Old-School Values

When I went off to college 40 years ago this September—now there’s a statement that would give anybody pause—my two roommates and I were assigned to a ground-floor dormitory suite that was Spartan, even by 1977 standards.
Executive Editor Paul Rosta

Executive Editor Paul Rosta

When I went off to college 40 years ago this September—now there’s a statement that would give anybody pause—my two roommates and I were assigned to a ground-floor dormitory suite that was Spartan, even by 1977 standards. We were each allocated a desk, a chair, a dresser and a bed; one enterprising roommate, who lived nearby, scored a used couch, and there must have been a bookcase or two on the premises, as well.

This no-frills setup suited me fine, and not only because I didn’t know any better (although I didn’t). High ceilings, outlines of a long-dormant fireplace and the building’s red-brick cladding were unmistakable signs of its late 19th-century vintage. I was secretly thrilled to live in a dorm where you could imagine a member of the class of 1881 poring over Plato. The only kids I’d have swapped places with lived across the campus green in a dorm whose bricks were laid when Jefferson was president. 

These days, the student housing business is booming. Developers are racing to meet the demand for thousands of new units. Most new communities seem to be outfitted with amenities that could go toe-to-toe with those offered by upscale rental properties in major markets. Pools, game rooms, well-appointed lounges and fitness centers seem to be required.  

As attractive as these communities are, though, I don’t entirely envy the students who are lucky enough to call them home. I wish that all of them could spend at least a year in surroundings offering a daily reminder that there was life long before Instagram. That’s why I was heartened to learn about several adaptive reuse projects serving Binghamton University in New York. As Mallory Bulman reports in “Second Wind,” ingenious developers created hundreds of units by transforming two very different properties: the century-old former home of a local newspaper as well as an architecturally notable office building from the mid-1970s.

Despite the challenges of such makeovers, it’s a bit surprising to me that we don’t see more of them. Yes, I know that brand-new construction with plenty of bells and whistles is what sells housing to college kids and their parents. But I wonder whether there’s a substantial market for alternatives, especially considering the appetite for creatively renovated spaces among people only a few years older than this year’s college freshmen. Properties repurposed as student housing can bring financial rewards to their sponsors and vitality to the surrounding area; for the young men and women who live there, the benefits are possibly less tangible, but not necessarily less real.

Originally appearing in the June 2017 issue of MHN.