Hall To The Chief
What do you get when you combine a newly acquired residence hall in need of a name with a set of cast-off monogrammed silverware and a chancellor with a penchant for Kansas history?
The residence in question was a large house at 1014 Mississippi Street that was slated to serve as an undergraduate women’s hall at the University of Kansas beginning with the fall 1947 semester. The flatware, bearing the initials “MH,” formerly had been in service at KU’s Miller Hall. And the chancellor was Deane W. Malott, a native Kansan with an affinity for historical novels, a strong interest in the state’s history, and a personal credo that “the most important job is always the immediate job.”
In this case, the job of christening the new hall with a name that would match the letters on the silverware was handled fairly immediately as well. In a meeting in Malott’s office, KU Housing Director Irvin Youngberg explained the situation to the chancellor, who swiftly turned around to pull a book from the shelf behind his desk. “That should be easy,” he told Youngberg. “Let’s see what Bob Taft might suggest.”
Skimming over the first page of Taft’s Across the Years on Mount Oread, he discovered a reference to Monchonsia, an early nineteenth century chief of the Kanza tribe. The author envisioned the chief standing atop the barren hill surveying his territory—and Malott pictured his name resurfacing on the rolls of KU housing.
In a flash of inspiration, Malott dubbed the residence Monchonsia Hall, paying tribute to the famed chief whose tribal lands once extended across the northern half of what is now the state of Kansas. (The same source, incidentally would be used to generate the name of another women’s residence next door to Monchonsia called Kanza.)
Also known as White Plume and Womparara (”He-Who-Scares-All-Men”), Monchonsia was described by painter George Catlin as “a very urbane and hospitable man of good portly size, speaking some English, and making himself good company for all white persons who travel through his country and have the good luck to shake his liberal and hospitable hand.”
The federal government recognized Monchonsia as the principal Kanza (or Kansa or Kaw) chief in the early 1820s. As a result, he was included in a delegation of 16 western Native American leaders that traveled to Washington, DC in the winter of 1821-22. Monchonsia and the other chiefs had an audience with President James Monroe; attended a New Year’s Day party at the White House, where they enjoyed tea and cake with congressmen, foreign ambassadors, and other members of Washington high society; and gave a crowd-pleasing native dance performance in front of the White House that attracted 6,000 spectators.
In June 1825, Monchonsia and three other chiefs signed their X marks to a treaty that ceded more than 20 million acres of their tribal land to the federal government for use as reservations for eastern Indians that were being relocated west of the Mississippi River. The treaty also guaranteed reservation lands west of Topeka for the Kansa tribe, plus $70,000 to be paid in annual installments over 20 years, as well as livestock and farming supplies and implements.
Ultimately, Monchonsia himself also obtained from the government an impressive stone house located about 7 miles northwest of present-day Lawrence, but he never lived in it, preferring his traditional wigwam. His reason for this choice, as related by historian George P. Morehouse, was that the specially constructed home had “Too much fleas.”
Although a flea infestation did plague the residents of a KU veteran’s housing complex called Sunnyside shortly after opening in 1946, the vermin didn’t make an appearance at Monchonsia. The women residents of the KU dormitory that bore the chief’s name never complained about fleas, though for some, the first reaction on seeing the hall was to flee from it.
“When I did not pledge a sorority I was crushed and upset I would have to live in that big old dumpy gray house,” recalled Jananne Littrell Gebhart in one of a series of reminiscences about living in Monchonsia collected by the KU Department of Student Housing.
Added Marian Kysar Shaw, “Corbin Hall was filled when I applied to the housing department in the summer of 1947, and I was assigned to the brand new dorm, Monchonsia Hall,” she wrote. “I was disappointed at first when I heard this, but after I moved in, I was glad things had turned out as they did.”
