Campus & Community

Fifty years of free-spirited living

6 min read

Dudley House alums celebrate difference

In September 1958, Harvard College senior Alfred Hurd moved to 3 Sacramento St., an old Victorian mansion the University had bought less than a year before.

The rambling three-story house — with its interior of arched doorways, stained-glass windows, and tiled fireplaces — was the locus of an experiment: Harvard’s first cooperative housing dormitory.

Dudley Cooperative House — now the former home of more than a thousand alums — celebrated its 50th anniversary Saturday (May 31). Current residents provided a sumptuous vegetarian buffet and rigged a tent in the backyard to ward off the day’s intermittent rain.

The noisy gala threw together more than 80 former residents, their families, and current residents — about 250 people in all.

“We have a sense that things go back a ways,” said Dudley resident Tyler Graham Neill ’08, one of the reunion organizers. He kept an e-mail database of who was coming, and from how far back.

Among the guests were nostalgia, whimsy, regret, and the reality of aging. A slight, handsome man walked up to the front steps at “3 Sac,” returning to Dudley after more than 20 years. “Yes,” he said to an old friend. “I have no hair.”

The gathering was more than a reunion. It was a reminder of Dudley’s successive identities. The House started as a place for outsiders to fit in. Before long, it was a place for outsiders to happily stay out of Harvard’s mainstream.

“There’s always been a sense of marginality in relation to the main Harvard scene,” said co-organizer Richard Cozzens ’08, who fled Adams House after two years to take up residence at Dudley. “It’s definitely true now, and it was definitely true in the very beginning.”

In 1958, Dudley was economical nontraditional housing for financially pressed students, and for locals who were tired of commuting. It replaced the Non-Resident Student Center, which had opened at Dudley Hall in 1935.

When he arrived at 3 Sac, Hurd was a U.S. Navy veteran in his mid-20s who had spent the previous year commuting from home. He was on the GI Bill, which paid $110 a month, so Dudley’s reasonable room and board were welcome news. Annual costs were cheaper by half than at traditional Harvard Houses: $450 compared with $1,095.

At other Houses, sedate meals were served by waitresses; dinner came with a printed menu. But Dudley residents fixed their own breakfast, stocked the pantry after haggling over prices with Haymarket vendors, and chipped in to clean and maintain the premises. (A local woman cooked dinners.)

In 1959, a second Dudley residence opened — an old Victorian at 1705 Massachusetts Ave. that was quickly dubbed “’05.”

Not long after Hurd’s time, Dudley acquired a reputation for fratlike pranks, though innocence prevailed.

In the winter of 1961, neighbors complained about a big-busted “snowwoman” in Dudley’s front yard. The police arrived, and in an early sign of protest, students called their creation an example of free speech. (They won.)

In 1965, Dudley residents threw a “beatnik party.” There were indoor soccer matches and snowball fights. And hydrogen-filled garbage bags, fitted with toilet paper fuses, were known to explode over Radcliffe Yard. Suspicions fell squarely (and accurately) on Dudley.

The mid-1960s brought a vanguard of undergraduates who over a few years would transform Dudley into the heart of campus protest. By 1967, the kitchen — now fully staffed by residents — was used to plot strikes and protests. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) kept a mimeograph machine in the basement of ’05, and another one at 3 Sac, in a bathtub.

“This was a great place, where there was a real alternative going on,” said retired librarian Daniel Veach ’70, who was then SDS co-chair and now edits the Atlanta Review, a poetry journal. “And it wasn’t just fun and games — we were putting our lives on the line.”

He was arrested and expelled in 1970 after a sit-in demanding a black studies department at Harvard, but returned in time to graduate with the Class of 1972.

Dudley and its contrarian traditions are “incredibly valuable to Harvard,” said Veach. “And it’s a credit to Harvard that it kept the place, despite all the obnoxious disagreements.”

But ’60s-era life at Dudley was more than protest.

“There were a lot of us that were a lot more about satire than about confrontation,” said James Maslach ’69, who in 1968 neatly lettered a famous sentiment on a Dudley wall: “Don’t spit in the soup. We all have to eat.”

“A lot of things have been forgotten,” he said of the communal ideals of the time, “and a lot of things have been emphasized more than their importance.”

Maslach, now a California glassblower, said Dudley then and Dudley now are “a pretty small force in a pretty large catastrophe.”

In the 1970s, Dudley remained headquarters for social experimentation, though dissent took more private forms, like naked dinner parties.

Dissent in those days was also in a choice of roommates. Damon Paine, a homeless man who loved Twinkies, steak, and hand-rolled cigarettes, came to Thanksgiving dinner in 1969 — and stayed until 1985 (the year he died). He was revered for his authenticity by some, and at least tolerated by others because his presence displayed Dudley’s social openness and defiance of authority.

“It was a very intense, warm community,” said Claudia Brett Goldin ’88, now Colorado’s first assistant attorney general. “Any type of human interaction you wanted was available.”

She moved to Dudley as a freshman with roommate Justine Henning ’88, now a Brooklyn, N.Y., tutor who teaches homeschooled children. The offbeat Harvard House “immediately felt like home,” said Henning. “It opened my mind to making education something that is part of my life way beyond school.”

Dudley today remains a wood and glass representation of Harvard’s proud outsiders, though definitions of marginality have changed, said Cozzens.

Traditions remain too. A House-sponsored slow striptease at Lamont Library on the eve of exams “loosens people up,” said Neill. “Thanksoween,” a Halloween-night dinner with costumes, is the one time each year Dudley breaks its vegetarian rule, by serving turkey. And don’t forget the naked dinners, which go back to 1978. (This year’s, Cozzens admitted, was thinly attended.)

A hint of prankishness remains, too, if only in Dudley’s once-a-semester talent shows. The last one featured balloon tying, a demonstration of nunchucks (“I like to do dangerous things,” said Neill, an expert with the two-stick chained weapon), and blindfolded haircutting.

Hurd — a retired project manager who now runs a community performing arts complex in Media, Pa. — had not set foot in Dudley in 50 years. But the reunion clued him in on the House’s eventual reputation for pushing social limits. Later residents, Hurd offered politely, seemed to be “somewhat looser than we were.”

He related his own brush with daring in the 1950s: joining the Hasty Pudding Club. “But I never did anything there,” said Hurd. “I discovered that those were guys who liked to dress up as women … and I was pretty stuffy, I guess.”

Fifty years later, a few days before the reunion, Neill and Cozzens relaxed in Dudley’s sunny communal dining room.

Walking past was another resident: a blond, muscular, bearded man. He was wearing a sundress.