Building Community through Shared History - A KU Memorial Union Program

Unitarian Utilitarianism

From the 1920s through the late 1940s, a two-story Italianate frame house in Old West Lawrence – originally intended to be “a home for poor women and girls” – functioned as a de-facto residence hall for women students of limited means at the University of Kansas.

A trusteeship administered by the Unitarian Church, this dwelling located at 745 Ohio Street was known variously as “the Ricker Home,” “Ricker Hall,” and the “Ricker Club Co-op,” but was never formally a part of the University. Nonetheless, Ricker became an established, albeit ad-hoc, adjunct to KU’s student housing system, providing low-cost room and board for approximately a dozen cash-strapped women students every year.

The Ricker Home owed its existence to a Lawrence widow named Leonora Ricker Hollingbery. Records indicate she was born in Portland, Maine, in 1859, and then moved – presumably with her family – first to Illinois, then to Kansas, arriving in the Sunflower State when she was seven years old.

By 1899, she lived in the Kanwaka community near Lawrence and apparently had enough leisure time to be one of the three founders of the Kanwaka Summer Club, a ladies’ literary and self-improvement society. (Renamed the Kanwaka Literary Club, it remains in existence to this day.)

In December 1902, at the age of 43, she married George Hollingbery, a widower, the father of four sons, and a prosperous and established Lawrence businessman. Originally from London, he worked as a “merchant tailor.”

He was involved in local civic affairs, owned at least one house in Lawrence, and seems to have acquired substantial financial assets including bonds and mortgage notes. (His grandson – George Phillips Hollingbery – would go to win a degree of fame and fortune developing and marketing the duck-like 1923 Jayhawk mascot.)

After some 10 years of marriage to Leonora, George Hollingbery died without a will in December 1912 at the age of 68. Leonora passed away not quite two years later.

Her handwritten last will and testament – composed just 10 days before her death from cancer on November 21, 1914 – stipulated that her house at 841 Maine Street in Lawrence be turned into a residence for women of limited means to be called “the Ricker Home.”

Her idea was to establish “a place where a woman with money may hire a room at a fair price, one with little money for less, and one with none may get a cot or a place to sleep for nothing, with the use of the kitchen and laundry for nothing.” To this end, she bequeathed her Maine Street house to a trust that would be administered by the Unitarian Society of Lawrence.

The bequest also included a 160-acre farm outside of town and various financial instruments of indeterminate value held in a safe-deposit box at the Watkins National Bank in downtown Lawrence that the trustees could sell or otherwise use for the ongoing support of the Ricker Home.

Leonora Hollingbery’s will left financial management decisions to the discretion of the trustees selected by the Lawrence Unitarians. However, she was quite specific on the focus of allowable expenditures. All funds were to be used strictly for the upkeep of her contemplated “home for girls in Lawrence who are working for small wages, and have no families or whose families live elsewhere.” More to the point, “in no case is this money to be spent for elegance.”

Leonora Hollingbery expressed her wish that the Ricker Home “be opened as soon as possible,” but it is unclear when the facility first began receiving residents. Also unclear is whether these early roomers included a smattering of self-supporting KU women students, though they certainly would have qualified under the terms of the will, on top of which student housing options for non-sorority member KU women were extremely limited at the time.

What is clear from records at the Douglas County Clerk’s office and the Lawrence Unitarian Society is that the trustees for the Hollingbery estate purchased another and larger home for the Ricker women at 745 Ohio Street in 1921. Sources differ on the rationale for the relocation. Some evidence indicates the Maine Street residence had been deemed unsuitable to its purpose; other data suggest it had apparently become uninhabitable.

In either event, by the late 1920s, 745 Ohio began showing up in University correspondence and student directories as Ricker Hall, and occasionally, the Ricker Club Co-op. And by the 1930s, it appears the University had formalized arrangements with the Unitarians and was regularly doling out room assignments in Ricker to female scholarship students.

A Ricker Hall rule sheet from 1937 offers some glimpses of what life was like there. Room rent was four dollars per month for women sharing a double room, and five dollars per month for a single. With meals and utilities, total expenses per person were estimated at “around $25 per month,” though the hope was expressed that “$18-$20” would usually be sufficient. Prospective Ricker residents were also advised, “though the house is plainly furnished, it is comfortable, and as homey as the girls themselves choose to make it.”

