Our Dear Old Barracks: Life in the Butler Tract

When one thinks of Princeton, the phrases “cattle-car style barracks” and “semi-slums” are rarely the first that come to mind. But these are the words people have used to describe the Butler Apartments, which have provided housing for generations of graduate students for nearly 70 years. The apartment complex, located off Harrison Street, was originally built as temporary units to alleviate the housing shortage as a result of an influx of returning World War II veterans.

The spring semester of 1946 witnessed an unprecedented housing shortage; the university had admitted nearly 500 veterans from over 2000 applications received from veterans alone, resulting in the need of housing for hundreds of students. Other educational institutions like Yale were facing the same problem, and had decided to set up Quonset huts to house the influx of returning veterans, many of whom were married and starting families.

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A couple moving into the Butler tract, 1946. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP166, Image No. 4082.

Towards the spring of 1946, the University, along with the Federal Housing Authority, coordinated the construction of 250 units on the Butler tract off Harrison Street to house married veterans. The project called for the revision of the township’s zoning ordinance to build a temporary complex that was to be demolished within a two- to five-year time frame. The housing authority paid for the construction of the structures and interior furnishings while the university took care of its infrastructure, including sewer and electrical connections as well as the building of roads and sidewalks. Prior to the construction of these units, the university had placed students and their spouses anywhere they could; transforming the ROTC Barracks, Brown Hall, Libbey Mansion and other university owned houses into housing for married students.

With two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room, the sheet-rock barrack-style housing complex at Harrison Street was a spacious alternative to the shared facilities available in dormitory housing. An article in the Princeton Alumni Weekly called the complex “the most attractive project of its type at any college.” The rent on the units started at $40 per month, with gas, heat, and electricity included. Additionally, students could rent furniture for $6 a month and towels and bedding for $1.75 a month. Although the complex contained a good number of units, the demand was still greater than the space available; therefore, the university was forced to establish a ranking system to decide who was able to apply. Only men who served in the official U.S military branches and their spouses would be eligible to apply. This provision excluded those who served in the American Merchant Marines and in the American Field Service. Married couples who had been housed in Brown Hall would be given priority, followed by any junior faculty and tenants of upper Pyne Hall.

The first 31 units opened in November of 1946, with the remainder opening by the spring of the following year. In 1948, a new law passed transferring the ownership and authority to the University; this enabled Princeton to continue to house students in the complex. Although the space was adequate, affordable, and a far cry from living in a cramped dormitory space, the complex had several problems. In more than three dozen interviews conducted with previous Butler residents from the 1940s to spring of 2014, there are references to Butler’s paper-thin walls, drafty spaces, uneven floors and antiquated kerosene heaters. The interviews, which are part of the broader Princetoniana Committee Oral History Project, also capture the other side of Butler, which includes the feeling of community within the complex, as well as providing a place for those who could not otherwise afford to live in Princeton.

Some of the interviewees, who have lived in places like New York City, stated that they found the space at Butler to be adequate and that they were grateful to find such an affordable place to live.  David Baldwin *65, said, “We could lie in bed at night and carry on a conversation. Privacy was not that great but there was a lot of camaraderie and companionship.” Joyce Axelrod, wife of Michael Axelrod *66 , said that life at Butler  “was a joy” and that she “never, never felt unhappy.” Other interviews tell of the intellectual and international community that formed around Butler and the friendships and the informal networks that formed to organize everything from babysitters to study groups.

Butler, after surviving several threats of demolition, will be replaced by the Lakeside Apartments off Faculty Road that will open this month. Many people, like Christine Blumauer, who organized a reunions tour of Butler in 2014, feel a sense of nostalgia for the Butler space. Among the things that she enjoyed were “the quietness [and], the kids playing around.” The Butler oral history project was undertaken by the Princetoniana Committee as a way to preserve the stories of those that had lived at Butler. The interviews are accessible through the Princeton University Finding Aids website and include interviews with alumni and their spouses.

Below, we present a gallery of images depicting Butler through the years, inside and out.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 1-7

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a sitting U.S. president gives the Commencement address, a judge tries to get information about damage to Nassau Hall, and more.

June 2, 1851—Thomas Mifflin Hall, Class of 1853, celebrates his sixteenth birthday at Princeton by attempting to do some work for class: “I did not get out all the lesson, as I fell asleep while studying,” he notes in his diary.

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Thomas Mifflin Hall’s diary entry for June 2, 1851. Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), Box 10.

June 3, 1980—Princeton sophomore Lynda M. Clarizio ’82 casts her vote as a delegate in New Jersey’s fifth congressional district for Senator Ted Kennedy for U.S. President. She was one of eight Kennedy supporters selected from 37 contenders at the April 13, 1980 convention in Bridgewater, New Jersey.

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Lynda Clarizio. Photo from Daily Princetonian.

June 4, 1996—Sitting U.S. President Bill Clinton gives the Commencement address at Princeton. He asks students not to forget that Americans have a “common purpose.” “Because of the education you have, if America does well, you will do very well. If America is a good country to live in, you will be able to build a very good life.”

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Charles P. Stowell ’96 shakes hands with U.S. President Bill Clinton at Princeton’s 1996 Commencement. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 170.

