Seeds Of Construction
October 6, 1911
There’s often quite a bit of commotion on the University of Kansas campus on crisp fall mornings during football season. But the hubbub on the morning of October 6, 1911, had nothing to do with hoped-for glory on the gridiron.
Eight hundred young Kansas women, looking regal in their feather-and-flower strewn hats and long, gathered skirts, chattered excitedly. They carried richly colored banners and pennants with the names of their home counties. The bright instruments of the University of Kansas band flashed golden in the sun.
Some of the bolder women in the crowd took charge and organized the girls, situated directly behind the band. The band director counted off, and the company began a brisk procession from “old” Fraser Hall to the original Robinson Gymnasium, where another 200 additional supporters were waiting for them.
You can almost hear the music floating down Mt. Oread. It served as a clarion call heralding a kind of social revolution. KU women wanted a dormitory, a residential option that did not yet exist at KU at the time. This rally was a demonstration of their determination to obtain one.
While it’s hard to imagine now, originally there were no University-owned dormitories for students at the University of Kansas. During KU’s early years, housing was catch-as-catch-can, with many of the students in attendance usually hailing from the surrounding area. As such, many lived at home, or with faculty, or in other private residences.
But by the turn of the twentieth century, with more out-of-towners descending on Lawrence every year, the KU housing situation was becoming increasingly dire. This was particularly the case for women students. (Men generally had an easier time finding and retaining residential quarters since it was widely surmised male students had no need of “creature comforts,” and could stay more or less anywhere.)
Forced to fend for themselves when it came to securing room and board, KU women students met with opposition from boardinghouse owners, parents, and others overly concerned about the special issues that women faced in terms of the moral and social order. As such, women were put in the position of securing quarters that were acceptable not only to themselves, but also to their parents or guardians.
The issue gained a public airing in 1908 when KU alumna Laura Lockwood published an article in the Graduate Magazine outlining her concerns that the rooming-house system was “a danger to [women’s] health and well-being, and a detriment to their development as examples of wise and noble womanhood.”
Lockwood, then a professor of English at Wellesley College, was a staunch advocate of “organized living units” for KU women. She, along with many other University alumni and donors, had grave concerns about women in the University atmosphere, which appear to be based in the era’s commonly-held perception that women were less able to cope with physical and emotional stress, and required far more supervision and support than undergraduate men.
KU Chancellor Frank Strong shared these concerns. In 1908, some three years before the women’s rally in “old” Robinson, Strong requested funding for a women’s dormitory from the Board of Regents.
“A great many mothers will not allow their daughters to come to the University of Kansas because of the great inadequacy of accommodation,” he explained in his appeal. “It is absurd to expect that the daughters of the family will go to the University and put up with uncomfortable and unsanitary conditions.” His plea was apparently unconvincing. The Regents took no action.
In 1910, a new plan was launched to obtain a women’s dormitory for KU. This time, the emphasis was on private funding. Alberta Corbin, an assistant professor of German at KU and herself a native Kansan and KU alumna, represented the faculty at an organizational meeting for this effort, which also included alumni and students.
Corbin remembered her own less-then-optimal living experiences while a KU student, and dedicated herself to securing safe, reliable housing for female undergraduates. Gifted with exceptional speaking ability and communications skills, as well as a flair for organization, Corbin soon became the public face of the women’s dormitory campaign at the University of Kansas.
The private fundraising effort got off to what seemed a fine start. A series of appeals to alumni for contributions appeared in the Graduate Magazine, and various talks were given extolling the need for a women’s dormitory. These early initiatives culminated on Friday, October 6th, 1911 with the “Woman’s Day” rally at “old” Robinson Gymnasium.
The guest list for this event included some heavy hitters from the women’s rights movement. The president of the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, Mrs. W.D. Atkinson, spoke, as did Mrs. Frank Strong, the chancellor’s wife. The keynote speaker was Mrs. Gertrude Boughton Blackwelder, a KU alumna (1875), Pi Beta Phi, and the president of the Women’s Club of Chicago.
“The state has refused to build this building,” Blackwelder declared. “Yet I predict that in the end the state will do it. The legislature is not the state…when the men and women of Kansas, especially the fathers, learn that the girls at the University need to be better housed, and more safely guarded from temptations to fritter away time and opportunity, you will find them ready, perhaps, to sacrifice the price of the latest model in automobiles to give contributions. …(T)he fathers have a peculiar tenderness for their girls, believing that the best is none too good for them. Thus present your case to the fathers of the state, and I shall lose my faith in…the men of the Sunflower state if they do not heartily and generously respond.”
Alberta Corbin followed Blackwelder’s address with a heart-felt appeal for “A Building for Girls.” After telling the assembled group that their fundraising goal was an astonishing $75,000, she told her own story. While growing up in rural Kansas, Dr. Corbin had always known that she would attend the University one day. Once she arrived, she stayed in a succession of rooming houses and private residences. She addressed the concerns of some alumni that the changes in the campus environment would fundamentally change the KU experience, and assured all those listening that “…the coming of this Building for Girls and of dormitory life in general indicates no break in Kansas student life.”
