Today in Maseeh Hall: Ashdown, New and Old, Part 2

Today in Maseeh Hall: Ashdown, New and Old, Part 2

This is part two of a two-part series about Ashdown House––old and new–– and what it has meant to graduate students for over 70 years.

Old Ashdown was home to a number of organized social events, including a big Thanksgiving dinner for residents, Coffee Hour every Thursday, and the historic Cherry Pie Society.

     The Cherry Pie Society, founded in the 1950s, was just what it sounds like—a group of MIT students gathered for the consumption of cherry pie and intellectual discussion. And at each of these informal monthly dinners one could find Dr. Avery Ashdown, beloved housemaster and the source of the dorm’s name.

     “The fact that the building took his name speaks to the level of closeness that existed between this housemaster and the residents of the building,” Golfinopoulos said.

     But the role of the Ashdown housemaster was traditionally more than just that of friend or mentor, he continued. “The housemaster has been, at least in the Ashdown community, a center of the community and something that provides continuity.” As graduate students come and go, the housemaster remains for many years. “That provides this continuity, and this memory of what is the building, and what is the community itself,” Golfinopoulos said. “So, the housemaster is this central feature, and I think Avery Ashdown initiated this, and all of the other housemasters have been following in his footsteps in that sense, providing the pillar of the community.”

     Current housemasters Terry and Ann Orlando are upholding that tradition begun by Avery Ashdown all those years ago. Terry and Ann Orlando have been Ashdown housemasters since 2001, and they oversaw the transition from the Old to the New Ashdown two years ago. Both lend a warm and welcoming atmosphere to the Ashdown community, residents said.

     “They’re both very kind people. They’ll go out of their way to help you out,” MacKenzie said. “I enjoy talking to them; they’re good conversationalists. They’re both very intelligent in terms of engineering but they also know a lot of other things as well, so you can talk to them about anything.”

     “They try to go out of their way to meet people who live in the dorm, which is nice,” Matejek added.

     The housemasters and the residents who transitioned from the Old Ashdown to the New Ashdown may well be the only true source of continuity between the dorms. Though some parts of the New Ashdown bear the same names as in the Old Ashdown, like the Hulsizer Room and the Thirsty Ear, they look and feel very different. And even the longest-employed worker in Ashdown can’t recall the earliest years of the dorm, those first few decades with Avery Ashdown and the Cherry Pie Society.

     “There’s this philosophical question of the king’s boat,” Golfinopoulos said. “You have a boat, and it belongs to the king, and over time you replace planks of wood and the sails and the sailors, so that at some point there are no planks and no sails and no sailors left from the original boat, and even the king may have changed, but they still call it the king’s boat. Is it the king’s boat or not? What makes it the king’s boat?”

     So what makes the dorm Ashdown? The old elevator gratings are now shiny and silver doors, the straight brick walls are modern curves of glass and metal, the laundry room lacks an ankle-deep cesspool, and there are no mice or roaches to be found. Still, perhaps it was only right that the name follow the Old Ashdown residents and housemasters from W1 to NW35.

     “There is some continuity in that community; what we called Ashdown did move from one place to the other,” Golfinopoulos said. “Part of that community was the building itself, and that’s gone now, and part of that community are the people who lived in it.”

     Even so, nostalgia remains for that “kind of a charm under this layer of dust and grit” in Old Ashdown, and the long history present in the building, and looking out over the Charles River at sunset with the knowledge that students for the past 70 years had been living and eating and sleeping and thinking in the very same spot. That much, at least, passes on to the 450-some undergraduates who inherit the building this fall.

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