When Katie Couric (Col ’79) hosted Tina Fey (Col ’92) on her syndicated talk show in 2013, the conversation inevitably turned to UVA nostalgia. It helped that Fey was promoting Admission, a movie set at a university. As the conversation closed in on three minutes, a near eternity on television, her co-star Paul Rudd squirmed, having no opportunity to join in as the other two laughed and shared stories.

What came next, any Wahoo could have seen coming. Fey asked Couric, “What dorm were you in?”   

Bonnycastle for Couric, Metcalf for Fey.

“Old Dorms!” Fey cheered, pumping her fist and then high-fiving Couric.

Dorm life shapes the college experience at any school. For generations at UVA, though, it has fostered not just memories but also loyalties and distinct experiences depending on whether you lived in the McCormick Road “Old Dorms” or the “New Dorms” (or “New New Dorms”) on Alderman Road. Two recent developments are focusing even more attention on that quintessentially UVA experience that takes place where McCormick meets Alderman and where both intersect with student life.

Starting with several buildings at a time, UVA’s 10 Old Dorms have been undergoing an interior transformation since May 2017, an estimated $95 million project. “We basically gutted the buildings … down to the concrete walls,” says Gay Perez (Col ’87, Educ ’92), assistant vice president of Student Affairs and executive director of Housing and Residence Life.

The final three buildings will be fully renovated in time for the fall 2020 semester, with upgrades ranging from HVAC and elevators, to overhauled bathrooms and lounges.

More significant are plans for UVA to create residential communities, a signature part of President James E. Ryan’s (Law ’92) proposed strategic plan (see related story). The idea is for all undergraduates to live on the Grounds for both first and second years, grouped in several different communities, and to develop a strong community affinity across all four years.

So, instead of Old Dorms versus New Dorms, think Harry Potter’s Gryffindor and Hufflepuff. It’s at least a few years away, with many details to come, but clearly big changes are afoot. What doesn’t change is the central importance of residential life to the UVA experience.

Old to Cold

Closest to Central Grounds, the McCormick Road hall-style dorms were constructed in 1951, the initial year that UVA required first-years to live in a dorm rather than a boarding house or private home. (Until Echols was ready, about 50 students from the then-all-male class were housed in bunks in the boxing room at Memorial Gym, according to Jerry Fitzgerald (Col ’54).)

McCormick Road living took on the term “Old Dorms” in the mid-’60s, when suite-style dorms were constructed along Alderman Road. Students could request Old or New, or even a specific dorm or room.

The first cohort of undergraduate women, admitted in fall 1970, lived in Maupin, Webb and Watson. The next major change didn’t occur for almost 40 years, when UVA began a 2008–2015 replacement of most Alderman Road dorms (which then became known as the “New New Dorms”). Suddenly, the presence of air conditioning leveled the playing field between Old and New. True, in Old Dorms, students could still roll out of bed and into Econ 2010 within minutes, but others—aah, others had actually slept in cool comfort the whole night long.

And now, the next major change to first-year living, interior renovation of all McCormick Road dorms, is almost complete. For students moving into a renovated building, their accommodations likely seem rather basic: another generation learning to share small spaces and a communal bathroom. But for anyone who lived in Old Dorms in the past, the changes
are revolutionary.

The bland pleather of Hancock’s sparse lounge (top left) contrasts with the bright new lounge, laundry room and kitchen of the remodeled Bonnycastle. Steve Hedberg

Out with the hall carpet and room linoleum, and in with laminate wood flooring. Out with the old windows, whose screens always displayed that circular dust buildup endemic to box fans; in with energy-efficient windows and air conditioning for all.

Each building also boasts its own laundry room and fully equipped kitchen, and a skim coat of paint disguises cinder block hallways. No more sparsely decorated lounges with dull pleather furniture but instead bright, inviting spaces. By moving Housing and Residence Life offices out of some buildings, the University even gained dorm rooms.