She added, “…in these new surroundings and new conditions, I hope we can preserve the best of the old life. …(W)hat we should especially want to preserve is the simplicity of life of the older time….As we look back upon that life, we would not give it up, or change it for another, but we know full well, and let us frankly admit it, that there was something lacking.” She closed her remarks by encouraging interested parties from all over the state to become involved in the project. “If some one says he has no daughters here, remember still, we are asking for homes for Kansas girls, for the daughters of the state.” She hoped that “when we read the list of donors in June 1912, it will appear that the building is to be a monument of devotion to the University, and to the young womanhood of the state.”
Subscription-notices were then handed out to anyone interested in contributing. The event raised around $2,500. “Immediately after the exercises,” reported the Kansan, “the luncheon in the gymnasium was given, followed by automobile rides over the city for the visitors.” The newspaper also printed up a list of the day’s principal donors; it appears that the biggest donor of the day was “Reno County,” though it is not mentioned whether this was a pledge from the county government or simply concerned Reno County alumni. In any event, Reno County pledged $500, and it seemed that the day’s event was considered a rousing success.
That early triumph would not be sustained. Articles in the Kansan chronicle a quick drop-off in interest. Within less than a year, the endeavor’s slow progress became a subject of mirth – the paper’s April Fool’s Day issue of 1912 carried an article purporting that the women’s dormitory fundraising campaign had secured $75,000 from steel magnate and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. (The paper later reported “Carnegie had forgotten to send the check,” and that contributions had stalled at around $6,000.)
By 1914, the lack of progress had prompted many supporters to withdraw their financial pledges, and the effort seemed doomed. Campaigns in 1916 and 1918, designed to approach the Kansas legislature with funding requests, also failed. But in 1919, with the imminent adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing women the right to vote, Corbin sensed the time was right to seek aid at to the highest level.
She and the Kansas Council of Women, comprised of representatives of all the women’s clubs in the state, took matters to the Kansas Statehouse in January 1920. Corbin and the deans of women at the five state institutions of higher education (present-day KU, K-State, Emporia State, Pittsburg State, and Fort Hays State) met with Governor Henry J. Allen to discuss their concerns about housing conditions for women.
This conference was successful. Shortly thereafter, a bill was drafted that would have appropriated $1 million for dormitories at the five schools. In the end, however, only half this amount was actually appropriated, and K-State voluntarily withdrew its request for a building. Ultimately, more than $150,000 of the total allocation went to KU. In July 1922, construction finally began on what would become the first dormitory on campus; it would be built specifically to house women.
Located on the site of Old North College, KU’s very first building – which had been demolished by a tank in a demonstration of firepower several years earlier – the new structure cost all of the $156,558 allocated for its construction by the Legislature. It was built in the English colonial style, and was designed by Ray Gamble, the state architect.
Touted as being ‘strictly fireproof,” the foundation was created out of reinforced concrete, with the walls out of “penitentiary brick.” The exterior surfaces were created out of “dark variegated brick” for the lower stories, with half-timber and stucco over brick for the upper stories. The roof was made of tile, and the decorations on the building were of “Bedford stone trimmings.” The east side was six stories high, and the west side four stories high, though to look at the building from the front, the casual observer would not suspect it. The ground was very irregular in the building area, and the extra east-side floors helped fill in and make the proportions of the building more pleasing.
The first floor housed the dormitory’s business office, a large communal living area, housemother’s room and some dorm rooms. The upper floors contained dormitory rooms and a living room on each floor.
Much was made of the fact that each floor contained a complete kitchenette, “where the girls may prepare spreads,” as informal buffets were known at the time, “so dear to the co-ed heart, with no danger of fire in the dormitories.” The basement was the location of the dining room, kitchen, storeroom, janitor’s room and laundry.
As completion of the dormitory neared, the State Board of Administration (a body that had assumed the responsibilities of the KU Board of Regents) decided to name the building “Corbin Hall” in honor of Alberta Corbin’s decade-plus efforts to get the structure funded and built. (Up to that point, it simply had been known generically as “The Dormitory Building for Girls.”)
Sources indicate the honor was bestowed over the objections of Dr. Corbin, who at this point had become the University’s Women’s Advisor, a full professor, and a leading Kansas activist in the women’s suffrage movement.
When the dorm opened in 1923, it housed 107 women, plus a house manager and a social director. Some of the best primary sources for information on this early period are contained in a detailed record-book, apparently kept by a series of Corbin housemothers.
In these pages, one learns far more than one might expect from terse University records. Each sheet lists residents, their hometowns, their room numbers, date of entry to the University, and religious affiliation. There was room for notes about activities, sorority pledging, and other concerns that a housemother might have had.
Here, we learn that Edith Adams of Leavenworth entered school as a freshman at the age of 16; that Christie Angell of Plains, Kansas was a 21-year-old junior who was a “Babtist;” that Ruth Dunlap of Roswell, New Mexico was majoring in Fine Arts and won a $100 prize from the Mohawk Rug Company; and that Katharine Brook of Bastrop, Louisiana, graduated in June of 1931, and must have been a complete pillar of rectitude, since the housemother took a great deal of space describing her as “Exceptional. Very dependable. Shows excellent judgment.”