During this time, Ricker was designated a “Cooperative House” along the lines of KU’s Watkins Hall – itself the donation of an even wealthier Lawrence widow, Elizabeth M. Watkins – and admission to Ricker was considered a form of scholarship. Indeed, as the Ricker rules put it, “those who can afford to join a sorority do not need the help which the Cooperative house affords.”

As at Watkins Hall, household tasks and work responsibilities at Ricker – such as cleaning, dish washing, and meal serving at breakfast and dinner – were to be divided equally among the residents and rotated among all during the course of a school year. It was expected that “this work should not require more than an average of 30 to 60 minutes daily, if the work is well-planned and efficiently done.”

This collective approach to job-sharing did not apply to meal preparation. As the Ricker rule sheet noted, “it has proved much more satisfactory to have one of the girls do the cooking,” in return for which she earned a share, or even all, of her house expenses. (In other years, Ricker employed cooks. Former residents remember two of them in particular – “Tulip,” and “Audrey” – quite fondly.)

Finally, Ricker residents were reminded “the intimacy of living and working together” required “a spirit of genuine cooperation, individual faithfulness in the performance of duties, and a real concern for the welfare of the whole group.”

It was in the 1940s that Ricker Hall seemed most firmly enmeshed in the KU environment. During the years 1942-47, Ricker residents annually had their names and group photos published in the Jayhawker yearbook. It is also from this time period that a collection of reminiscences of Ricker Hall residents, many of which were compiled by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing in spring 2000, flesh out the experience of living there.

As the home of young women on scholarship, there naturally was an overwhelming academic focus at Ricker. Many of the residence’s women were pursuing degrees connected to medicine and health care, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, nursing and medical technology. Shoptalk was a regular staple of mealtime conversation for these women, even when it had deleterious effects on the non-medical types.

“Since all of us were taking courses in the medical areas, such as microbiology, biology and anatomy, we naturally talked about what was happening in class at the dinner table or breakfast,” recounted Kathryn Burkepile Apel. “Once, our one and only business major [at Ricker] stopped us and said, ‘Any more talk like this and I’ll lose my meal!’ We all tried as best we could, but after a little chit-chat, we were back to what we knew best...the funny and gruesome things about some of our classes. Guess what? Very soon, [she] left the table and lost her supper. She just couldn’t handle that kind of talk at mealtime. But what else was there to talk about, since we all had a common interest in those areas. This kept life interesting for the year that I lived there.”

Academically oriented discussions with a twist weren’t solely the province of Ricker women contemplating careers in the health professions. Alameda Bollier Barrett, a journalism major, recalled the time she and Carlotta Pretzer provided the entertainment at a Ricker Hall birthday party by regaling the group with a compilation of humorous typographical errors. “Forever after, along with our two other roommates Mary Goodell and Colleen Jones, we referred to our interactions as our ‘fiendship.’”

Not surprisingly, the Spartan accommodations in the hall mandated by Leonora Ricker Hollingbery figure in many of the reminiscences of the former Ricker residents. However, the no-frills set up did not come across as a cause for complaint. Instead, these anecdotes characterize the Ricker experience as a case of “making do and getting through.”

“We each had a small table by our bed for a desk,” recalled Dorothy Dodsworth Peterson. “The comparison to student living these days is pretty laughable, but we did not have much in those war years.” Added Marion Figley Stelzer, “The furnishings left quite a bit to be desired, but none of us seemed to be too disturbed about that.”

And Betty Whitney Alderson, who took up residence in Ricker upon her arrival at KU in fall 1942, noted that “most of the girls came from families that had experienced the Great Depression at home and were used to doing without, so the lack of amenities was not a big issue.”

To be sure, the rooms were small and she shared a dresser one year, closet space the next. But there was no sense of deprivation.

“No one thought anything about it,” she added. “You maybe had a sister at home and were used to sharing. Plus at that time, the Depression still hadn’t really ended for a lot of people. You just accepted it.”

Another thing Ricker women accepted about their residence was its approximately one-mile distance from campus and the scheduling adjustments they had to make as a result.

“Whether we walked or took the bus, we generally stayed on campus all day,” recalled Doris Virginia Leiser Baxter. “It was too far from campus to go back there for lunch,” added Marie Jackson Garrett.

