Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Hollow Be Thy Name

More than half a century after its disappearance, a long-gone University of Kansas women’s residence hall with the oddly literary name of Sleepy Hollow still evoked strong memories on the part of some of its former residents.

“Life at Sleepy Hollow was very structured and dependable, centering around communal meals prepared for us by two wonderful cooks,” wrote K. Charlene Turner Houts in one of a series of reminiscences collected by the KU Department of Student Housing in spring 2002. “We had several songs we sang before meals, many of which I still remember.” Among them was the old camp out favorite, “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”

Billie Bullard Chesney, who spent “two happy years at Sleepy Hollow Hall” in the mid-late 1940s, recalled “hovering housemothers,” a regularly replenished “Coke supply in the kitchen refrigerator” that was maintained via an “honor system cup on the counter,” and “mandatory study hall on Tuesday and Thursday nights if our grades dropped.”

And Doris M. Brown “will always remember the rutabagas” that a frugal housemother built into the Sleepy Hollow menu as “almost a daily staple.”

But one thing no one seemed to remember was how Sleepy Hollow – a name that the 1946-47 Jayhawker yearbook called “quaint” and one more associated with the Hudson Valley in New York than the Kaw Valley in Kansas – obtained its appellation in the first place.

“I have forgotten how the name Sleepy Hollow was selected,” admitted Irvin Youngberg, who was director of student housing at KU in the immediate post-World War II years before going on to head the KU Endowment Association. However, the term “hollow” – which can refer to a depression in the land – might have had something to do with the derivation of the hall’s name.

As Youngberg recorded in an unpublished reminiscence of this period written in the late 1970s and now housed in University Archives, “the ground floor [of Sleepy Hollow] was four or five feet below the grade of Ohio Street, so to enter it, one walked down steps, rather than up steps, to the front door.” For this reason, Youngberg deemed at least the “Hollow “ part of the hall’s moniker as “appropriate,” since “the first floor was not only lower at ground level than the street, but also other structures nearby.”

Whatever the actual derivation of its name, Sleepy Hollow Hall went into service in time for the fall 1945 semester. It was located at 1420 Ohio Street and lasted through the spring 1948 semester, after which – as the Summer Session Kansan reported on June 29, 1948 – Sleepy Hollow ceased to exist and the building it had occupied became home to the Don Henry men’s co-op.

It appears this structure had once been a carriage house and living quarters for the servants and groomsmen employed by the Usher family, who lived in the adjacent mansion just to the east and fronting on Tennessee Street. This home – located at 1425 Tennessee – was built in 1872-73 for John P. Usher, a secretary of the interior during the Lincoln Administration who was later an attorney for the Union Pacific Railroad. Usher died in 1889 and in 1912, his family sold the property to the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity, which remains there to this day.

Douglas County Court House deed records shed little light on how the University obtained 1420 Ohio for dormitory purposes. In Youngberg’s recollection, outright purchase of the property by either the University or the KU Endowment Association would have been “a questionable transaction” since the building was “east of the line to which ultimate expansion of the campus was planned….”

Instead, according to Youngberg, KU persuaded the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA), an independent entity that owned several Lawrence homes used as student housing co-ops, to “buy the property for lease on generous terms to the University.” The UKSHA apparently had the financial wherewithal to make down payments and obtain mortgages since it enjoyed the concession rights at Memorial Stadium football games. Profits from this enterprise, according to Youngberg, were “used for the purchase of residences near the campus for cooperative housing for students.”

Youngberg, who had been a student member of the UKSHA board in the early 1940s when he was a KU undergraduate, did not explain why the organization consented to this particular purchase that would result in a dormitory operated outright by the University, not a co-op under the UKSHA umbrella. Perhaps the UKSHA saw the acquisition of 1420 Ohio as a future expansion opportunity that could also assist the University in the short-term. The fact that the building ultimately was used by the Don Henry Co-op – named incidentally, after a KU student who died in service to the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War – gives credence to this possibility.

In any event, Youngberg noted that the final agreement was “satisfactory to all, including the exacting treasurer of the Housing Association, George Docking.” (A KU alum and Lawrence banker, Docking would be elected governor of Kansas in 1956 and come into conflict with KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy over questions of University expenses and budgeting priorities.)

Turning the old carriage house at 1420 Ohio into a women’s residence hall was just one piece of an extensive effort on the part of KU administrators to secure adequate housing for the flood of students who entered the University in the wake of the Second World War. The University cobbled together all sorts of temporary arrangements for living spaces during these years, and Sleepy Hollow was just one more of these short-term fixes.

The men and women who found shelter in these abodes were known as “independents,” a term that applied to any student at the University of Kansas who didn’t live in a fraternity or a sorority. Besides the makeshift dormitories such as Sleepy Hollow, KU’s independent students also lived in previously established residence halls, scholarship halls, housing co-ops, and basements, attics, and rooms in private homes.

The meager archival records regarding Sleepy Hollow suggest it “housed about 32 students each year it was open,” according to Fred McElhenie, former associate director of the KU Department of Student Housing.

