Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Foster Care

“Men students at the University of Kansas are slowly getting back from the women what is rightfully theirs,” announced a press release from the KU News Bureau on the morning of Monday, December 5, 1955.

The night before, 43 men had moved into Foster Hall, an Italianate-style former fraternity house at 1200 Louisiana. “Foster had always been intended as a men’s hall,” as the press release pointed out, but “perennial housing emergencies” caused the University to house women in Foster “for more than a decade.”

In late 1955, however, with the completion of the Gertrude Sellards Pearson dormitory, the final group of Foster women had a new place to live, opening up space in their former digs for men who had resided a block away in an ad-hoc, somewhat dilapidated two-house complex administered as a single residence hall called Sterling-Oliver.

Their arrival at Foster marked the fulfillment of the original goal of Orlando Jolliffe, the benefactor whose donation had made the building’s acquisition possible. It also served as an embodiment of the self-help work ethic of George O. Foster, the man whose name the building bore.

Foster Hall and the real estate it sat on had been connected with the University of Kansas long before it became official KU property. The first building on the site was a house occupied by fine arts professor William Alexander Griffith and his family. Griffith, who taught painting and drawing at KU during the early twentieth century, had played a key role in convincing Sallie Casey Thayer to donate her extensive art collection to the University (now housed in the Spencer Museum of Art). He would go on to help establish the artist’s colony in Laguna Beach, California, and became one of the leading painters associated with Coastal California impressionism.

At some point after the Griffith family vacated the 1200 Louisiana Street house in 1917, it apparently burned to the ground. Public records identify a new building on the site by 1923. This flat-roofed two-story structure was built with an eye to the Italian Renaissance, and featured large banks of distinctive casement windows that filled the interior with light. Over most of the next two decades, it served as the fraternity house for Phi Kappa Alpha.

In 1941, Orlando Jolliffe, a former Kansas state legislator who had amassed a significant fortune from farming, ranching, banking, and oil, donated $50,000 to KU for the construction of a new men’s scholarship hall. (“College youth must live well to be instructed well,” was apparently one of his favorite aphorisms.)

Jolliffe, who was said to be “not only temperate in personal life, but disdainful of others who shunned the frugal and simple life,” favored the KU scholarship hall system. These residences featured cooperative living arrangements that kept room and board costs low, making college more affordable for students with limited means.

Unfortunately, by the time KU was ready to use the Jolliffe funds and begin building what would have been the University’s fourth men’s scholarship hall, the United States had entered World War II, and restrictions on structural steel made new “non-essential” construction impossible. But with money in hand and unmet housing needs waiting to be filled, KU was not to be stymied.

Unable to put up a new residence hall, the University used Jolliffe’s donation to purchase two existing Lawrence houses that could serve the same purpose. The first, located at 1505 Ohio Street, became Jolliffe Hall.

The second, at 1200 Louisiana Street, would be named in honor of George O. Foster, a man who had begun his KU career in 1890 as a clerk and stenographer in the office of Chancellor Francis Huntington Snow and worked his way up to the position of University Registrar, a job he kept until his retirement in April 1942.

During his 52 years at the University, Foster had become something of an institution, affixing his signature to more than 25,000 KU diplomas. Respected for his long hours, hard work, and the bootstrap determination that propelled him to an authority position on campus, Foster was also known for being friendly, approachable, and genuinely fond of students.

To say that he devoted his life to the University would not be an understatement – he died just six months after retiring. Foster Hall became his cenotaph in a way, in addition to becoming a well-known KU address.

Contrary to Jolliffe’s intent, women occupied Foster Hall for the first 12 years of its existence, and initially, the house was considered simply part of the University residence hall system.

The women who lived there have left a limited record of their tenure. Jayhawker yearbook pages from this period indicate the women of Foster seemed to be both studious and extremely interested in school spirit. Many were members of pep clubs like the Jay Janes, contributed to Homecoming activities, and participated in student government as well as numerous campus clubs and organizations.

At times, it appears Foster women were involved in intramural sports through the Women’s Athletic Association (the only venue for athletically-inclined KU women in the pre-Title IX days), though the 1949-50 Jayhawker page for Foster did bemoan the fact that residents were “lamentably lethargic as far as athletic activities are concerned, a source of increasing despair to phys. ed. majors.”