For many Ricker women, this often meant eating the mid-day meal at the Kansas Union, an experience that was not always pleasant, as Alderson remembered. “The US Navy machinists mates [then housed in a wing of Strong Hall while learning skills they would put to use in World War II] would be lined up to enter the Ballroom where they were fed, and it would be like running the gauntlet.”

Living at Ricker also had its lighter moments. Doranne Brown remembered one night when a bat flew into the halls’ dining room, causing a small panic. “I got a paper bag, and when the poor thing flopped to the floor, I put the bag close to its feet, and it clung upside-down to it while I went to the door and flung it into the air, and safety.”

Alice Boylan Banks recalled the time she found the entrance to Ricker’s attic. “Two of us could climb up and cross to the south side of the house where there was a small window,” she wrote. “Through the window we could climb onto the roof of the porch. From this spot, we could observe the comings and goings of people and overhear ‘porch swing’ conversations. Needless to say, discovery [of their eavesdropping] resulted in reprimand.”

Kathryn Burkepile Apel retained a remembrance of the only woman in her Ricker group who smoked. “She happened to be the youngest, and it was said she smoked because it was a way of keeping the boys from kissing her and getting her pregnant.”

Men, of course, were generally barred from entering Ricker Hall. However, throughout the 1940s, there were mid-week mixers, when the women would invite boyfriends over for dancing in the small Ricker living room. There were also the occasional “guest nights” to which the women could invite a friend for dinner.

Some former Ricker residents hold on to memories of the hall’s house parents – a “Mother” Tonkin, and a young couple named Hank and Tina Brown. The Browns were close in age to their charges and both were associated with KU. He was the University photographer and she was still a student.

On at least one occasion, it appears that Hank Brown was willing to bend the rules for the Ricker residents. “Halloween, 1945, most or all of us, along with Hank Brown, went to a late scary movie AFTER curfew,” recalled Doris Virginia Leiser Baxter. “I remember this because the story in the movie was so real to me, as though it could have really happened.”

Tricks and treats aside, the real reason for living at Ricker was so that women of modest means could acquire a college education and prepare themselves for careers. On this score, it seems that Ricker Hall served its purpose exceptionally well.

For example, Dorothy Dodsworth Peterson would go on to spend 40 years as a medical technologist at Fairview Hospitals in Minneapolis, Minnesota, ultimately becoming the director of consolidated laboratory services. Mary Goodell Wilson Lile worked as a registered dietician and was a 50-year member of the American Dietetic Association.

Kathryn Burkepile Apel joined the original Menorah Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, and later helped build and worked in hospital laboratories in such Kansas towns and cities as Smith Center, Hoxie, Phillipsburg, St. Francis, and Topeka. Alice Boylan Banks became a microbiologist and infection control practitioner in Kansas, Colorado, and other states.

Doris Virginia Leiser Baxter worked as a botanist with the US Department of Agriculture, and remained active in the field during her retirement years, writing and editing an extensive “Manual For Testing Agricultural and Vegetable Seeds.” And Kathleen Broers Zimmerman, after living and working in San Francisco, returned to Lawrence with her husband and started Zimmerman Steel Company, in which she was an active co-owner.

In 1946, a minor controversy swirled around Ricker Hall. By this time, the Lawrence branch of the Unitarians had become inactive and trusteeship of the Ricker Home had been transferred to the American Unitarian Association headquartered in Boston.

The Boston Unitarians – perhaps seeking to relieve themselves of the burden of managing a small property half a continent away – seemed willing to change the expressed purpose of Mrs. Hollingbery’s bequest. In correspondence with the University, representatives of the national organization acknowledged “that no necessity for accommodations for working women was apparent.”

Consequently, as long as the University was willing to take care of the house, and make enough money from it to cover taxes and insurance, the Unitarians seemed poised to not only formalize what had heretofore been an ad-hoc arrangement, but ultimately to transfer the entire trusteeship to the KU Endowment Association.

An agreement was drawn up in August 1946 to codify all these understandings. But negotiations hit two snags.

The first was over the issue of race relations. KU inserted a clause into the legal agreement stipulating that Ricker Hall was to be occupied solely by members “of the Caucasian race.” The Unitarians were unwilling to agree to this stipulation since “This Association has taken the position that we will not discriminate against either Negroes or Orientals, [and] would be subjected to severe criticism if we put any such clause into an agreement made by the Association.”

