Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Independents’ Hall

It was a no-frills men’s dormitory initially designed to be a US Army barracks. Shaped like the letter H, it often was derided as a “dump,” and was known as a residence for the “socially unacceptable and financially disadvantaged.” And since it was constructed entirely of wood, its status as a potential tinderbox reputedly kept student housing administrators at the University of Kansas “awake at night.”

Many of this dorm’s residents, for their part, wondered whether they “weren’t being punished by having to live there.” A few were so ashamed of their address that they dared not mention it “to any lady when trying for a date.”

Yet still others considered this ad hoc housing arrangement “a diamond in the rough” more akin to “a private club than a dorm.” According to another former denizen, Oread Hall housed the “most independent independents on campus,” while offering unmatched camaraderie and fostering countless friendships. Still another former resident dubbed it “the greatest living facility ever to have graced the land of the University of Kansas.”

The subject of this simultaneous derogation and admiration was called Oread Hall. Located at 1135 Maine Street, just west of Memorial Stadium, it was originally intended to last for five years, but ended up hanging on for more than 30. Oread Hall contained 160 minuscule single-man rooms – each about the size of a standard prison cell – and counted KU track legend Wes Santee, future NFL Hall of Fame lineman Mike McCormack, and cartoonist Richard “Dick” Bibler among its most notable occupants.

But this building that “would have embarrassed any trained architect” couldn’t quite accommodate an occasional visitor from the Jayhawk basketball team named Wilt Chamberlain, the quarters being “too narrow for him to sit and too shallow for him to stand.”

Oread Hall was one of the many improvised housing solutions organized by KU in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War to cope with the University’s surfeit of returning veterans. In many ways, the building was ideally suited to the task of serving as an ex-GI billet since it had been a bona fide army barracks originally located at the Kansas Ordnance Plant near the town of Parsons. One of several such units built for plant workers during World War II, it turned out to be unneeded and was never actually occupied in its original incarnation. As such, the future Oread Hall was virtually brand-new.

On May 22, 1946, Kansas Governor (and KU alum) Andrew Schoeppel announced that the barracks would be dismantled, moved 125 miles due north to Lawrence, and reassembled on campus as a men’s dormitory. And better still, the price was definitely right. Sold by the Federal Public Housing Administration to the state of Kansas for just $1. The structure was transported and rebuilt with $75,000 in leftover state wartime emergency funds. In late November 1946, Oread Hall officially opened.

Newness, of course, is not necessarily a synonym for luxury, a sobering fact that KU housing officials – and Oread Hall’s student occupants especially – quickly realized. Almost without exception, though, whatever demerits it earned in the eyes of its residents were of a decidedly endearing sort, qualities that contributed to Oread’s unforgettably rugged charms.

It was a “diamond in the rough and extremely valuable to those of us attending college on a shoestring,” as one WWII veteran described his peacetime KU barracks. One former resident even saw Oread Hall as a kind of incubator, contending the University’s “original one dollar investment paid billions in the development of men who became the backbone of the US” in the decades following the Second World War.

According to Fred McElhenie, KU’s associate director of student housing during much of Oread Hall’s existence, this dorm “provided a welcome relief,” both to the University and to the men who first called it home. Ready to receive its initial 160 occupants following the 1946 Thanksgiving recess, Oread offered each one a “roof, a small single room, easy access to buildings on the campus, and an opportunity for being part of an organized housing unit.”

The reason for Oread Hall’s single-occupancy rooms – each of which measured little more than 7 feet-by-10 feet, about the size of a typical jail cell – was that this former barracks had been designed as a bachelor officer’s quarters and was not the standard communal, enlisted man’s type.

The individual rooms themselves lined the wings of the H-shaped, two-level dorm. In the cross-section, an all-purpose recreation room and lounge could be found on the second story, and on the first, complete bathroom and shower facilities. Each wing also contained a larger house parents’ apartment, usually occupied by a KU graduate student and his or her spouse.