More is known about the men who moved into Foster beginning in December 1955, however, in part because of a series of reminiscences collected and complied by Fred McElhenie of the KU Student Housing Department during the fall of 2000. Based on these recollections, the Foster men seem to have had a love-hate relationship with the old building. Their comments were of the usual sort for any college dormitory. The accommodations were certainly a step up from those in Sterling-Oliver, and in the main, Foster Hall was really not significantly better or worse than any other University living facility.

“Foster Hall was palatial, spacious and full of light,” recalled Roy E. Gridley, who was among the first group of men to move into Foster and would go on to become a professor of English at KU. He found Foster to be a vast improvement over “the dark warrens of the decaying houses of Sterling and Oliver. And we now had real dormitory-style rooms, each with large casement windows and radiators that usually worked.”

Added Ron Reifel, who also made the trek over from Sterling-Oliver, “Foster was a step up. It gave us more equality with the other scholarship halls. And Harold Bowman, yet another “transplant from Sterling-Oliver,” as he put it, thought “it was great to have all the guys in one location.”

By the 1960s, though, Foster had lost some of its charm. Thomas R. Stevenson remembered it as “sparse,” with furniture that was “stiff and unyielding.” Donald Worster, a Foster resident from 1961-63 and now the Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at KU, recalled it to be “a pretty ratty building in a kind of yellow color. Photographs make it look a lot nicer than I remember.”

Others retained memories of the hall’s erratic water pressure, a deficiency that led to the custom of men yelling “Showers!” when flushing the toilets, because the sudden decrease in cold water pressure rendered the showers scalding hot.

Throughout Foster’s existence, most of the men slept in the ubiquitous “sleeping porches” – large unheated rooms with rows of cheap metal bunk beds – that were common to KU housing facilities at the time. Foster’s sleeping porch was on the second floor. Carl Elliott reported that the onset of cool weather almost always led to conflicts regarding whether the windows should be open or closed. In the winter, the young men had little choice but to close the windows, to “get the maximum benefit from our combined body heat.”

Staying warm in this manner, added Elliott, did have one distinct drawback, which was partially a function of the residence’s economical bed linen regime. At the beginning of a semester, the men were issued a set of two sheets by the University Linen Service. Thereafter, they received only one clean bed sheet per week, the idea being that residents would use the prior week’s top sheet to serve as the coming week’s bottom sheet.

“No way to rigorously enforce this was ever found, and some individuals never changed their sheets the whole semester,” recalled Elliott. “The result was an odor throughout the entire sleeping quarters that was not soon forgotten.” Added Worster, “it was gross, like a military camp.”

Getting a breath of fresh air during the winter months was not without its perils either. Other residents remembered that when windows in Foster were left open, small snowdrifts would form on the sleeping bags of those in the top bunks nearest the windows.

Not everyone in Foster was subjected to the sleeping porches. There were a limited number of rooms with single beds, housing three or four men at a time. These generally went to upperclassmen. In addition, several former residents recalled that it was not uncommon for men to “illegally” spirit mattresses off to study rooms, and sleep there.

Living in a “schol hall” like Foster was a form of scholarship, in which residents received a substantial discount on room and board for performing chores around the hall, such as cooking, cleaning, and serving as wait staff. In 1960, a schol hall cost male residents only $43 a month, a substantial savings over regular dormitories, which cost $315 per semester, or around $78 a month. It was also a good deal when compared with fraternities, which ran between $80 and $95 a month.

Indeed, several Foster Hall alumni have indicated that living in a scholarship hall was the only way they could have attended KU. As a result, the schol-hall placements were in demand and students had to maintain a “better-than-average academic standing” in order to keep their spaces.

To be sure, “better-than-average” is hardly equivalent to stellar scholarship, but records and anecdotal recollections indicate that for at least the 1956-57 academic year, the men of Foster attained the highest GPA among organized houses for both the fall and spring semesters. Reifel, who would go on to become a petroleum engineer, had the honor of accepting an award on behalf of Foster for this achievement. And Stevenson, who recalled that his housemates were ingenious enough to rig up an automated mechanical circus display – complete with pirouetting elephant – during one Homecoming weekend, pointed out that six of his fellow Foster men became physicians and another was named a Rhodes Scholar.

However, according to numerous reminiscences, the need to maintain a good academic standing never got in the way of having a good time. There was plenty of tomfoolery, and long-standing practical jokes played on each year’s crop of freshmen. “Most of us came from the country or small towns and were quite naïve and unsophisticated,” noted Elliott, who went on to become a chemical engineer.

