Road to ResX: The Rise and Fall of Stanford Theme Housing

June 9, 2021, 9:10 a.m.

In 1974, a Stanford Daily headline proclaimed that “Old Row Houses Never Die.” But, you’d be hard-pressed to find a current student who knows, for instance, that Slav (short for Slavianskii Dom, the former Slavic theme house) was previously named Hurlburt. Hurlburt, once located across from Lasuen (now the Row’s housing front desk), was part of a two-building complex with Stillman House that made up a 1967 coed housing program called Grove. The Stillman building was then moved and became present-day Columbae, with Lasuen taking Stillman’s place as the second half of Grove. Hurlburt was independently trucked up to its present-day location on the uppermost Row and became the Russian and East European theme house in fall 1988.

Stanford’s housing history is complex, embedded not merely into names and physical buildings but also themes. Beginning in fall 2021, Slav will become 650 Mayfield and join many former theme residences as themeless. ResX, Stanford’s new vision for housing, signals the apparent end of a number of theme houses that have diversified the landscape of residential options for undergraduate students. Nonetheless, new themes such as substance-free housing (The Well House) and an Explore Energy house (coming fall 2022) emerge, providing students with spaces to build community among those with shared backgrounds and interests. As themes come and go, some short-lived and others with a deep history, they each hold a vibrant and integral place in Stanford’s housing history, frequently living on through institutional knowledge as informal themes.

Theme housing’s origin story 

Forms of ethnic “themed” housing were initially formed out of sheer necessity by students in response to university restrictions. Erected in 1919, the first Chinese Clubhouse, located at the site of the current Stanford Law School, housed residents in response to the widespread exclusion of Asian students from university housing until World War II. White students rejected them from fraternities, and a Chinese student was physically thrown out of Encina Hall by white male students. Similarly, the Japanese Clubhouse was built in 1916 by the Japanese Students’ Association as an alternative and a form of safe housing. The building was vacated in 1942 as the government incarcerated its residents and other Stanford affiliates of Japanese descent. The University eventually returned the building to the Japanese Students’ Association, although most of the Japanese students never returned to the clubhouse. The building was torn down in 1968.

Stanford’s language and culture theme housing has its roots in women’s housing and encouraged language immersion. At the time there were short-lived German and French Houses, founded in 1935 and 1936, respectively. Casa Española, a Spanish language and culture theme house for women, started as a Lagunita summer quarter residence in 1945 and opened as an academic year house in fall 1948. Other houses included Casa do Brasil (1949), a Brazilian theme residence, and a new French theme house called La Maison Française (1949), located approximately where Tresidder stands today. Despite their apparent popularity, La Casa and La Maison were later closed and reverted back to their original residence names.

Establishment of ethnic theme dorms

Created in fall 1970, the University’s minority housing program allowed for groups of students identifying as Black, Chicano or Native American to live together in the same residence. An Asian American house was also established for the 1971-1972 school year, located in what was then called Junipero House in Wilbur Hall. However, with the exception of the Asian American house, the University proceeded to shuffle students who elected to participate in the program from house to house without establishing permanent houses or programs.

Debates on the perceived merits of ethnic theme programs continued through the 1980s, with critique coming heavily from white students and faculty. “[A]ny house organized on social or ethnic or religious lines that takes unto itself the right to decide who lives there is, in my opinion, simply illegitimate on the campus. … Students should not put up with this double standard any longer, and, what is more critical, the Stanford administration should no longer tolerate this unfair and immoral situation,” an English professor wrote in 1982.

“I don’t see how theme houses serve to promote the diversity that Stanford claims to foster. I don’t deny the importance of group or ethnic identity, but one would surely see that creating a bunch of out-groups on campus will not pull people of different backgrounds together, but apart,” wrote a sophomore in 1987. A graduate student wrote back in response: “Ethnic theme houses both preserve a sense of identity for ethnic groups and teach others about their cultures. … Ethnic theme houses do not deserve to be treated as bottom-of-the-barrel residences. They are treasures to be cherished by us all.”

Regardless of public discourse, consistent university-wide support rendered all four programs permanent features of Stanford housing. The emergence of ethnic theme houses, now considered a staple of the Stanford residential experience, began to take shape.

At one time, Roble Hall served as an informal Chicano theme house until the University moved its residents to Burbank and what was then the neighboring Muir House, both in Stern Hall. Muir officially became Zapata in 1972.