While lacking air conditioning, Oread did boast an apparently excellent steam heating system and even solid maple floors. The walls, however, were paper-thin plywood. Other Oread shortcomings included exposed pipes, un-lockable doors, non-opening windows, and dead electrical outlets everywhere. Army surplus beds, footlockers and other simple furnishings rounded out the decidedly austere décor.

Although it’s unlikely that many former residents would have quibbled with Don Decker, who described life at Oread Hall as “akin to solitary confinement,” the vast majority – including Decker himself – complained with a wink and a smile. Most, indeed, had been recently used to considerably worse overseas.

Oread “may have been Spartan,” admitted John R. Ratzlaff, “but having served in the US Army, I was not bothered by the rather plain accommodations.” As Philip L. Ferguson, an original 1946 resident of Oread, explained, “We were all products of the Depression and the military, and therefore had no thoughts of it being ‘Spartan.’ We were so pleased to be getting on with our lives.”

Still, there were a handful of veterans like James J. Fisher who remembered Oread Hall as a “dump” that some “put up with because there was no other housing.” A former US Marine Corps prison guard, Fisher commented that if one added “concrete walls and bars” to one of Oread’s tiny rooms, it would have been indistinguishable from “a cell on ‘D’ block.”

This negative characterization notwithstanding, Fisher admitted Oread was “not that much worse than the various Quonset huts and warehouses I lived in during the service.” But he shuddered “to think of its effects on some western Kansas ranch kid used to open spaces and limitless horizons.”

However, most Oread residents adapted quickly to the former barracks and were ultimately little worse for wear. In fact, Donald R. Hopkins spoke for many when remembered his “tour” at Oread as an “ideal environment within which we could study and learn…. Oread saved my academic life,” he said, “and made possible an incredibly rich intellectual life that was born [at KU] and nurtured thereafter.”

Reflecting a similar sentiment, Robert J. Sherwood recalled everyone being “proud to live in Oread Hall. It was like becoming a paratrooper,” he explained. “We had faced the challenges of university life and survived.”

During its early years, Oread Hall was heavily populated by World War II veterans – and from the early 1950s on, by a goodly number of Korean War vets as well. To non-veterans such as Kevin E. Glynn, it was “probably an understatement to say [the ex-GIs] were a bit worldlier than I was. They were great guys and contributed to those parts of my KU education not available up the hill.”

For Don Landauer, too, his “social world initially was dominated by the presence at Oread of several WWII vets whose experiences during the war made them very worldly in my eyes. Many of us freshmen spent time listening to their stories.” To Leo Politte, the veterans were like “big brothers” and helped the younger guys develop “good study habits.”

Ex-servicemen, in Robert P. Volyn’s recollection, were indeed a commanding presence, and most “were serious, hardworking and purposeful.” There were also, however – at least by the mid-1950s – a growing number of Oread Hall residents, both undergraduate and graduate students, from a “broad array of backgrounds, hailing from many parts of Kansas and the world.” As an Oread resident himself related in the 1959 Jayhawker yearbook, “It’s an education in itself getting to know these fellows from other countries.”

Indeed, according to Mickey S. Brown, “The students who resided in Oread Hall were very diverse. My brother and I became close friends with students from Ethiopia, Japan, Europe and various states within the USA.” Ben Lozito heartily agreed: “The diversity of the residents was very special, students from all over the world. I made lifelong friendships.”

Added Leland Nelson, “It was a time of integration, and the administration of KU handled it very well in Oread and moved several black students into the hall, some of whom became some of my best friends.” One of those African-American residents, Jordan D. Johnson, recounted how he was “able to obtain an excellent education as a result of my time at Oread Hall and go on to have a great career in the Air Force, retiring as a full colonel.”

Others, like New Yorker Bernard Mackler, received his first introduction to Sunflower Staters while in residence. “Oread Hall,” he noted, “introduced me to the openness of Kansas and Kansans. I met Kansans for the first time and this experience enlightened me to the decency, modesty, and down-to-earth attitude of the staff and students of Oread. I felt right at home.”