He related that it in the 1950s, it was a common Foster prank to trick a gullible freshman by leaving a note containing a telephone number and instructions to “Call Frank.” On making the call, the freshman would be connected with KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy. It was said that the Chancellor was usually understanding and polite.

The communal environment at Foster also meant dealing with individual quirks of one’s fellow residents. For example, Gridley remembered that Bob Yaple, “whose habit it was to sleep daytime and be up all night, irritated some of us by whistling while sweeping the hallways and stairs at two or three in the morning.”

Like other KU scholarship halls, Foster was under the overall supervision of a housemother. Two women come up most often in connection with that position. Mrs. Sestos Hughes, who had held the same status at Sterling-Oliver, was an older woman who served as housemother in the earliest days of Foster’s incarnation as a men’s hall. In pictures, she appears as a solid, no-nonsense, bun-wearing woman with sensible shoes. It seems that she was exceptionally good with finances and kitchen management.

The other woman frequently and fondly remembered was Marietta Jackson, who served as housemother in the early 1960s. Jackson was an efficient and pretty woman in her mid-50s. “Everyone was respectful of Mother Jackson…the seniors saw to that,” noted Rodney Lovett. “She doted on the boys,” added Worster. “She was awfully good-looking…I remember thinking, ‘We could have gotten a battleaxe…’ but we got…well, a woman of mature charms.”

Jackson was clearly not your average housemother. Many other Foster men commented on her kindness and their interaction with her. Ted Childers wrote that Jackson “played a key role in terms of providing an anchor, being a cheerleader, and a focus for the hall.” Larry Moore said Jackson’s “support and inspiration to the men of Foster Hall was exceptional.” And Michael Dolan called Jackson’s presence “a civilizing influence on us all. I wish my own children had [a] similar experience when they were first-year college students.”

Indeed, the feeling of belonging to something special – the annoyances, inconveniences, and petty privations notwithstanding – is perhaps the most resonant memory that many Foster Hall men retain of their experience there.

Gridley recalled the time when an old borrowed car he had parked on steep 12th Street slipped its brake and rolled down the hill into a house, necessitating repairs costing nearly $400, a bill that his fellow housemates helped cover by taking up a collection. “The generosity of those friends – quite poor themselves – still moves me greatly,” said Gridley, some 50 years after the incident.

And Stevenson, who “had hoped to pledge a fraternity” because “a scholarship hall didn’t sound too exciting,” soon realized he “couldn’t have been more mistaken.” As he put it, “Foster Hall was special, not because of the bricks and mortar but because of the warmth and enthusiasm of its residents. We were young men from Kansas who had not yet learned our limitations, and assumed that there were none.”

The same could not be said for Foster Hall itself. Its limitations became increasingly apparent, and it ceased being a residence after 1965. Thereafter, many of its residents moved to the newly opened Grace Pearson Scholarship Hall at the corner of 14th and Louisiana streets. Foster Hall then housed various University offices, including the well-known Applied English Center.

By 1974, the building had suffered significant structural deterioration. Plentiful student housing was either available or under construction, and other facilities were able to take in the University offices that had been located there. In that year, Foster was demolished.

Since that time, the spot formerly occupied by the house has been a playground, a vacant lot, and a parking lot. At present-day KU, it is zoned for parking for residents of Alumni Place and the Gertrude Sellards Pearson dormitory. George Foster’s name lives on in the “Foster House” floor of the Olin Templin Residence Hall on Daisy Hill.

Laura Lorson
Kansas Public Radio
University of Kansas

Source Notes

Source notes:
University Housing surveys on Foster Hall, 2001
University Archives file on Orlando Jolliffe
Marion County Historical Society abstract on Orlando Jolliffe, University Archives
“Foster Hall’s career over.” Lawrence Daily Journal-World, 09/06/1974
KU News Bureau press release, December 5, 1955: “Men Move to Foster Hall,” University Archives.
William Alexander Griffith biography, Traditional Fine Arts Organization website.
University Archives folder 0/22/21/ on George O. Foster
Student Housing Options flyer from KU Housing Department, University Archives
“Templin Hall’s Young House Dedication Set for Sept. 12.” University of Kansas Office of University Relations press release, September 3, 1998.
Foster Hall Overview, University of Kansas Housing Department, compiled by Fred McElhenie.
Telephone interview with alumnus Dr. Donald Worster, 04/20/04]