Founded in Roble Hall during winter 1974 by Black students seeking their own space, the University moved what was then known as the Black Cultural Center to Olivo-Magnolia in Lagunita Court, where it remains today. The theme house was renamed Ujamaa in winter 1976.

In fall 1979, students voted to rename what was then Junipero, the Asian American theme dorm, to Okada. Over summer 1993, Okada moved to its present-day location, and a different Wilbur house took on the Junipero name.

In the mid-1980s, “priority housing” for Native American students was located first in Roble and then Governor Corner’s Robinson House. The Native American theme house found its permanent home in fall 1988, located in what was formerly known as Lathrop House on the Row. It was officially renamed Muwekma-Tah-Ruk in spring 1990.

Themed co-ops emerge

Many of Stanford’s co-ops served informally as theme residences, embedding each with a unique style they are known for today. Initially regarded as an experiment in a new form of campus living, co-ops blossomed in the 1970s, guided by students who wanted a campus experience separate from dorms, residential houses or Greek life. Many defunct fraternities turned into thriving coed themed co-ops.

Columbae, which originally took over the Chi Psi fraternity house, became the non-violence or “social change through non-violence” theme house and survived as the University’s second and longest standing co-op. Columbae’s members were involved in on-campus and local protests against the Vietnam War.

Terra was originally the ecology-themed co-op, first formed over summer 1970 in Stern’s Soto. In 1971, Ecology House then moved into the defunct Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house where it stands today and was renamed Terra in 1973.

Created with the intention of centering feminism and humanism, the themed co-op Androgyny House (also known as Simone de Beauvoir House and Mystery House) replaced Jordan House, which housed a co-op that existed from 1970 until 1977 and before that, a women’s residence. However, Androgyny House only lasted a year before being replaced by Haus Mitteleuropa (Haus Mitt), the German theme house whose theme was rejected in favor of an androgyny theme the year before. 

Hammarskjöld House (Hamm) took over the former Phi Kappa Sigma House with an international theme and was intended to foster a welcoming environment for international students. Synergy was formed as the conservationist and “alternative lifestyles” theme house. As co-ops evolved, many also took on informal themes, such as Kairos, colloquially known today as an arts themed co-op, and Terra, also known as the unofficial LGBTQ+ co-op.

Stanford’s theme craze

As an increasing number of houses were made coed in the 1960s and 1970s, the theme options similarly grew as students and faculty alike began to propose and petition for new themes, aligned with creating a different type of residential experience. However, 1987 marked the start of the contemporary theme system as groups entered new bids to create new theme houses. At the height of Stanford’s theme residences, the University emerged with different types of theme housing, the three largest being academic theme houses, focus houses and ethnic theme houses. 

Academic theme houses were intended to align with the area, language and cultural studies of students, while focus houses were much more broad, with concepts ranging from creativity to gender issues. The four ethnic theme houses remained constant. Students and faculty could propose new theme houses, which the Office of Residential Affairs then reviewed. Some included Judaic studies, Latin American studies, international studies, the outdoors, arts, and environmental awareness. Newly approved themes were forced to displace existing houses as students and staff battled it out. The large number of theme residences allowed for the establishment of the Theme House and Coop Fair, an event akin to the Activities Fair and the former Row Fair.

However, the breadth of theme housing options sparked public debate, bringing into question the purposes of certain themes. A 1976 Daily op-ed, authored by “HAL” (a reference to “2001: A Space Odyssey,”) suggested that a computer theme house be formed. An op-ed response wrote that the idea should, in fact, be taken seriously. Sarcastic op-eds suggested houses such as a Nonpracticing Episcopalian theme house, a “macho” theme house, an evolution versus creationism theme house, and a Yankees versus Red Sox theme house. 

The Daily, in particular, took advantage of these debates throughout its April Fools’ Day issues. One piece announced Storey’s new investment banking theme in 1987 and joked about a band-themed dorm in 1998. In 1992, editorial staff even undercut op-eds complaining about the existence of ethnic theme dorms by including an April Fools’ piece proclaiming the creation of a “white theme house.” (The article includes a series of joking barbs such as “But several non-white students have already expressed concerns about the plan. ‘What are they going to do, sit around and eat mayonnaise?’”)

