walnut bed – nicknamed “George”, incidentally – while standing atop it and yelling out a rendition of the Rock Chalk cheer.
Still other recollections of Hillcrest House ranged from memories about a third floor hallway watermelon seed spitting contest that aroused the ire of the housemother to a shared inside joke about regular visits to the house of a professor whose name sounded like the word “whore.”
And many former Hillcrest dwellers agreed with the assessment of Jo Ann Roberts Allegre that one of the main advantages of living at 1225 Oread Avenue was its location “so handy to the campus, just a stone’s throw away from the Student Union,” where breakfast and lunch could be obtained for a total of 40 cents. The neighborhood also contained a number of other student residences, as well as several small cafes that served meals to the student clientele at reasonable prices.
The nearness to what was then the center KU life wasn’t the only form of close proximity that characterized the Hillcrest experience. At least some of the women who resided there had to share not just a room, but also a double bed. Such sleeping arrangements, particularly when the two individuals were complete strangers to each other, resulted in a living environment that gave new meaning to the concept of “too close for comfort.”
“I slept way over on the edge of the bed,” remembered Biloine Whiting Young, who had come to KU as a transfer student and shared a bed with a young woman she had never met before. “I imagine she did, too.” Other Hillcrest residents didn’t seem to mind this state of affairs too much, perhaps because they were not forced to endure strange bedfellows. For example, one year Mary Lynn Winey was able to share her bed with her sister who “chose to come sleep with me in the ‘cubbyhole’ in Hillcrest.”
Another limitation on privacy concerned the lavatory situation. There was only one bathroom per floor, which meant that nine to ten women shared a single toilet. At times, this could be a cause for consternation. “One memory I have of ‘life’ at Hillcrest was of one girl (not to be named) who often locked the bathroom door on the second floor and posted a ‘taking an enema’ sign on the door,” recalled Emily E. Schnabel. “This fascinated me because I did not know what she was doing.”
Other Hillcrest residents struggled with the realities of being on their own for the first time. Marion Pugh Strand recalled that during her one semester at Hillcrest, “My roommate was a transfer student from [a Missouri] junior college. Unused to living away from home she flunked all her courses and left KU.”
The opening of the academic year on September 18, 1942 marked the beginnings of Hillcrest House as an organized living unit for students. Initially, it was a men’s residence. No record remains indicating exactly when the house gained University recognition, or how the name of “Hillcrest House” came about. The KU student directory for 1942-43 noted simply that Hillcrest was an organized house for men, with Mrs. J.S. Turner as housemother.
One of the residents during that term was Dean M. Miller, a premedical student in his second year at the University. According to Miller’s account, he and a friend had been unhappy the previous year with their accommodations at Battenfeld, a scholarship hall for men that had opened in 1940. Seeking quieter and more spacious living quarters, the two moved to 1225 Oread in the fall of 1942.
Unfortunately, as Miller recounted, “Life at Hillcrest was not much of an improvement over Battenfeld Hall. The administrator was a cantankerous guy and the food situation was pretty bad.” After only one year at Hillcrest, Miller opted to join the US Navy. Although he remained at KU for some months to continue his training, he moved into quarters with other Navy enlistees.
Miller’s departure from Hillcrest House was part and parcel of the disruptions that roiled the KU campus during the Second World War. With thousands of men joining the American war effort, many KU buildings took on new functions. Such was the case with Hillcrest, which became a women’s residence starting with the 1943-44 school year. Mrs. J.S. Turner remained as housemother, but meals were no longer provided at the house.
The following year, Mrs. H.M. Nusbaum took over as housemother, having served in the same capacity the previous two years at the Kaw Koettes Co-op, an off-campus women’s residence organized as a housing cooperative. In the fall of 1949, during what was perhaps the last year of Hillcrest’s operation as student housing, the newly married Mr. & Mrs. John Oliver assumed duties as “house parents.”
During its years as a women’s residence, Hillcrest House offered the no-frills accommodations typical of independent student housing at KU in the 1940s. Rent was $15 per month for a shared room, and no meals or kitchen facilities were provided.
Biloine Whiting Young remembered that “for a time, [my roommate] Jo and I ate cold vegetables from cans and the housemother commented unfavorably on the number of cans we were putting in the trash.” Betty Jo Lorbeer McMillen recalled that she and her friends at Hillcrest “sometimes ate in. It was always tuna fish sandwiches, (one can [of tuna] I think) and tea (one tea bag I know). Some Saturdays, we splurged with a hamburger, chili, coke, and fudgecake (each) at the Jayhawk,” a popular café at 1340 Ohio Street. However, Marion Pugh Strand “went home weekends because I had only $5 a week for food on campus.”
Apparently no photographs of Hillcrest House survive, but former resident Betty Jo Lorbeer McMillen described the house as “a modest, white clapboard three story Victorian of formal balance with a wide front porch with a porch swing.” On the first floor were a center hallway, a common living room and the housemother’s quarters.
Claudine Scott Lingelbach and Margaret Wenski Amini, who lived at Hillcrest prior to the end of World War II recalled that student rooms were only on the second floor, and that all residents slept in single beds. Later Hillcrest residents, however, remembered at least one student room on the first floor and several rooms on the third level as well. Mary Lynn Winey’s room at the back of the house on the second floor was so tiny that “Our ironing we did in the hall.”
Like other female students, the Hillcrest women were subject to curfews and other social rules to be enforced by the housemother. Men visiting the house were not allowed past the living room, where they could wait for their dates. Shirley Sloan Kassinger, a music student and clarinet player, noted that her future husband “had a dance band & I played in it so I got permission from Mrs. Nusbaum to be out until 1:00 A.M. on nights when we had jobs to play. The other girls didn’t like that too much.”
Although the women of Hillcrest recalled cordial relations among all the residents, it appears they engaged in little social activity as a house group, and no real feeling of solidarity developed. Unlike some other organized houses, Hillcrest had no common sleeping porch and no activity room for residents and their guests. Former residents seem to recall little use of the common living room and broad front porch.
A number of the “independent houses” often worked together to sponsor dances, hayrides and other social events, but apparently Hillcrest as a living unit participated in few of these. This may have been due, in part, to the fact that the residents tended to be a very busy lot, between pursuing their degrees and working outside jobs. Jo Ann Roberts Allegre pointed out that she had little time to socialize, as she worked every afternoon as a secretary in the Romance Language Department. Shirley Sloan Kassinger played late gigs with the dance band, and she and other music majors who lived at Hillcrest spent hours in the practice rooms at Hoch Auditorium.
Within the house, strong social bonds did form among smaller groups, and friends often gathered for chats in the upstairs rooms. For a time, several music majors roomed together on the third floor. Two of these women, who had been high school classmates as well, even married on the same day in August 1948. Betty Jo Lorbeer McMillen and two other Hillcrest women all came from Neodesha, Kansas, and this bond plus common interests nourished their friendships through the years at KU and beyond.
On the whole, Hillcrest residents seem to have been a dutiful lot who worked hard for their education while having some fun along the way. Indeed, several of the women went on to highly successful careers.
Margaret Wenski Amini, one of the earlier residents, pursued work in journalism, public relations, advertising, and with her husband, K.K. Amini, has provided significant funding to build new KU scholarship halls.
Mary Lynn Winey studied at Juilliard after leaving KU and later sang with the Robert Shaw Chorale and other well-known choral groups. Biloine Whiting Young became an editor and writer of numerous non-fiction books.
And Betty Joe Lorbeer McMillen, despite a bout with polio during her student days, went on to a professional dancing career, performing on Broadway, in movies and on network television.