Today in Maseeh Hall: Ashdown, New and Old, Part 1
This is part one of a two-part series about Ashdown House––old and new–– and what it has meant to graduate students for over 70 years.
It was home to mice and roaches and fish and grad students. Its heaters leaked and its stairs creaked and its floors splintered into residents’ feet. It was old and rundown, and it was home.
W1, previously called Ashdown House, is a distinctively old and grand-looking building, complete with cupolas, clocktower, and turrets overlooking the Charles River at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Memorial Drive. Once the Riverbank Court Hotel, built in 1901 and bought by MIT in 1937, Ashdown became the second graduate dorm in the country when it opened in the fall of 1938.
Now, more than seven decades later, the graduate community of Ashdown has settled into its new home in NW35, the so-called New Ashdown. They moved from the original Ashdown in 2008. The “Old Ashdown” is undergoing major renovations and will open in fall 2011 as an undergraduate dorm, newly dubbed Maseeh Hall, thanks to Fariborz Maseeh ScD ’90, whose $24 million dollar gift prompted the Institute to complete construction.
To its former graduate residents, however, the dorm remains Old Ashdown. They remember it with a smile and laugh that is part nostalgia, part good-natured ridicule.
More than a low price tag
“I put in 13 entries in the housing lottery and numbers 12 and 13 were Ashdown,” remembered graduate student Theodore Golfinopoulos. “Someone later told me that if you don’t want to live in Ashdown, it’s not that you put them way down on your lottery, it’s that you don’t put them on the lottery at all.”
“I put it as eighth choice out of eight,” graduate student David Shirokoff said. “When I found out I was going to be in a room in the Old Ashdown, I was pretty upset, and I called MIT housing and insisted they must have made a mistake. They informed me there was no mistake.”
There was one redeeming feature that made Old Ashdown desirable to some graduate students, however. “It was the cheapest,” graduate student Michael Matejek explained. “It was about $530 a month; I think the next cheapest was Tang, about $100 more.”
But somehow, the dorm won over many of its reluctant residents with something other than its low price tag.
“You got the sense that this was a very grand, fine building with a layer of dust on the veneer,” Golfinopoulos said. There were the antiquated elevators that “were quaint as long as you didn’t have to use them,” the hardwood floors that often bequeathed splinters upon his feet, the red carpeting that once made the unfortunate acquaintance of Golfinopoulos’ pasta sauce—luckily of the same red hue.
“It actually turned out to be a pretty good experience,” Shirokoff said. “If I did things over I’d probably put it as my first choice.”
Location was key
The central location of the building added to the appeal of the dorm.
“Especially when you’re new to Massachusetts, you don’t want to deal too much with the cold,” graduate student Tamer Elkholy explained. “You just cross the street and then you’re in the main building. It was also convenient, in the better-weather days, if you wanted to cross the river and go to Boston—it was right there in front of you.”
But far more important than the building or location was the community of people that lived there. “It was very social compared to other dorms,” MacKenzie said. “All the dorms have events but Ashdown probably had a much higher participation rate.”
Making do with what they had
Part of the reason for the more social atmosphere was the layout, according to former residents. The dorm had a lot of double rooms, which was fairly uncommon in graduate dorms. “You had less privacy; you got to know your roommate a little better–– for better or for worse,” Golfinopoulos said.
“Also, the fact that a lot of the rooms didn’t have kitchens helped because you had to go to common kitchens, and that’s how I met a lot of people,” MacKenzie said. Old Ashdown had a common kitchen on each floor where residents would gather to cook and eat together.
“You’d see a lot of people pushing their carts of pots and pans and graters and spices toward the public kitchen on the floor, and you’d have some person cooking Ramen next to somebody cooking up Grandma’s favorite bok choy stew,” Golfinopoulos remembered. To cook, you went to the community kitchens. And to relax and watch a movie, you went to the one of the two TV rooms.
“There was the large TV room and small TV room,” Matejek said. “They both weren’t really decorated too nicely, the small TV room in particular. You went in there and there was an old ratty couch, and there were just a million things piled up. They had this really small TV with a little VCR player, but it was good enough.”
And if both of those rooms were occupied, there was always the TV in the gym. Golfinopoulos remembered one time he and a friend borrowed Planet of the Apes from the front desk DVD collection and the only TV they could find was the one in the gym in the basement of the dorm.
“We went to the gym, surrounded by all the weight-lifting equipment, and watched Heston point guns at apes,” he said. “Because it’s Ashdown, and you make do with what you have.”