La Maison Française, re-established in 1975 as the first of the surviving non-ethnic theme houses, narrowly survived replacement by the proposed East Asian Studies Theme (EAST) House in 1980 when the French cultural attaché in San Francisco appealed to the President’s office. However, by the 1990s, Stanford had six large residences considered academic theme houses including La Maison Française, La Casa Italiana, Haus Mitteleuropa and Slavianskii Dom. 

In 1992, more of Governor’s Corner was made into themed focus housing. Potter lasted as “American Society: ‘60s-‘90s” for three years before being supplanted by an international affairs theme, Murray survived as “Modern Culture and Thought” for one year before it was replaced by the American Studies theme and eventually a Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity theme. Schiff was the Arts and Performing Arts theme house for seven years before the theme moved to Kimball.

Yost started with a popular culture focus in 1996 and later replaced Adams as the human biology focus house in 1998. The 1930s attempt to establish language immersion houses was unconsciously revived 70 years later as Yost was turned into a Spanish and Portuguese language house in 2002, echoing an earlier 1986 attempt to make it a Latin American/Iberian focus program. Storey then replaced Yost as the final home of the human biology house, becoming an academic theme house until its ResX demise.

In 1999, Freshman Sophomore College (FroSoCo) moved into Governor’s Corner, turning the themeless-for-one-year Adams and the performing arts-themed Schiff into a new residential experience.

R&DE goes minimalist

Post-2000 housing led to theme houses that may ring more bells for current students and recent alumni, although the boundaries between academic theme and focus houses blurred. In 2009, Branner became a public service focus residence while Crothers added a global citizenship academic theme the following year. In 2015, Humanities House (HumHo, officially named Ng House) was established, and Outdoor House, proposed several times through Stanford’s history, won a hard-won spot in Suites’ Jenkins.

By 2012, houses with official themes, beyond that of the ethnic theme houses, were dwindling. And by the 2019-2020 school year, only the four ethnic theme houses (Muwekma/Okada/Ujamaa/Zapata), the four language and culture houses (Haus/Casa/Maison/Slav), and miscellaneous official theme houses (Branner/Crothers/Kimball/EAST/Storey/Outdoor House/HumHo) survived.

The University announced that ahead of the 2021-22 academic year, it would be embarking on a complete redesign of residential life, reorganizing once-independent dorms and housing into neighborhoods. Next year, themed housing will be organized into “University Theme Houses” of four types: academic, ethnic, co-op, or Greek. 

Academic theme housing consists of EAST (Equity, Access, and Society), HumHo, ITALIC, SLE, the Public Service and Community Engagement theme dorm (relocated from Branner to Wilbur’s Otero), The Well House (substance-free and wellness, formerly an option in Mirrielees but now located in the former Casa Italiana), and the “At Home Abroad” house, mimicking the impetus behind the early ‘30s and ‘40s theme housing. Ethnic theme houses once again remain constant. The group is rounded out by seven co-ops, which have remained the same since the early 1990s save for small name changes, and 10 Greek houses (three fraternities, five sororities, and two presently unassigned), which marks an increase from eight in 2020.  

ResX eliminates Branner, Crothers, Kimball, Outdoor House, Storey, and the four language and culture residences as theme houses. The former language and culture theme houses were also stripped of their theme names. Old monikers for Haus (Jordan House) and Maison (Guthrie House) prior to their change into theme housing are still embossed in cursive on the front of the residences. However, they are now simply referred to as their street addresses.

If these walls could talk

The more conservatively structured ResX Stanford housing system is, by any measure, old news. ResX continues in this austere spirit, albeit with some of the largest structural changes including the replacement of the Draw with neighborhoods. The new neighborhoods will also be the site of neighborhood-specific themes, mimicking the history of theme housing reflecting student interest and petitions. Most recently, widespread pleas against the transition to the ResX system echo mixed reviews of the university’s 2010 move into the three-tier draw system. 

In a 1986 Daily piece on a proposed arts theme house, Norm Robinson, Associate Dean of Student Affairs said, “That themes come and go is not a bad thing.”

He added: “Their times come and go.”

Olivia Popp was a managing editor of Arts & Life for volumes 251 through 254 and the editor-at-large for The Stanford Daily's board of directors for volumes 254 and 255. She hails from Michigan and enjoys science fiction TV shows, independent film festivals, and the Bay Area theater scene.

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