Additional anecdotal evidence indicates that, much like the other ad-hoc KU dormitories of this era, Sleepy Hollow residents shared assigned study rooms and spent their nights on bunk beds in a common sleeping porch that was unheated in the winter. Youngberg, in his unpublished monograph, pulled no punches when it came to describing the physical state of Sleepy Hollow, noting, “the facilities were perhaps best described as being dreadful.”

Within this living environment, the women of Sleepy Hollow put up with a 10:30 p.m. weeknight curfew, a single telephone and bathroom per floor, and the requirement to dress up for the weekly Sunday dinner. Additionally, in the early days of the hall’s existence, “many war time restrictions were still in evidence,” noted Doris M. Brown, “i.e. sugar rationing.”

Due to these “less than perfect conditions,” as former Sleepy Hollow dweller Marian Cox Fearing recalled, “some of us envied Corbin Hall residents.” (Opened in 1923, Corbin Hall was the first purpose-built dormitory for KU women.) But the situation was “made bearable by a wonderful housemother” named Lela Whiteford “who pulled the group of young women together with her cheerful, caring ‘mother to all’ ways.”

Indeed, “Mother Whiteford” – characterized by K. Charlene Turner Houts as “a lovely dark-haired petite lady” – was also “a great manager” who took pains to ensure that her charges would never go hungry. “If we ran out of food at our tables, there was always the ubiquitous peanut butter, jelly, and bread to fill up on.” Youngberg also praised Whiteford, calling her “a charming and able housemother.”

Youngberg’s high regard for Whiteford extended to her charges. He recalled Sleepy Hollow as having “several attractive and personable occupants who were among women student leaders on the campus.” Former resident Brown agreed with this assessment. “The people who lived at Sleepy Hollow made it a good dorm,” she wrote in her 2002 reminiscence. “Their backgrounds were very diverse and interesting. You were motivated to learn from and appreciate people whose lives were quite different from yours.”

Some Sleepy Hollow women contended that “the closeness of the group,” as Fearing put it, was a function of the dorm’s comparatively small size. “You knew everyone because of Sleepy Hollow’s limited capacity,” added Brown. This togetherness evinced itself in such ways as decorating Sleepy Hollow for Homecoming and fielding a dormitory team to play intramural softball. And on one occasion, “the girls also asked me to represent the dorm in beauty contest,” remembered Houts. “I did not win but gained valuable experience in how to lose.” The conviviality amongst the residents, incidentally, remained strong enough down through the years to bring about two well-attended Sleepy Hollow reunions.

With just a relative handful of residents, every woman at Sleepy Hollow “had their own ring” on a buzzer system. This device, wrote Chesney, was largely for the use of male callers, since “dates had to stay in the downstairs hall and buzz for us to come down.” Despite this protocol that many present-day undergraduates might see as a major restriction on their social lives, the dating game at Sleepy Hollow proceeded apace, often resulting in matrimony.

For example, Chesney’s husband proposed marriage to her “on the steps outside Sleepy Hollow.” Houts met her husband Richard, who lived at the nearby Pi Kappa Alpha house, through a chance phone call that resulted in “A Coke date at the Jayhawk Café.” For the ensuing nuptials “Mother Whiteford helped me with my wedding plans.” According to Houts, two of her Sleepy Hollow roommates also ended up marrying Phi Kappa Alpha members.

Shortly after the conclusion of the spring 1948 semester, the University put Sleepy Hollow to rest. In Youngberg’s view, Sleepy Hollow had been “highly successful” and “demonstrated that the finest morale may be among students living in the most marginal quarters.” Former resident Brown echoed this assessment, calling Sleepy Hollow “hard to leave.”

But “other more suitable accommodations had been constructed,” as Youngberg put it, and as of July 1, 1948, KU terminated its lease on 1420 Ohio. As the Summer Session Kansan reported at the time, the building was “turned over to members of the Don Henry Co-op organization” – who had been based on the second floor of 721½ Massachusetts Street – and would be reconfigured to “house about 35 men.”

The Don Henry Co-op roosted at 1420 Ohio until the spring of 1967, when the co-op was disbanded. At some point thereafter, the building was razed. An addition to the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity house that was constructed in 1991-92 more or less occupies the location that once carried the address of 1420 Ohio Street.


Source Notes

[Source Notes: The personal reminiscences of K. Charlene Turner Houts, Billie Bullard Chesney, Doris M. Brown, and Marian Cox Fearing were compiled by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing during spring 2002. The unpublished and untitled manuscript written by KU Housing Committee Director Irvin Youngberg, (c. 1977) is located in Box 1, Housing Artificial File 1881-82 – 1961-62 at University Archives, Spencer Research Library, Lawrence, Kansas. See also “University Plans To Release Sleepy Hollow, Smith Halls,” Summer Session Kansan, June 29, 1948; and “Independent Living,” by Billie Hamilton, the Jayhawker Fall Number 1946, pp.66-67, 94. The Beta Theta Pi fraternity provided information regarding the former Usher mansion at 1425 Tennessee Street.]