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.

Moving_in_Dec_1946_AC112_Box_MP166_Image_4082

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.