Digging into the Past: Ridgeline Houses

By Sarah Koenigsberg

In Feb. 2015, the Board of Trustees announced the construction of two new residential buildings to be erected in Ridgeline and Adirondack View.  Plans for the project, which at the moment still await approval from the administration, include residences targeted specifically toward upperclassmen. The new residences will differ in structure from current on-campus housing options for juniors and seniors, particularly those of the social houses that occupy Ridgeline. While an integral component of residential and social life on campus, many students know little about the history of the Ridgeline mansions.

The four large houses of Ridgeline were completed in 1998, though planning had begun years beforehand. The college struggled to obtain permits from the town allowing them to construct in the previously untouched forest. The initial application included plans for eight new houses and one multi-purpose social barn, and was denied. Though the project was eventually given the go-ahead by the town after some adjustments, controversy ensued when the college began clearing brush for construction without receiving Act 250 approval, which examines community and environmental impacts of construction projects.

In 1990, the College banned single-sex organizations because of their exclusive nature and some issues with misogyny within these organizations. This resulted in the break-up of many pre-existing fraternities and sororities. The ban, coupled with the college’s desire to expand its student population by 20 percent, led administrators to turn their eye to the Ridgeline space. With the exception of Brooker House, the homes were built with the intention of housing the fraternities that remained after the single-sex organization ban.

Like the College’s goals for new proposed residence construction, the administration in the 1990s also hoped to lure students away from town neighborhoods.

“We thought we’d build nice new houses up in Ridgeline, where they’ll draw students to the center of the campus,” said Dean of Ross Commons Ann Hanson, who was Dean of Students at the time of the houses’ construction.  “That way they can continue to offer social life but not bother the neighbors.”

In the ’90s, students had limited say in the architecture of the homes, designed by alumnus Steve Nelson ’79 and his partner Jeremiah Eck, though they could offer opinions on interior matters such as furniture. Nonetheless, the student population greeted the houses warmly upon their opening.

“Students would say it was ironic that they would probably live in the nicest place they would ever live in their whole life while they were undergraduates,” said Hanson.

A Campus article from the time reports the SGA President touting the benefits of having the social houses clustered together, making party hopping easier and safer for students. In contrast, some townspeople worried about the impact of having a “fraternity row.”

Consideration of neighboring Middlebury residents has played a large role in the college’s decision to pursue additional on-campus housing. However, other goals have provided motivation as well, namely the housing crunch of recent years and determination to get rid of the mods.

The modular homes were brought to campus in the late ’90s during a housing crisis, at which time the college did not have enough rooms for students even if all of the lounges were filled. Only meant to last ten years, the homes have today become a part of campus culture.

The College hopes the new housing will continue to offer something akin to the experience of living in the mods or off-campus. Current plans are tentative, but include three connected buildings of three townhouse-style apartments, which each house about eight students. A second, large suite-style building would include units holding three to four beds with common rooms and shared bathrooms as well as large building-wide common areas, kitchens, and dining spaces. This building is meant to offer a less isolating suite experience, in contrast to the Atwater or LaForce suites, in which residents seldom run into those who do not share their immediate living space. In this way, the College hopes to create more diverse living options, to accommodate a wide array of preferences.

“Other than the mods, we’re adding to what we already have, we’re not taking away,” Associate Dean of Students for Residential and Student Life Doug Adams said.

Buildings similar to the townhouses were recently installed at Trinity College and scouted by Facilities Services project managers and other Middlebury College staff and administrators.

“The buildings we saw at Trinity are high quality, well built with nice materials,” Tom McGinn, the College’s project manager for the new residences, said. “I think they will be a good addition to the student housing mix here at Middlebury.”

“I think it’s really cool what they’re doing. Of course, I won’t be here to experience it,” Andrew DeFalco ’15.5, president of Chromatic house said.

The houses are ideally expected to be finished in time for the Fall 2016 housing draw, although those involved with the project insist this deadline is very tentative and optimistic.

Many feel that the addition of new upperclassmen housing is likely to alter social dynamics on campus.

“Atwater was the last [residential housing] addition, it really changed the way students interacted with each other,” Adams said. “It changed the flow of social life on campus.”

Tim Baeder ’16.5, vice president of Chromatic house, expressed similar sentiments: “There are going to be 24 new upperclassmen apartments with eight to 10 students living in them, there are probably going to be a lot more parties on this part of campus. This isn’t bad, it’s just different.”

Baeder also wondered how the new housing options would affect the social houses’ ability to fill beds, a mandatory stipulation of their continued existence.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the administration works to incentivize living in the social houses with all these other options.”

As the college works toward finalizing its plans, the administration hopes for as much student input as possible.

“Our hope is to have a lot of conversations with students in terms of what [the new housing] will be about, how we should be using it, and how it should add to the community,” Adams said.

Working plans will be posted on the College’s website and otherwise made public as the project progresses.