June 6, 1828—A Middlesex County judge begins an inquiry into a firecracker explosion in a Princeton classroom on May 28, which destroyed its stove and blew out its windows. The faculty minutes note: “three students being called before him, refused to give testimony, avowing their determination to go to jail, rather than be placed under oath at this time.” The judge orders them to return at a later date. Ultimately, a student will anonymously confess and send $150 to cover the damages, and the matter will be dropped.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Archiving Email at the Princeton University Archives

Changes in leadership, especially at universities, give archivists an opportunity to transfer records into the archives. Such was the case when the current Dean of the College, Valerie Smith, accepted a position as the new president of Swarthmore College, a post she will assume in just over a month. Dan Linke, the University Archivist, and I visited her office to meet with Dean Smith and her staff to inform them of our procedures for transferring office records—paper documents, as well as born digital material such as Word documents, SharePoint sites, etc. Soon into the conversation we began to discuss the prospect of email capture, a task that we had only haphazardly done in the past through preserving Microsoft Word documents used to compose memos, PDF’s generated from email applications, and printouts included within paper collections.

Pictured here is the full email header from a message in the publicly available Enron Email Dataset.

Pictured here is the full email header from a message in the publicly available Enron Email Dataset. Click image to expand.

Two compelling reasons forced us to find a way to conduct an email transfer directly from Dean Smith’s account. First, she is a pioneer at Princeton many times over; in addition to being the first black woman to earn tenure at the University, Dean Smith later served as the first director of the University’s renowned Center for African-American Studies before becoming the first black person to serve as Dean of the College. Second, we knew that the previous methods of email transfer limited access possibilities and stripped emails of their contexts, including lost attachments, missing email header information, and inefficient search capacities.

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African Americans and Princeton University

Dear Mr. Mudd:

Q. What information do you have about African Americans and Princeton University?

A. Until the twentieth century, Princeton’s history has mostly been dominated by white men, typically from prosperous backgrounds. Though decidedly pro-Union during the Civil War, the campus had strong Southern influences, and its reputation as the “northernmost university town of the [segregated] south” was not undeserved. Yet that is not to say that Princeton’s story can only be told in terms of its loudest voices. Here, we give a brief overview of some of the ways African Americans fit into Princeton’s past.

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Princeton University cheerleaders, 1995. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box SP9, Image No. 2484.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 25-31

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, the very first classes are held, a scientific expedition photographs an eclipse, and more.

May 26, 1888—The Glee Club performs for sitting First Lady Frances Fulsom Cleveland and a crowd of nearly a thousand at a reception in her honor. After the concert, she attends the Yale-Princeton baseball game wearing Princeton’s colors and carrying an orange and black bouquet.

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Frances Fulsom Cleveland. Grover Cleveland Collection (AC348), Box 1.

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Statistical Data Pertaining to Princeton University

With the launch of our new website, we’ve been updating a lot of our online information. Here, Anna Rubin ’15 has updated our table of statistical data pertaining to Princeton University to reflect data from the past few decades. Click to enlarge the table.

Statistical Data Pertaining to Princeton University graph

 

This Week in Princeton History for May 18-24

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, women’s lacrosse wins it all, a popular professor packs Alexander Hall, and more.

May 20, 1963—The Woodrow Wilson School building, renamed Corwin Hall, is moved 100 yards to make way for the new home of the Woodrow Wilson School, Robertson Hall, named in honor of donors Charles Robertson ’26 and his wife, Marie Robertson. A neighbor sells viewing space to benefit charity. Video may be viewed here.

May 22, 1994—The women’s lacrosse team wins the first-ever women’s varsity NCAA national championship in any sport for Princeton.

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Princeton’s women’s lacrosse team members celebrate. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD36, Folder 2.

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Reunions and the P-Rade

Princeton alumni have a passion for college reunions that is hard to find at most institutions. Each class descends upon the campus every May, as they have for generations.  In its early years, College of New Jersey (Princeton) drew alumni back to campus for Commencement, to meet classmates, to reunite with friends, and/or visit with favorite professors, both informally and at organized events. In 1826, alumni returning for Commencement formed the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall to “promote the interests of the college and the friendly intercourse of the graduates, and meetings were to be held annually in the Prayer Hall on commencement day.” James Madison, Class of 1771, was the Association’s first president, and future College president John Maclean was secretary.

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College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1847 at Commencement, undated. Left to right: William H. Armstrong, H. Clay Cameron, William Silas Whitehead, Alfred Martien, and Henry B. Miller. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD24, Folder 1.

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This Week in Princeton History for May 11-17

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Charles Lindbergh sneaks through campus, baseball makes its television debut, and more.

May 12, 1999—The Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at Princeton University hold a memorial service in Firestone Plaza for three Chinese journalists killed in a NATO bombing on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

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Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

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“Dear Mother … with Heaps of Love”

This Mother’s Day, we thought we’d give a shout out to all the Princeton moms. Though Princeton has changed a lot over the years, one thing has remained pretty constant: many students want to share their academic triumphs, heartbreaks, and other local news with their mothers, who once received letters like this one and today more commonly hear from their children at Princeton via smart phone.

The letter below, one of hundreds of similar letters in our Student Correspondence and Writings Collection (AC334), was written ca. February 1913 by Peter Carter Speers, Class of 1914.

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