Prior to its transformation into Monchonsia Hall, 1014 Mississippi Street had been the home of Dr. Daniel H. Spencer, the holder of three KU degrees and a long-time professor at the KU School of Pharmacy. Spencer sold the house to the KU Endowment Association, which in turn formally leased it to the University on March 6, 1947. According to the agreement, KU would pay $1,000 per year in rent to the Endowment Association, plus semiannual interest payments of three per cent on the $15,000 value of the house.
Dr. and Mrs. Spencer’s house had evidently been designed to serve, at least in part, as student housing because each of the rooms in the upper two floors contained a sink in one corner. As a result, the task of creating dorm-sized rooms throughout the upper floors wasn’t necessary.
In a report about KU housing, Youngberg noted that part of the work in transforming the house into a women’s residence involved clearing out a large building at the back that would be used for storage. “Mrs. Spencer had been a ‘saver,’” he wrote, “and both floors of a barn on the alley were filled with bottles and cans, from which labels had been removed.” Youngberg added that the building was also filled with piles of carefully folded paper sacks from a neighborhood grocery and “stacks and stacks” of Lawrence and Kansas City newspapers.
Another task in fitting the house as a residence was to add a fire escape, which, according to Youngberg, was to be designed and built by the staff of the University building program. The process of ordering, building, delivering and installing this crucial appendage was evidently a major ordeal, as the installation didn’t occur until the summer of 1948.
Monchonsia Hall had room for 32 women when it opened in 1947, but after a bedroom on the first floor was converted into a sitting room, the house only could accommodate 28 women. On the upper floors, it was four women to a bedroom, each of which contained two sets of bunk beds, four small desks, a closet and the above-mentioned sink. The residents added personal touches, too, of course. “At one time, we purchased ‘The Chair’ from a Lawrence furniture store—I think it cost $5.00 used—and that was our prized possession,” recalled Elizabeth Moran Loweth. “We would all race home from classes and try to lay claim to ‘The Chair.’”
Other residents recalled rearranging the furniture so that the light from their desk lamps wouldn’t disturb those who were trying to sleep, and some even moved their desks into the hallway at night so as not to keep their roommates awake while they studied.
In addition to sharing one closet with three roommates, each resident had to learn how to manage with only one bathroom per floor. “I remember 28 girls and only 2 bathrooms!” wrote Phyllis Pink Wilson. “How did we cope?” With no air conditioning, the women also learned how to live with the Kansas heat. “That top floor could get very warm,” wrote Loweth. “When it was unbearable, we would drag our mattresses up to the flat part of the roof to sleep.”
The first floor of the house held two sitting rooms, a large dining room and kitchen, and housemother’s rooms. With the main door of her suite right next to the front door, the housemother could keep a close eye on who was coming and going. Men were not allowed on the upper floors, and one resident recalled that the stern couple in Grant Wood’s painting “American Gothic,” a print of which hung ominously on one wall, “[kept] watch over us in the sitting room where we entertained our dates.”
The residence strove to act as a substitute parent – standard practice for college dormitories at the time – and Monchonsia’s vigilant housemothers required sign-out sheets for out-of-town trips, instituted quiet evening study hall hours, and blinked the porch light five minutes before curfew each night. Loweth recalled one house rule that epitomized the careful monitoring of the residents’ whereabouts: “You were not allowed to go away for the week-end without a written invitation from someone’s mother.”
These rules set a civilized and studious tone at Monchonsia, but the house also provided ample opportunities for entertaining and socializing. Every Wednesday night, the house hosted an “hour dance” from 7 to 8 in the evening. During these special nights, Shaw recalled that “we rolled up the rugs, turned on the music, and waited eagerly to see which guys might show up to look us over.”
Students throughout the campus flocked to Monchonsia Hall every fall for its annual “Indian Summer” party, an event that drew on the residence’s name. And on any given evening, as the women waited for the dining room to open, they listened to the day’s top songs played on the piano by Shaw or another pianist in the group. Shaw’s parents bought a Baldwin Acrosonic spinet for their daughter when she moved in and kept it there until she left three years later.