The housemother didn’t mince words where she felt that it was necessary; you can feel the disapproval radiating off the page for another young woman who entered KU in fall of 1928, and was “…asked to leave [Corbin] hall December 1929 on account of persistent breaking of rules.”
These brief, dry little sketches reveal tragedies, too, like that of Margaret Baxter, of Dodge City, Kansas, resident of room 122. She entered school September 7th, 1925 and “took ill with pleurisy September 16, 1925. Spent 10 days in KU hospital. Returned to Dodge City w/father. Passed away Oct. 27, 1925, having contracted pneumonia. Words of sympathy & flowers were sent by a group of special girl friends and also by Corbin Hall girls to the bereaved family.”
A surprisingly large number of girls listed in the book dropped out “due to illness,” a reflection of the communicable diseases such as TB and influenza that regularly swept through KU in the early twentieth century. (At times, the top floor of Corbin was turned into an infirmary and a quarantine area.) A smaller number of Corbin residents withdrew “due to financial hardship.”
More insight into life at Corbin Hall comes from a large crumbling manila-paper scrapbook housed at University Archives that contains newspaper clippings and other ephemera relating to Corbin women from 1942 to 1951. Many of these items note the engagements and pinnings of the residents, mostly to earnest young men fresh out of the Navy or Army.
Oddly, many of the announcements began with “Corbin Hall has announced the engagement of…,” rather than the woman’s parents announcing the happy news. However, in these days when the University had a defined “in loco parentis” role, Corbin Hall served as a kind of guardian and was viewed as a distinct entity in and of itself; its tenor and tone were defined by women who lived there, and the hall, in turn, defined them.
Indeed, KU Housing Department brochures from the 1930s took special care to inform a potential resident that she was not just finding a place to live at Corbin – she was entering a special world, with special obligations.
“Occupants of Corbin Hall,” it read, “are under the immediate charge of the Social Director, and are expected to conform cheerfully (italics in the original) to the requirements for a family of students.” Later, this cautionary note: “A student who has a special diet should not plan to eat at the dormitory.”
There were other restrictions as well. In 1939, KU warned Corbin residents “not to bring chafing dishes,” (the old fashioned, open-flame wedding-shower-gift standby now almost exclusively used by caterers) for heating food. Also, they were requested not to bring irons. In 1945, a specific “Code of Conduct” was adopted, in which women basically agreed not to sneak men into the dorm, and not to “wear housecoats in the common social rooms.”
By the late 1940s, demand for women’s housing had continued to outstrip supply. In 1948, Corbin Hall was housing 199 women in a structure designed for 135. To alleviate the overcrowding, KU decided to build an additional structure at Corbin’s north end, at a cost of $625,000. Construction began in April of 1949; after problems with drainage, the terrain, and a strike by metalworkers, the building was dedicated on May 27, 1951, becoming home to another 180 women.
Initially, the new dormitory was called “North College Hall” as a tribute to the University’s first building. However, residents had informally called it North Corbin virtually from its first day of occupancy, and in 1960, this became its official title as well. Two years earlier, the buildings had been connected, and in 1963 an additional linking tunnel was opened.
More scrapbooks yield a picture of college life changing with the times, though Corbin continued to be a “safe haven” for parents looking to place significant strictures on their daughters’ social and academic lives. A scrapbook from 1963-64 details the annual Corbin Christmas Revels, a Yule Log party, a stocking decorating contest, a “Cleanest Floor Contest” (won by the first floor of both North and South Corbin, though even on the winning certificate, there appear to be some allegations that bribery with cookies may have tainted the judging), and, indicative of the times, a “Beat Dinner.” There is no mention of what attendees might have eaten at said dinner, but it was advertised with pictures of bongos and dark sunglasses, and a program from the evening indicates that the girls sang songs by Bob Dylan and the Kingston Trio.
In the 1970s-80s, Corbin Hall developed a new reputation as the primary place where young women who wished to pledge a sorority went to live during the freshman “rush season.” Undergraduate women began to see Corbin and its sister residence, Gertrude Sellards Pearson Hall, as a way station for the brief time before they could pledge and move into sorority houses or off-campus.
And in the 1990s, as Corbin neared its diamond anniversary, a major renovation project enabled significant improvements and renovations to the living areas of both North and South Corbin. In both sections of the hall, computer and Internet hookups were added and study areas were improved.
In North Corbin, occupancy was reduced, allowing more space per student in many of the rooms. In South Corbin, the older of the two buildings, renovations were more extensive. Rooms were reconfigured, allowing for better heating and cooling, and creating more open space and light. Closets were enlarged to reflect the greater affluence of present-day students and the common bathrooms also were updated.
These physical improvements, combined with an emphasis on women’s safety, comfort and security within an environment that promotes community and interaction, seem poised to continue Corbin’s role as an “organized living unit” that, in its own way, remains “a monument of devotion to young womanhood.”
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