One factor that may have accounted for the depth of intra-hall harmony was the men’s shared realization that, at any moment, Oread could have gone up in flames. As Jim Yonally explained, “One match, struck in the wrong place, and the entire building would have been ashes in a matter of a few minutes.”

Donald B. Elliott agreed with this assessment, noting, “Looking back, I can understand why officials worried about fire because the structure was all wood and many of us smoked.” One of those officials at the time was Fred McElhenie, who acknowledged “the fear of fire [in Oread Hall] kept many administrators awake at night.”

Some Oread residents, however, apparently retained their sense of humor about their hall’s tinderbox reputation. Al L. Smith, for example, remembered a poem one fellow resident penned just before leaving for Christmas break. It read in part: “Oh, Oread, so quick to burn, We hope you’re there when we return.”

Others, like Gary Dierking, adopted a more proactive approach. “I actually bought my own fire extinguisher,” he said, “and always rented a ground level room” for ease of escape in an emergency. He would have had to be quick, according to James Tichenor. “There were a rumor [going around],” he remembered, “that the Army had done a flammability test of similar structures and found that it took just two minutes between the time a fire started and the time the roof collapsed!”

(Not helping matters, and by no means allaying any fears, according to Kirby Clark, was the one student who “always overhauled his motorcycle in his room, leaving his end of the hall smelling like gasoline and each resident wondering when a spark would send old Oread up in flames.”)

Another potential hazard was the dormitory’s notoriously flimsy construction, a constant worry to non-Midwesterners in particular who’d heard horror stories about Kansas tornadoes. As Edbert “Ed” Miller plainly put it, if a twister had ripped through the area, “Oread certainly would not have offered much protection.”

Beyond such life-and-death concerns was the pride the men of Oread Hall seem to have taken in living there. This despite, or perhaps because of, in Kirby Clark’s words, the “social stigma that was imposed on us, the boys from the old barracks!” Indeed, as Ken Mears recalled, Oread “had a reputation in my day of where the more-or-less socially unacceptable and financially disadvantaged ended up. But that was OK with me because that pretty well described me in 1955.” Above all, Jeffrey Hubrig maintained, “We were a proud group and wore our residency in Oread Hall as almost a fraternal badge on parity with all others. We certainly felt more like a private club than a dorm.”

In Ken Allum’s memory, though, theirs was a men’s only club – although not necessarily by choice. We seemed to be “a forgotten subculture at Oread,” he wrote, “shunned by most girls and all sorority ladies, but we were a determined bunch.” Kirby Clark concurred with this estimation. “I can guarantee you that not one of those sorority babes would set foot in Oread,” he declaimed in a written reminiscence. “For that matter, no other babe would either. Err! As far as I was aware at the time.”

This sorry state of romantic affairs appears to have been especially vexing to one late-1940s Oread resident from Norway. In Richard Heiny’s recollection, the Norwegian simply couldn’t understand why men and women weren’t allowed to live together in KU dorms and “frequently complained about the lack of female companionship.”

For purely male camaraderie, the favorite gathering places were the large wraparound porches that, in Gerald L. Mosley’s recollection, “played an important part of life in Oread. There were rocking chairs. As time permitted we would sit on the porch, and because we were quite isolated down there, we were frequently clad in our boxer shorts, as the evenings were warm and of course there was no air conditioning.”

When not relaxing outside, many congregated in Oread Hall’s spacious recreation room, which came complete with lounge chairs, card tables and, in later years, a television set. This was where Donald Hopkins “sat with [my] dorm mates and watched North Carolina beat KU in three overtimes in the 1957 NCAA Championship game – an Oread moment that I’ll remember forever.”

In fact for Hopkins, the loss was particularly devastating since he was a good friend of the basketball team’s star center, Wilt Chamberlain. Yet while the two, in Hopkins’ account, enjoyed bowling and shooting pool together in the Kansas Union, the 7’1” sophomore from Philadelphia was no fan of Oread Hall. Chamberlain “visited my little room twice, as I recall,” Hopkins said, “but it was too narrow for him to sit and too shallow for him to stand, so we met elsewhere.”

