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From Blodgett Hall to Beige Buddha: A History of Cooperative Living at Vassar

Blodgett Hall.
Blodgett Hall.

Blodgett Hall—today home to a variety of academic departments—seems an unlikely location for student housing. Yet, from 1933 to 1938, the Gothic Revival building on the northeast corner of campus near Kenyon housed students participating in Vassar’s then-experimental cooperative living program. Cooperative living projects were also established in Raymond and Main in 1933. By doing some of their own housekeeping chores, students significantly lowered their costs, which allowed many who were affected by the Depression to remain in school. Those participating in the program in Raymond, for example, saved $115 annually in exchange for the completion of light chores, including room cleaning, waitressing, and sweeping.

In Blodgett, residents were responsible for sharing all meal planning, cooking, and cleaning and received higher savings for their efforts. According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, students joked that while Blodgett, then the home of the Department of Euthenics, “was appropriate for the study of the betterment of living conditions, it was unsuitable as a cooperative dormitory.” Some students had to go through several bedrooms to get to their own and the bathroom was strangely located next to the boiler room and a room filled with biological experiments. These oddities did not seem to detract from the students’ cooperative living experience as many enjoyed their time in Blodgett.

Three students work together to prepare a meal at Ferry House.
Three students work together to prepare a meal at Ferry House.

Palmer House (northeast of campus beyond Kenyon Hall and the golf course) replaced Blodgett as Vassar’s main cooperative dormitory in 1938. The college deducted $250 from the room and board fees of the house’s 23 initial residents. One student, as house president, was in charge of general planning. The remaining residents were responsible for the house’s general maintenance and shared job shifts as head cook, assistant cook, dishwasher, table-setter, and table-clearer. Residents enjoyed a large kitchen, rooms with baths, sunning on the house’s expansive porches, and a tight-knit community. With such amenities, Palmer quickly became one of the most popular houses at Vassar. This popularity, however, was short-lived.

In 1947, Palmer closed its doors after the house became uneconomical to maintain. Reports of residents’ “poor health record” and the undesirability of the off-campus location also prompted the closing. Yet, the college’s administration, including President Sarah Blanding, remained committed to cooperative housing at Vassar, citing the positive effects the system had for participants—increased responsibility, the development of time-management skills, and the fostering of house community—as reasons for the continuation of the program, albeit with modifications. President Blanding, with support from the Vassar community, recommended that a new, on-campus, cooperative house be opened by the fall of 1948.

Ferry House.
Ferry House.

It wasn’t until 1950, though, that President Blanding’s plans for a new cooperative house were realized. With funds from Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., “in grateful appreciation of all Vassar has done for the Ferry family”—Ferry’s sisters and daughters were alumnae—Vassar commissioned Marcel Breuer to design a contemporary house to serve as the college’s new cooperative dormitory. The Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Cooperative House opened in the fall of 1951 to 27 students and one faculty resident. Students saved $300 annually by managing the house’s cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, laundry, and general maintenance. Financial savings were not the only reward of living in Ferry—residents had their own dog, were given the unprecedented privilege of latchkeys if staying out past 10:30pm, and enjoyed storage cubbies in the bathroom, a luxury described as “the best thing in the house.” Living in the house was also a lot of fun. One former resident fondly remembers Ferry’s Halloween parties, “with homemade donuts, wild costumes, and apple cider from the local cider mill (and MAYBE some stronger things to imbibe).” Students also enjoyed having their favorite professors as dinner guests, dancing, sunning on the roof, and playing Frisbee together. 

Today, more than 50 years after its opening, Ferry is as vibrant as ever. Students still work communally to maintain the house and prepare all meals. On weekends, campus bands and comedy groups frequently perform in the living room. Ferry is committed to environmental sustainability and has adopted a vegan diet to support this initiative. In the spring of 2009, two new co-ops—Community Houses 128 and 148—were built near the Town Houses in response to growing student demand for cooperative living options. Dubbed “Beige Buddha” (vegetarian) and “Meat House” (meat-eating), they have become popular housing options for students who enjoy cooking, are tired of campus dining and dorm life, or want to live cooperatively with others. The co-ops self-organize around a theme. In fact, Beige Buddha is getting a major makeover for the upcoming school year. It will become known as the Multidisciplinary Learning Living Community ("mllc," pronounced like "milk"). Residents will all take the same three courses (available exclusively to members of the co-op) this fall.

While much has changed since the early years in Blodgett, these new houses indicate that Vassar’s commitment to cooperative living has continued to grow and thrive.

–Marlena Santos ’14

Posted Thursday, August 2, 2012