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Building a New Ashdown

Barun Singh

The recent news of MIT’s plans to relocate the Ashdown community to a new residence hall comes as little surprise to many of us. The Institute has tried to convert Ashdown into an undergraduate residence no less than half a dozen times, but previous attempts have been met with fierce resistance from the graduate population. This time around is different, partially because the Institute is providing a new residence hall in exchange. When planning for this new residence hall, it is important to note that the Ashdown community is being relocated, not replaced. The transition creates challenges that must be addressed in terms of how to preserve as much of Ashdown’s culture as possible, and also presents opportunities to learn from history.

It’s pointless to argue at this stage that MIT shouldn’t relocate Ashdown. It solves many long-standing problems and makes financial sense (though there are likely other fiscally responsible alternatives). As this relocation occurs, however, it may be tempting to model the building after other residences in the area, such as Sidney-Pacific. Doing so would be a very serious mistake.

When considering the relocation of Ashdown, most students may have difficulty understanding exactly what type of impact it may have on the community. Even the Graduate Student Council seems unable to see beyond the number of beds and the rent, saying it would be “somewhat bizarre for graduate students to be disappointed” about the relocation. The impact of Ashdown, however, goes far beyond monetary issues, and making this transition a success requires an appreciation for those things that make Ashdown so unique.

By the time it is converted in 2008, Ashdown will have had a 70-year history as a graduate residence. Its first housemaster, “Doc” Avery Allen Ashdown, served as housemaster from the dormitory’s inception until he reached the age of mandatory retirement 24 years later. He truly considered the residence (at that time known as “Graduate House”) to be his home, and cared so much for it that his ashes were buried at his request in the Ashdown courtyard.

Most of the current residents of Ashdown weren’t even born during most of Doc Ashdown’s time as housemaster. Yet the story of his commitment, like the dozens of other stories about Ashdown, deeply connects residents with the history and culture of the place (see for more). A resident of Ashdown feels like part of a tradition. When residents of Ashdown move into the new building (Doc Ashdown was the housemaster of Graduate House, and his memory is associated with the Ashdown community, not the physical space), how do we make sure that the traditions and sense of history move to the new building along with the residents?

One part of Ashdown’s history that could provide lessons for future planning is the successful dining program. Ashdown used to have an exceptional dining hall that was closed down in the mid-70s when Lobdell was created. The dining hall provided quality, affordability, and convenience. Thirty years later, MIT has been unable to replicate the success of this program. Instead, we seem to have given up and instead of finding a way to make residential dining work for graduate students, the new “solution” is to put small kitchens in every apartment. Both options provide convenience for students, but while the old Ashdown dining program promoted discussions and interaction, a kitchen in every room promotes isolation. This is one example of a larger issue. Instead of trying to provide sustainable, high quality programming (such as a good residential dining program), the Institute has often opted to spend even more money in investments that are sub-optimal in terms of long-term planning. Can’t we do better this time around?

A key part of Ashdown’s culture is the role of the Ashdown House Executive Committee. AHEC evolved organically into what it is today, and because of this, it has found a way to make all residents feel comfortable and willing to participate in a way that has yet to be replicated in any other graduate residence. No member of AHEC is, or ever has been, more valuable in any way than any other resident of Ashdown. Issues in Ashdown are discussed in open forums, AHEC holds no secret meetings, and all residents directly choose its members — these are all critical components of Ashdown’s community, and must be preserved.

Finally, in planning the new residence, one must understand how the physical characteristics of W-1 have fostered a sense of home and community for the residents. Common spaces, a prominent example being the Thirsty Ear Pub, have been a critical element in this and the new residence must be able to accommodate these being moved as well. Similarly, Ashdown isn’t just sterile drywall and cheap carpeting in box-shaped rooms. When you enter into the building, it feels much more comfortable and inviting than an apartment building or most of MIT’s newer residences. To preserve the cultural traditions of Ashdown, it is important to consider the architectural heritage as well.

The decision to relocate Ashdown is final, but the plans for the new building are not. Students have successfully influenced Institute planning in the past, and there is an opportunity to do so here; it just takes some passion and a willingness. This relocation can result in the destruction of the one of the oldest graduate communities in the country, or it can become another part of Ashdown’s long and rich history. Which will it be?

Barun Singh is a graduate student and former resident of both Ashdown and Sidney-Pacific dormitories. He welcomes comments and responses to this article at his Web site