The End of an Era: The Student Apartments, 1977-2018

Student Apartments, ca. 1981. George Mason University photograph collection, R0120. Box 21, Folder 15

This summer one of George Mason University’s most recognizable landmarks will disappear.

Opening in October of 1977, the Student Apartments were George Mason University’s first on-campus housing. Before then, a Mason student had few choices for housing: either live at home, rent a room, an apartment, or another type of living arrangement in Fairfax or the surrounding area.

George Mason’s enrollment increased steadily at a rate of approximately 35% a year during the mid- to late-1960s.  By the 1970s student demands for on-campus housing were beginning to grow at Mason, then well-recognized as a commuter college.

After Mason became independent in 1972, the housing debate began in earnest. University administrators first met in October 1973 to begin conversations on whether housing was feasible and how it might be financed. Lutrelle Parker, chairman of the Board of Visitors’ Long-Range Land Use Committee, declared: “My own philosophy is that a great university should have diversity and needs student housing.” Others, like university patriarch C. Harrison Mann, Jr., would cite the increase in operating costs for both the state and the students and smaller budget allocations as deterrents to construction. The discussion regarding housing at George Mason would carry on for an additional 2 years.

By 1976 the University had consented to the construction of student housing, a plan was drawn for nine three-story apartments to house 497 students, and ground was broken that March.  The two-, four-, and six-person apartments were designed to meet the need for housing that faced many commuter students at the time.  The university had actually appealed to the local community to reach out to the 30% – 40% of the student body who struggled to find inexpensive housing during a time of economic distress and in an area with limited public transportation.   Apartment spaces were reserved for exchange students, athletes, minority students, and students with physical disabilities. The remaining spaces were open for out-of-state and commuter students. The apartments were to be completed by the beginning of the 1977 school year.  Wilson Sherman, the contractor, citing “abnormally bad ground conditions, bad weather, [and] the substantial number of changes and supply problems” among the unexpected delays, could not finish construction on time.  The delay was more than just problematic for the construction company.  The University had already promised housing for a number of students and had collected money from them.

Student Apartments under construction, September 1976, George Mason University Broadside photograph collection, R0135. Box 13, Page 15.

These delays sent students already assigned to new dorm rooms instead to hotel rooms on Route 50, three miles north of campus.  Moving into a hotel was one of three options given to students whose dorms were not finished. Students could also receive a full refund or stay at home until the completion and receive a partial refund or prorated rent.

While Dr. Robert C. Krug, Vice President for Academic Affairs at the time, recalled that the students had a terrific time living in the hotels (they enjoyed throwing parties), the novelty soon wore off for many of them.  Students complained because they had no way to cook and were exceeding their budgets by having to eat out for every meal.  They wanted to move into rooms with kitchenettes, but those weren’t available at the hotels until after Labor Day. This problem was temporarily relieved in mid-September as students voluntarily “tripled-up” in the newly-available kitchenettes to cut down on costs, but feelings of isolation from the campus still remained.

The university had been running free shuttle buses back and forth to the campus from the Quality Inn and Breezeway Motel every hour, and in response to student requests, weekend shuttles were offered as well so that the “inmates,” as the hotel-bound called themselves, could attend events and parties on campus.  The weekday shuttles cost the university about $1500 alone.  There were approximately 105 students living in the hotels, so the bill for those rooms also fell to the university, as well as long-distance phone calls made by the students in the hotels and the overtime hours necessary to complete construction. George Mason withheld ten percent from each contractor’s payment to offset its costs. The University’s losses were then deducted from the final payment to Sherman.

Sign outside of the Quality Inn room in which a George Mason student is living reads: “George Mason Slept Here”. Broadside, Volume 20, Number 4, September 19, 1977. Broadside Newspapers, Box 12.

Five of the nine apartment-style buildings were opened on October 15, 1977, and residents were finally able to move in, though some assignments were temporary pending the completion of the other four units.  Though the apartments still had bugs to be worked out—the lights went out the first night and many students had trouble with the plumbing—the students were happy to finally be moved in and to have a college experience in which they interacted with one another outside of class.

While the delay caused a great deal of stress for both the administration and the students, the $4.15 million apartments ushered in a new era for the university.  The Student Apartments would be the only on-campus housing at George Mason University until 1981, with the construction of Commonwealth and Dominion Halls.

Now, let’s flash forward forty-one years!

The University has embarked upon an extensive makeover for the center of the Fairfax Campus called the Campus Core Project. This undertaking will dramatically change the center of the campus by demolishing and rebuilding Robinson Hall A and B and transforming Wilkins Plaza into a larger, more vibrant gathering place for the University Community. The Student Apartments, located just behind the massive construction project, were closed at the end of the Spring 2018 semester. They are currently in the process of being demolished. Some of the space they once occupied will be used as a project staging area throughout the Campus Core Project.

Demolition of Student Apartments, July 9, 2018. Photograph by Special Collections Research Center Staff.

The placement of the Student Apartments was problematic from the beginning. Built several years before the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act (CBPA) of 1988, the complex was located inside what would later be designated a Resource Protected Area (RPA). RPAs, as defined by the CBPA,  are corridors of environmentally sensitive land that lie alongside or near the shorelines of streams, rivers and other waterways which drain into the Potomac River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. In their natural condition, RPAs protect water quality, reduce the volume of and filter pollutants from stormwater runoff, prevent erosion, and perform other important biological and ecological functions.

Student Apartments during demolition, July 6, 2018. Photograph by Special Collections Research Center Staff.

Student Apartments in 1979. George Mason University photograph collection #R0120. Box 13, Folder 9.















By eliminating the Apartments the university will be in a better position to protect the small stream that runs alongside the site, and it will be able to make environmentally responsible decisions regarding future use of this area. It will be converted to open space/green area after the project, and no building construction can be expected for the site in the next several years.

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