Oread’s 80-square-foot rooms were, however, just barely big enough for another KU sports luminary, namely the 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound lineman, Mike McCormack. A Jayhawk football player from 1948-50, and an Oread Hall resident during at least one of these years, McCormack went on to become “one of the greatest offensive tackles” in National Football League history. During his 1954-62 career with the Cleveland Browns, McCormack merited six Pro Bowl selections, led his team to the 1954 NFL Championship, and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1984.

Other Oread notables included KU track and field legend Wes Santee, one of the finest middle-distance runners of the 1950s. “For me, Oread was a great place,” he recalled some 50 years hence, “close to the track [in Memorial Stadium] and school.” A resident from 1950-52, the former barracks was Santee’s “first home at KU.” What’s more, he added, “Being from the farm near Ashland, KS, a small room with a desk, a single bed and a closet was not at all bad.” And considering his family “did not have a bathroom at home,” Oread’s “public shower and restroom” seemed downright luxurious.

And then there was Richard “Dick” Bibler, whom Richard E. Freiburg remembered as “easily the best known Oread Hall resident” of the late 1940s. Not for any hard-court or gridiron glories, mind you, but rather for his popular “Little Man on Campus” cartoon that appeared in the University Daily Kansan and was syndicated “to college newspapers across the country.”

As Bibler himself recalled some 50 years hence, he was actually originally determined to join – and live at – the Kappa Sigma fraternity at KU, not Oread Hall. Yet as it turned out, “it was so damned noisy in the ‘house’ that I couldn’t get by – study, do my cartoon each night, etc., so I left after pledge training and moved to Oread Hall. I loved it! I stayed there for the remainder of my schooling. As far as I’m concerned,” Bibler added, “it was the best room on the KU campus. I can’t think of a single thing I would have changed. There were so many wonderful things that happened there.”

Among the more noteworthy, for instance, was how some Oread Hall residents would often “return from Kansas City with a case of whiskey. Students came from all over campus to purchase the stock,” wrote Ralph A. Zingaro. Needless to say, “The word spread widely and rapidly.”

For Dan Matthews, the occasional out-of-town trip created a perfect practical joke opportunity. “When a resident would go to KC for the weekend,” he explained, “we would replace his furniture (bed, desk, locker, etc.) with crumpled-up newspaper from floor to ceiling. And during a snowstorm, we substituted snow for paper.”

Many former Oread Hall residents counted intramural sports – from football and softball to basketball and track – as their most memorable extracurricular activities. “We had some varsity athletes living in the hall,” noted Jim Yonally, “so it was not unusual to occasionally field some pretty good teams.” N.K. “Rocky” Leiker agreed that, “intramural sports were very important. We would beat all the independents and win our division,” he said, “only to lose to the ‘Greeks’ in the finals.” What’s more, for diehard Jayhawk football fans like Dale K. Christians, “You couldn’t beat the location of Oread Hall as you could just saunter over [to Memorial Stadium] and find your seat.”

Another “fun event,” in Robert Volyn’s telling, “was the campus-wide panty raid. This was the rage across the college landscape that year [1952] and Oread contributed its share of raiders. I’m proud to say that I was among them as we descended on the sorority houses.”

What has stuck in Bob Bruce’s mind was one World War II veteran’s penchant for “shooting rabbits and squirrels in [Marvin Grove] to supplement his $90 GI check.” After downing them with his .22 rifle, he brought his fresh kills back to Oread Hall, cleaned them, and then cooked them “on a hot plate in his room. Hot plates, of course, were forbidden as fire hazards. The last I heard of him,” added Bruce, “he had moved to Alaska and became a game warden.”

