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Housing at UW

Sep 6, 2017 By Steven R. Peck, Publisher

Colleges and universities enjoy their traditions at football games, homecoming festivities and commencement exercises, but as a general rule they are not particularly sentimental institutions in day-to-day operations.

Wyoming residents, at least a third of whom have close ties to the University of Wyoming either as alumni or alumni family, apparently are about to see a case in point. It has been recommended by a UW housing committee that the university tear down its two oldest student dormitories, Crane Hall and Hill Hall. They are empty this fall, an indication that the recommendation will be implemented.

Both have been in place since 1961 in more or less their current forms, but they are part of the 1950s in design and sensibility, part of the university's post-World War II building boom.

Actually, Crane and Hill are pre-dated in student housing by some other existing campus buildings which now are used for other purposes. Both Hoyt and Merica halls, for example, originally housed students but were converted to office and classroom use long ago. No such repurposing is being considered for Crane and Hill.

Housing is very much on the minds of the university and its board of trustees these days. Even the "new" UW dorms - the four 1960s-vintage vertical "ice cube trays" north of Crane/Hill named Downey, McIntyre, Orr and White halls - are showing their age as well, both physically and in their approach to student housing.

For a long time it was more or less presumed by university leaders around the nation that student housing wasn't all that important, at least not in terms of aesthetics appearance, desirability, and comfort. Many a state university built an array of concrete towers full of 10-by-12 cubicles, packing in the students who needed roofs over their heads as enrollment skyrocketed following the war.UW is one of thousands of American colleges and universities still using such dormitory facilities to some extent.

But student preferences and expectations have changed, and so have modern housing facilities. Many campuses now have built suite-style campus housing offering larger, more-private, more-comfortable living spaces, with more bathrooms and other elements of design and convenience that have moved away from the familiar "cell blocks" that so many Americans of a certain age associate with college housing.

The colleges have done it not just for aesthetic reasons, but for hard economic ones as well. Student housing has become an important recruiting tool, and the colleges which can offer more attractive and comfortable housing have a demonstrable advantage over those that cannot.

Oddly enough, at the University of Wyoming campus, it is Crane and Hill halls, despite their age, which come closer to meeting this modern-day desirability than the four concrete towers a block away.

Many UW alumni who were able to move from one of the towers into a room in Crane/Hill (they essentially are one building, joined in the middle by a disused dining hall) considered themselves fortunate. The rooms there are larger, often single occupancy, quieter, and there were shared kitchens that provided a nice alternative between eating out and the dorm cafeteria.

Crane and Hill also have that mid-century modern style of design that is appreciated these days in many circles.The four towers, which have been highly functional in their intended roles for decades, don't. It's hard to imagine White Hall achieving that type of retro design appeal in the foreseeable future.

UW housing has been studied nearly to a fatal point for years. Current thinking is that if any of UW's dorms are worth saving for now, apparently it is the four towers. Sentiment and appearance might suggest otherwise, but anyone counting on a public university to make a decision based on either of those things will be disappointed in the long run.

If Crane and Hill are demolished, they won't be forgotten, and they may well be missed. But the modern American university must look forward in its facilities. UW needs to grow, and it needs better housing to do so.

If it takes a wrecking ball and a bulldozer getting busy on sites now occupied by outdated housing, even pretty decent outdated housing, then so be it.

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2017-09-24

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