Colorful graphic elements and helpful signage personalize each renovated building, with a lobby display monitor to keep residents informed about events in their dorm association and elsewhere across UVA.

Transitions

The renovation occurred in stages: Bonnycastle, Kent and Dabney were completed in time for the 2018–19 year. That’s when four others (Page, Emmet, Echols and Humphreys) went under construction; they reopened this semester. The final three (Hancock, Metcalf and Lefevre) are now in the throes of renovation, to reopen for the fall 2020 semester.

Shauna Sivils Edwards (Col ’90) and Dave Edwards (Col ’90) volunteered to help students during the August 2018 move-in weekend. The experience brought back vivid memories of when they had first met on the front steps of Bonnycastle in 1986 during their own move-in weekend. “Clean and fresh” is how Shauna describes Bonnycastle’s renovation. “It’s the same hall style,” she says. “It still took me back.”

Dave and Shauna Edwards (both Col ’90) by the dorm where they first met, in 1986 Kristen Gleason

The Edwardses had promised each other a treat after helping the first-years: “a cheeseburger and a Coke at the Castle, like old times.” After all, Dave’s room, 116 Bonnycastle, had perched right above the burger joint (and always smelled like French fries, according to Shauna).

The Castle remains on the ground floor of the dorm, but its facelift extends beyond the décor to the menu. Now, not a single beef burger can be found; the new options are far healthier, by student request, according to Andy Petters, associate dean of students in Housing and Residence Life.

For that August 2018 move-in weekend, by random assignment, half of the students moved into the brand-new (Bonnycastle, Kent and Dabney); the other half continued the tradition of sweating and living to tell the tale (Hancock, Metcalf and Lefevre), with 1950s bathrooms and the ubiquitous smell of years gone by.

Housing costs were the same regardless of dorm assignment. Petters explains, “We don’t want to create a system of haves and have-nots for students in accordance to their financial means.” He assured parents during summer orientation that the “best dorm on Grounds” was where their student was assigned—air conditioning or not—because that dorm would forever shape their son’s or daughter’s UVA experience, offering lifelong friendships.

And eventually, students adapted. Colton Wardle (Col ’22) remembers reacting to his Metcalf assignment: “My dorm’s going to be terrible.” But by year’s end, he almost wished he didn’t have to leave.

About the heat, though? “Miserable,” he says, up until October. “We used to do homework in the laundry room, because it’s the only air-conditioned room in the entire building. … There was one table with four seats at it in the room, and then a bunch of people would sit on top of the washing machines.”

Hancock roommates Elizabeth “Carson” Coulbourn (Col ’22) and Elizabeth “Aven” Parker (Col ’22) were also initially disappointed to be assigned to a vintage dorm but soon changed their minds. They now take pride in knowing they represent the end of an era—especially for Coulbourn, whose aunt had also lived in Hancock. “If my brother were to come here in two years and he was placed in the new, reopened Hancock,” Coulbourn says, “it’s not going to be as special … because it’s not the same experience, you know?

Aven Parker (Col ’22), at left, and Carson Coulbourn (Col ’22) love their vintage Hancock room, spring 2019. Steve Hedberg

“All the history’s basically wiped away.” History such as names scrawled in bathroom stalls (“Larry Bracken was here) and hair permanently ingrained in the dorm room floors. (“It’s gross. We don’t know how that happened,” she says.)

Patricia M. Lampkin (Educ ’86), vice president and chief student affairs officer, acknowledges the propensity for dorm nostalgia: “I remember the last group of [students] when Bonnycastle was all female and Hancock was all male. They were happy to be in that last group, not necessarily because they wanted a single gender, but because they could, you know, be the last of an era.”

Some of the quirks of the vintage dorms simply make for great stories. “The air conditioning thing kind of was unfortunate at the beginning of the year,” Parker says, “and it was so hot. But also … people bonded over it. ... It was something to talk about when everybody was sweating.”

