By 1951, student housing cooperatives were nothing new at the University of Kansas. Since the late 1930s, KU students had established close to a dozen such co-ops, where residents organized under the Rochdale Principles of cooperation and shared the cost of food and lodging as well as cooking, cleaning and maintenance chores.
But the Couples Co-op at 1334 Ohio Street was different. Instead of housing either all men or all women, like every other formal or sanctioned University residence at the time, this co-op became home to several married graduate student couples and their children.
The distinctiveness of the Couples Co-op, which merited an article in the University Daily Kansan on February 19, 1951, went beyond the city of Lawrence. As the paper noted, the 16-room residence was “believed to be the first college co-op for married couples in the country.”
Most of what is known about the Couples Co-op comes from the reminiscences of former residents, gathered by Fred McElhenie of the KU Department of Student Housing in winter 2002. According to co-op alums, the idea of the Couples Co-op arose partly from the postwar housing situation at the University and in the city of Lawrence.
Since 1945, returning veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill to further their education had contributed to a huge rise in enrollment at KU. The University came up with a number of unique solutions to house the population boom, converting many unusual spaces for temporary dormitory use. Cooperative residences also blossomed under the auspices of the University of Kansas Student Housing Association (UKSHA), an umbrella entity that purchased or rented private homes for use as co-ops.
As might be expected, off-campus housing was at a premium at this time. Ralph Ross, one of the founding members of the Couples Co-op, recalled that at the time the idea for the co-op came up, he and his wife “lived in a converted garage (very cheap).” Joyce Harkleroad Smith and her husband Vernon had “married in June of 1950 and had an apartment, but when we found ourselves expecting a baby in July we were told that we could not continue to live in the apartment.”
Seeking more salubrious surroundings, the Smiths, the Rosses, and four other graduate student couples began to discuss the idea of sharing a large house on a cooperative basis. This concept came naturally, as several of the individuals involved had lived in student co-op houses as undergraduates at KU and were committed to both the practical arrangements and philosophical ideals of cooperative house life.
In the process, a few of them became committed to each other as well. As an article in a co-op newsletter reported at the time, “The idea of a couples co-op was given its first impetus by the fact that people from the men’s and women’s co-ops were marrying each other.”
Out of the Couples Co-op group, Joanne Michener Ross, Jo Alkire Roland, Mary Campbell Brown, and Joyce Harkleroad Smith had all lived at Henley House, a women’s co-op operated out of the University’s YWCA chapter house. Their husbands also were former co-op residents. Ralph Ross had lived at Don Henry and Twin Pines co-ops before marrying, and Albert Roland had been a member of the Hill Co-op. Vernon Smith lived at the Rock Chalk Co-op during the 1949-50 school year. Will Brown was a member of Twin Pines at the time of his marriage to Mary Campbell. Other initial members of the Couples Co-op included Bruce and Pat Miller and Harry Kirshner, his wife Carol and their Irish setter, Poppy.
Soon after deciding to start this experiment in cooperation, the group found a suitable house at 1334 Ohio Street, just two blocks from the University campus. According to a campus co-op newsletter, Margaret Habein, dean of women at KU, had assisted in setting up the Couples Co-op. Habein also had been active with the Henley House Co-op in its efforts to provide integrated housing for KU women students in the late 1940s.
The Ohio Street residence that the Couples Co-op took over had been serving as a student rooming house for several years prior to that time. In preparation for setting up the co-op, the Smiths, the Browns and others helped their landlord move to other quarters during the spring of 1951. “We had a joking time getting the elderly owner to part with his (clearly very old junk) treasures as we helped him move out,” recalled Will Brown, a half-century after the fact. “Now that I am in his shoes I empathize a little better.” The group also installed two bathrooms and built three clothes closets and a dining room table during the spring semester.
The couples combined their resources and used their creativity to furnish the place. Will Brown remembered that “an auction provided some needed items for the house and a dozen old, black, leaking umbrellas which the purchaser never lived down. My repair of the living room coffee table with my ubiquitous Scotch Tape lasted as long as the co-op.” The Millers and the Smiths together bought a 1929 Model A Ford, formerly a mail delivery truck, to provide transportation for themselves and their housemates.
Joyce Harkleroad Smith recalled that “each couple had a room, or in our case two small rooms, and shared the bath. We lived on the first and second floors, using one first-floor room as a living room and the basement as a kitchen and dining room.”
The living conditions may have been a bit makeshift. As Will Brown noted, “The public opinion was that we were crowded into small rooms, but all the communal space and yard would have been far beyond our budgets.” By coming together in a cooperative housing arrangement, the couples were able to reap economic and social benefits unavailable to those trying to make a go of it on their own.