“Pinnings” were another special event that occurred in the house’s sitting rooms from time to time. A couple was “pinned” when the man gave his fraternity pin to his girlfriend, signifying that they were going steady. “The lucky fellow would bring his friends to the house after dinner and chocolates would be passed to everyone to announce the [pinning],” recalled Shaw, whose future husband pinned her at Monchonsia at Easter 1949.
Women from Kanza and Hopkins, two small nearby residence halls lacking dining facilities, came to Monchonsia for their meals. This large influx at mealtime made big work for those women who had dining room and kitchen duties. The dining room workers set and cleared tables, served the meals and washed dishes twice a day, including weekends. But kitchen duty had its perks, too; Kay Tebow recalled that this job was actually a treat because the cooks saved the best food for their helpers and kept them refreshed with iced tea.
Residents’ memories of the meals at Monchonsia include an anecdote about a housemother recalled only as Mrs. Poteet, who had a penchant for mint jelly. Once, she had purchased a large quantity of the condiment at a bargain price and tried to configure into every meal. “Mrs. Poteet started serving it for breakfast for our toast!” wrote Loweth. “For a long time we resisted, then decided to do something about it. We started taking a spoonful and spreading it around on our plates, so it couldn’t be served over again.” Loweth also recalled feasting on a year’s supply of popcorn provided by one resident’s father, a farmer in Sabetha, Kansas, and washing it down with soda purchased from the Coke machine in Monchonsia’s basement.
The dining room at Monchonsia was also known for one weekly staple. Friday night was catfish night, served whole with head, eyes and all. This was a gourmet treat to some, but repulsive to others. Jean Letteer Stewart remembers trying to trade her fish every week for someone’s dessert, to no avail.
Integration at KU residence halls began in the years following World War II, and the first Jayhawker photo of black residents at Monchonsia appears in the 1952–1953 issue. Although African Americans had been attending KU since 1870, they confronted segregation in almost all aspects of college life until well into the mid-twentieth century. In The University of Kansas: A History, as Clifford S. Griffin has explained, most of the integration efforts in the late 1940s and 1950s were focused on Lawrence’s cafes, restaurants and movie theaters, but small strides were made on campus as well.
In 1943, for example, student government groups voted to allow blacks to attend University dances, even though the soda fountain at the Kansas Union still refused to serve African Americans and some professors relegated black students to the back of the classroom.
Jean Anderson Allen, a Fine Arts major who moved into Monchonsia in 1950, was among those who fought for integration in the early 1950s. “I helped other students obtain rights for black students to be able to sit in all sections of movie theaters and sit anywhere in restaurants,” she wrote in her reminiscences about KU housing. “They were able to do this in the student union but not in Lawrence. Some time after this Monchonsia had black girls as well as white ones.”
Although doors to University residence halls were open to blacks in the late 1940s, the new circumstances were conditional. “The housing office required racial identification on applications,” wrote Griffin, “and roomed blacks either together or with consenting whites.”
This system of isolating black residents within the houses was still in place when Dorothy Watson-McField entered Monchonsia in 1954. She and the residence’s three other African American women shared one room, and her memories included a reference to the racial terminology of the times. “All my roommates were ‘Negro’; all the rest of the dorm was white,” she recalled. “I don’t recall that being a problem, it was just the way it was in 1954.”
In the decade that preceded the Civil Rights Act of 1964, integration at Monchonsia provided many of the women with their first interactions with other races. Shirley Litton McAllister, who came to KU as an exchange student from the University of Missouri, recalled that the blacks, Asians and whites at Monchonsia all respected each other and got along well. Janet Shepherd, who lived in the house for three years and had a Chinese roommate for a time, described the inter-racial environment as “enlightening . . . my memories are all good ones.”