Peyton Kluger (Col ’22) remembers the exposed hot-water pipe in her Metcalf room: “I successfully curled my hair on it one time.”

Home Suite Home

While Old Dorms have always been hall-style, New Dorms used to be composed of suites: five double rooms per suite, with a shared bathroom and living area.

“I knew I wanted to live on Alderman Road after visiting Easters Weekend ’71 while still in high school,” Sandy Lee-Muzik (Educ ’75) says in an email, referring to the muddy, drunken UVA spring tradition that ended in 1982. “I loved living in Lile so much my first year that I lived in the ‘New’ dorms two more years. ... I was lucky to ‘win’ dorm space in the lottery every year,” she says. “Living in a suite of five rooms … was like having an instant family.”

Left: RA Mike Mallory (Educ ’80, ’86), seated at lower right, with his 1980 Emmet residents; right: Sandy Lee-Muzik (Educ ’75) and then-boyfriend Jamie Waring (Col ’74) pictured in Lile, fall 1971. Courtesy Mike Mallory; Sandy Lee-Muzik

Four resident assistants interviewed remarked on the stronger bond that often developed in hall-style dorms, largely because suites tended to silo people in groups of 10. Back in 2012, according to Perez of Housing and Residence Life, a survey of current students revealed that the majority indeed preferred halls. Students surveyed also wanted double rooms, not singles. According to Petters, of Housing and Residence Life, that’s a preference distinct from other schools where he’s worked. He sees that as evidence of a much higher drive at UVA to “be a part of a community and make friends in your first year.”

So today, most new dorms on Alderman Road are hall-style. The exceptions are Gooch-Dillard (renovated in 2015–17), and Courtenay, Dunglison and Fitzhugh (not yet renovated).

UVA no longer lets students choose their dorm but randomly assigns rooms. “The real premise of having everyone live together first-year is to be exposed to both living with other people with different ideas, as well as learning to navigate other individuals’ … daily habits,” Lampkin says. “And there’s not a better place to do that than living with them.”

In the past, legacy students were concentrated on McCormick Road, as nostalgic alumni parents steered them toward Old Dorms—that’s essentially what led Dave Edwards to Bonnycastle. Those preferences made a purposeful diversity more difficult to achieve than is possible today.

“Our hall is very diverse,” Parker says about her 2018–19 year in Hancock. “I think that sends a little bit of a message about the school and what they stand for, being in a community with all different people.”

Extending the Magic

Whatever the building configuration or temperature, whether roommates started as strangers but became best friends (like Coulbourn and Parker) or had to work through differences, dorm life has defined the UVA experience for generations. The proposed strategic plan doubles down on the concept by calling for all second-years to live on the Grounds as well.

There are “more common experiences and more life skills that we would like to expose them to before they move on to their third and fourth year and get deep into the academics,” Lampkin says. “And the best place to do it is where they live.”

President Ryan couldn’t agree more. “Pat Lampkin says this all the time, and I think she’s exactly right: The goal of Student Affairs is to make a larger University seem small, and the residential communities would be a way of doing just that,” he says.

The particulars will need to be worked out, he adds, including how the community affiliation would develop after second year. Ryan mentions the possibility of intramural competitions. Or something as simple as having a spot reserved in the Newcomb Hall cafeteria for Sunday dinners. That way, he says, “you know that even if you’re living off Grounds, the people who you lived with for the first two years will be there.”

Planners are just getting started on the new possibilities for residential communities. Working in their favor is that Wahoos have always shown not just a general pride of place but also a fierce sense of dorm loyalty.

“It’s sort of like going to camp,” says Mike Mallory (Educ ’80, ’86), a former RA who lived in a different dorm each of his four years. “For two weeks, these are your best friends. And that camp was the best in the world, because that’s where you went. You didn’t go to the camp down the road; you went to that camp.”

Diane J. McDougall is senior editor of Virginia Magazine.