According to some of the reminiscences, the cost per couple was $70 per month for lodging and food. Cooking, cleaning and maintenance tasks were shared by all, with each couple considered as a unit. Rules and regulations were kept to a minimum, and all house offices were purely functional. The shift chairman, Vernon Smith, determined the work schedule for each couple. Joanne Ross served as treasurer, and Bruce Miller acted as purchasing agent, being in charge primarily of groceries.
Not surprisingly, the residents of the Couples Co-op started having children of their own. Here too, the cooperative nature of the residence seemed a major advantage.
“We started with two small children [in the co-op] and eventually had seven or eight,” recounted Joyce Harkleroad Smith. “Since I had twins, I can attest to the real benefit of living in the co-op at the time, because [my husband] Vernon was gone from 7 in the morning to 10 at night. It was a real blessing to be able to walk out of the door and talk with someone and to have shared meals together. Sometimes we even nursed each other’s children.” Added Willard Brown, another original member of the Couples Co-op, “When babies arrived, they had a lot of parental sharing and pride!”
In the fall semester of 1951, the population of the house was rounded out with several unmarried female graduate students – including some former members of other co-ops – who had been looking for a place to live. The group included at least two foreign students as well as Shirley Elliot, an African American woman who had roomed with Joyce Harkleroad Smith at Henley House. The “Graduate Girls,” as they were known, moved into the third floor rooms and shared expenses, meals and chores with the co-op couples. The residence also became home to Beulah Carrington, a blind African American student who needed to live near campus.
At the time, this population must have seemed quite unorthodox – a mixture of married couples and single students, male and female, black and white. As Joyce Smith told it, “One of our neighbors objected to our landlord about the black students living there and also about Harry Kirshner’s dog. We weren’t sure which neighbor it was, but at one point Harry confronted the neighbor on our left, so we weren’t very popular in the neighborhood.” According to Kirshner’s own account, “As a New Yorker I was considered ‘exotic’ by my fellow co-opers,” and in view of this, one can only speculate as to what the neighbors thought of him and his polyglot housemates.
Harmony did not always reign supreme within the house either, as Joyce Harkleroad Smith told it. “The hardest thing to accomplish was the shared cleaning duties. Even people who had lived in co-ops before seemed to shirk that part of the responsibility of living together.”
The shared meal preparation, however, seemed to go fine, except for Harry Kirshner, who stated succinctly in his written recollections that “cooking was a problem for me.“ Joyce Smith remembered, “We assigned shifts and posted menus that each couple planned for a week. Bruce Miller did the purchasing, and Vernon Smith helped him later. We partly ate what Bruce found that was cheap to buy.” As told by Willard Brown, “Bruce substituted horse meat one night and proved his money saving point when no one noticed.” Other experiments, Brown continued, were not so successful – “Our favorite bread pudding tasted awful made from dry rye bread.”
The co-op residents were always creative in stretching their resources. “We sometimes had blue milk [skim milk] when the Browns were planning meals,” according to Joyce Smith. “Albert Roland was a whiz at making leftovers palatable with lots of grated cheese.” She recalled also “Vernon and Bruce started brewing beer and had a batch going continually in the first-floor kitchen.”
The residents enjoyed an active social life, even if it was mostly confined to fun with housemates. According to Joyce Smith, “There was a running bridge game in the evenings. When one person had to drop out, another took his or her place. We didn’t have many parties probably because we already had a ready-made social group.”
By 1952, co-op members began to go their separate ways. Will Brown and his wife moved out to become houseparents at the men’s Rock Chalk Co-op. The Millers moved to California. The Smiths headed east, where Vernon entered doctoral studies at Harvard.
With the departure of the married people, the co-op was renamed the Graduate Girls Co-op and lived on for another year at a new location, 940 Indiana Street. No information survives as to exactly which individuals remained with the co-op that year, or why the arrangement was disbanded.
Despite its short life, the Couples Co-op can be considered a fruitful experiment and a success for those who participated in it. As Will Brown summed it up, “In short, we were creative, had a lot of fun and by pooling our resources were able to spread our sparse incomes much further than we would have been able to alone.”
In the years that followed its disbanding, members of the Couples Co-op went on to successful careers in education, public health, the ministry, and other fields. In 2002, Couples Co-op alumnus Vernon Smith, who had pursued a teaching career at Purdue, Brown, CalTech, the University of Arizona, and George Mason, shared the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.