One African American woman living in Monchonsia put the house in the limelight for a brief time when she was selected as the blind date for a visiting celebrity. Monchonsia Hall’s brush with fame came one evening in the spring of 1955 when a high school senior from Philadelphia named Wilt Chamberlain stopped by to pick up his date. The seven-foot basketball and track star, famous as the most sought-after high school player in the history of basketball, was contemplating enrolling in KU in the fall.
University recruiters had arranged the date so that Chamberlain would have a partner at that evening’s specially scheduled social event. Dorothy Watson-McField recalled that her roommate was chosen for the occasion. “There was a search on for a tall ‘Negro’ female to accompany him to a social function,” she wrote. A commotion rattled on the staircase when Chamberlain stepped into the sitting room that evening, with many of the housemates crowded on the steps and straining to catch a glimpse of him. “All the residents who wanted to get a look at this ‘phenom’ peered down the steps,” she added, “but all we could see was his belt buckle!”
Chamberlain returned to the University of Kansas as a freshman student that fall, and in his first autobiography, Wilt: Just Like Any Other 7-Foot Black Millionaire Who Lives Next Door, he explained in detail why he chose KU over the approximately 100 other colleges and universities who wooed him in early 1955. His admiration for KU’s renowned basketball coach “Phog” Allen was a major factor, and it would be gratifying to add here that perhaps his date with a student from Monchonsia helped sway his decision. But alas, in that same book he dismissed all KU women with one sweep: “While I was going to college . . . since there weren’t any girls worth blinking at in Lawrence, I usually went into K.C. for my, uh, rest and recreation.”
Had any Monchonsia women learned of Chamberlain’s disaffections at the time, the advice and all-around personal development they received from their housemothers would undoubtedly have made such a comment roll off their backs as easily as did the rain off Monchonsia Hall’s steep-angled roof.
The women who moved into the newly opened Monchonsia Hall in 1947 learned early on that the University viewed the hall as a means to help them obtain more than book learning while working toward their degrees. The Dean of Women told the students that year that their education would include a social aspect as well as an intellectual one, and that activities at Monchonsia were carefully designed to help them develop their social graces. This training included lessons in dining room etiquette, such as how to properly hold a fork, dress appropriately for dinner every day (skirts only—no slacks), and observe more formal dress for Sunday dinner.
Housemothers were also generous with more personal advice, given while housemates gathered around the large table in the kitchen to talk and drink hot chocolate. One such piece of wisdom stayed with McAllister for more than 50 years: “We had a housemother who told us to think good thoughts and our complexions would clear up.”
At the end of the 1955–1956 academic year, Monchonsia Hall was taken off the rolls as a University residence. A boom in campus building had created new, modern housing facilities such as the Gertrude Sellards Pearson Residence Hall at 500 West 11th Street, into which several Monchonsia residents were moved.
After the University sold 1014 Mississippi Street, a string of fraternities and other organizations made it their home. According to a profile of Monchonsia Hall written by Fred McElhenie of KU’s Department of Student Housing, the house fell into disrepair and was eventually torn down to make way for new construction. “Today,” wrote McElhenie in 2001, “a new triplex apartment house, built to resemble a large residence, attempts to blend in with the remaining older buildings in that block of Mississippi Street.”
In its nine-year role as a women’s residence, Monchonsia Hall filled a critical need for student housing and created welcoming, homey quarters for students who grew accustomed to walking up the hill to class every day. Although Monchonsia couldn’t afford the fanciest homecoming decorations and at first glance was a disappointment to some new residents, those who managed the house and lived in it created an environment that more than made up for the any of the building’s physical deficiencies.
Kay Tebow, who identified the bright side of kitchen chores, was moved to describe life at Monchonsia as “like being a part of a big family. The pride and cohesiveness of the residents is also evidenced in the fact that they immortalized the house in song. “My memories of Monchonsia are happy ones,” wrote Mary Sue Stayton Wheeler. “We even wrote our ‘dorm song’—something that started ‘Hail to thee, Monchonsia.’”