The second problem was a purely administrative issue. KU Endowment Association was concerned that the original spirit and intent of the Hollingbery trust could leave it exposed to responsibilities not in its purview, given that KU Endowment was designed to administer activities solely under the auspices of the University.

Matters dragged on until 1947, when the American Unitarian Association filed a court action asking that KU Endowment be made the trustee of the Hollingbery estate, and that the purpose of the trust be changed from use of the house for working women and girls to housing for working girls and women attending the University. The KU Endowment Association did not have any part in bringing the action to court.

KUEA announced it would take on the trusteeship reluctantly, and only with the understanding that it could be resigned at any time, most particularly if there was a renewed demand for the use of the property by working women not connected with the University.

The judge in the case thought it over for six months, and in November of 1947 appointed two Lawrence-area businesswomen not affiliated with the University as trustees. Fay Brown and Lucille Johns told local newspapers that they were happy to oversee the trust, and that they had no desire to change the ad-hoc relationship that had developed with the University. Title to the building at 745 Ohio remained in the hands of the Unitarians. Concerns raised by the University about the race of Ricker residents became moot, and life continued as before for the residents of Ricker Hall.

Ricker Hall dropped off the rolls of University residences after the 1950-1951 academic year as new KU scholarship and residence halls for women were brought into service. At this time, Ricker also apparently shed its final vestigial ties to its original purpose of providing housing for women of limited means. However, 745 Ohio continued to be occupied by KU students, serving as the location of the Bogii Social Fraternity in 1952-53, and the Theta Chi Fraternity from 1954-56. After this point, the building no longer appears in any University directory. However, the Ricker Hall name lives on in the “Ricker House” floor in Lewis Hall.

In 1962, the house at 745 Ohio, still administered by the Unitarian Church, began service as an activities center for the Douglas County Association for Retarded Children, a function that was taken over by another non-profit organization called Cottonwood, Inc, in July 1972. Cottonwood later moved the activities center to a new location on the southwest side of Lawrence. However, 745 Ohio remained in use as a group residence for some Cottonwood clients until fall 1983.

From 1983 until 1987, various single tenants lived in the house for reduced rent in exchange for basic maintenance and upkeep of the property. This arrangement did not work out especially well, as the residence fell into dramatic disrepair. In September 1987, a reincorporated Unitarian Society of Lawrence leased the house to a local non-profit and 745 Ohio became the home of Hearthstone, a residential center for chemical- and alcohol-dependent men.

The house continues in that capacity today, accommodating approximately ten men in a fashion that would have been familiar to Ricker Hall residents – with three or four men to a room, and common areas for cooking, laundry, socializing and meetings. The Hollingbery trust also continues to exist as an “eleemosynary institution for the good of the community,” and is still administered by the Unitarians.

Taking the long view, over its various incarnations for some 90 years, Leonora Ricker Hollingbery’s bequest aimed at assisting individuals in need of a helping hand has endured, far past what even she might ever have contemplated.

Laura Lorson
Kansas Public Radio
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source notes: Student Housing Surveys, compiled by KU Housing Department and Fred McElhenie; “Ricker Hall: A Brief Look at 745 Ohio,” by Fred McElhenie. Correspondence of Deane Malott, 1946-1947, Spencer Research Library. “Await Decision on Ricker Hall Will Contest,” University Daily Kansan. May 8, 1947, vol. 44, #134, p.8, column 4.
“New Home Trustees,” Lawrence Journal-World. November 6, 1947. Taken from KU Scrapbook 0/0, vol. 11, p. 30. An overview of student housing, featuring dates and occupancies, may be found in Kansas Alumni Magazine, January 1959, volume 57, #5, page 34. Unfortunately, the information in the case of Ricker Hall is not expressly reliable when cross-checked with the other references mentioned in this section...but it may provide scholars with a good basis on which to begin other explorations of KU student housing organizations. Ricker Hall folder 0/22/73, Spencer Research Library. “Notes on Leonora S. Ricker Hollingbery,” researched and compiled by Kathy Nace, July/August 1999. Spencer Research Library. Author’s personal interview with Randell Shaffer, 08/10/04. Author’s personal interview with Gary Braddy, 08/12/04. Author’s personal interview with trustee Elizabeth “Betty” Allen, 08/13/04. Author’s personal interview with Betty Whitney Alderson, 09/13/04.]