With respect to more traditional cuisine, the men of Oread had precious few options in the hall itself. For many years, there was a “kindly old gentleman” named Morris who operated a small canteen of sorts out of the second-floor recreation room. He sold breakfast rolls, coffee, doughnuts and the like, as well as candy and 10-cent bologna sandwiches. But with no formal kitchen or dining facilities, Oread residents seeking more wholesome fare had to trek up the Hill to the Kansas Union or downtown to local restaurants.

While certainly a cause for complaint, this was not – at least for most – an apparently onerous financial burden. After all, rooming costs in Oread Hall never amounted to much more than $15- $20 a month. And for those students, like Frank Gerlach, who were in a pinch, there were plenty of chances to forage for food around campus. In his case, he secured a part-time kitchen job at Gertrude Sellards Pearson Hall, a women’s residence. “Meals at GSP were free, in a manner of speaking,” Gerlach explained. “The girls would slide their trays though a window to the dishwashing room, and whatever looked eatable didn’t make it to the garbage disposal.”

Considering Oread’s various shortcomings, it is perhaps surprising that the hall survived as a long as it did. Indeed, based on the University’s initial 1946 pronouncements, Oread was planned as a strictly “temporary” facility that would house students a maximum of five years. In actuality, though – aside from a few periods in the early-to-mid 1960s, when it closed during the spring in the face of diminished enrollments – Oread Hall ended up accommodating men residents through the fall 1964 semester. Rarely, however, was it ever filled to capacity post-1950.

As was the case with many KU buildings that ceased service as residence halls, Oread’s closure as a men’s dorm did not signal its immediate demise, even though, in the University Daily Kansan’s estimation, the building had become the picture of “sadness itself.” From 1965 through the early 1970s, Oread was occupied by a succession of disparate academic departments, from American Studies and mathematics to philosophy and Western Civilization.

Then, beginning in 1973, Oread Hall was given over to the Art Department, which found the former barracks’ small single rooms to be more than adequate studio space for its aspiring painters and sculptors. Although Oread was in far worse physical condition than it had ever been in its residential days, the move to the old hall was apparently a big hit nonetheless.

“There’s a great camaraderie among the artists here,” senior Dennis Teepe told the March 9, 1977, edition of the UDK. “I don’t mind the mess the place is in. It’s got class.” Added another art senior, Richard Seaman: “You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps.”

By then suffering from sagging floors and broken plumbing, discharging strange smells, and bearing graffiti upon virtually every reachable surface, Oread Hall’s days were obviously numbered. As the March 9, 1977, Kansan put it, “It’s easy to imagine the rumble of a wrecking crew approaching for the kill.”

And sure enough, roughly five months later, Oread Hall was finally demolished after 31 years of service. Since then, wrote Fred McElhenie, “a University parking lot muffles the memories of a true treasure that served as a launching pad for young men returning from war and, ironically, also for their progeny.”

Yet for men like Kirby Clark, Oread Hall is still very much alive, if only in the memories he and his fellow residents have retained of the times they had and lives that living there helped shape.

“It was at Oread Hall,” he wrote in 2004, “where I made lifelong friendships with those people who shared experiences with me and with whom I closely bonded. Those relationships,” he confided, “continue to enrich my life today. When we get together over a beer and embellish those old Oread tales, it brings yesterday into today, and the tears brought by endless laughter serve as a tonic that helps ease the pain of the times when life has not been so good to us. These friendships,” Clark concluded, “to the end will I cherish.”

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 of the KU Department of Student Housing for his Oread Hall Retrospectives project (2004-05). Also helpful were the following: the Oread Hall Building File, housed in University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas; Jayhawker yearbook (1957), p. 165; Jayhawker (1958), p. 139; Jayhawker (1959), p. 169; Jayhawker (1961), p. 194; University Daily Kansan (May 22, 1946); University Daily Kansan (May 23, 1946); University Daily Kansan (September 30, 1946); University Daily Kansan (March 15, 1960); University Daily Kansan (September 23, 1962); University Daily Kansas (March 9, 1977); and Graduate Magazine (December 1946), p. 2.]