How WWII Veterans Changed the MIT Landscape

by Nancy DuVergne Smith on August 2, 2012

in Alumni Life, Campus Culture, Student Life

Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer

Military barracks were imported from Rhode Island for Westgate West.

Surplus military barracks were imported from Rhode Island for Westgate West.

In 1946, a flood of World War II veterans accounted for about 3,000 of the Institute’s  5,000 students. On the average older than their classmates, more than 30 percent of the veterans were married and many had children, according to the MIT President’s Report. To accommodate this significant new population, MIT constructed Westgate, a maze of 100 wooden low-rise family housing units on the far western edge of campus.

When Westgate opened in February 1946, an MIT press release lauded “the cooperation of the Civil, Construction, Mechanical, and Sanitary Engineering departments of the Institute, which have provided expert advice on the grading of the land, the laying out of roads, paths, drainage, water, sewer, gas and electric layouts.”

Rents including electricity and water started at $45 a month for the two-room units and $55 for the family units with an extra room and a separate kitchen.

MIT President Karl Compton noted that “If [the student veteran] is one of the hundred families living in Westgate, he will doubtless report that his family is comfortably housed; if he is living outside, he will report grimly and accurately on the desperate housing shortage.”

Westgate sprang up in 1946 to accommodate veterans and their families.

Westgate was built to accommodate veterans and their families. Photos courtesy of the MIT Museum

By September, surplus Navy barracks were transported from Newport, R.I., and reassembled nearby providing another 180 apartments, dubbed Westgate West. Photos show a community filled with children, husbands studying with slide rules, and wives cooking in the compact kitchens. The veterans on the Westgate teams dominated MIT intramural sports with their well-honed military team skills, and women formed a cooperative nursery school. Some wives enrolled in local colleges, including MIT, and many held jobs to supplement modest government stipends.

Thin walls thrust residents inadvertently into their neighbors’ lives. More than half a century later, Westgate West resident Ralph “Gary” Gray SM ’57 recalls the whackety-whack of a neighbor’s automatic baby crib rocker, cobbled together from washing machine parts by the mechanical engineering father.

“You could hang pictures on both sides of the apartment walls using one nail,” recounts Earle Ryba ’56. Since his adjacent neighbors both worked late shifts, “they began their day at 11:30 p.m. just as we would attempt to get some sleep. It was either the opera on their sound system (we became intimately acquainted with a number of operas) or a party with many friends and lots of wine.” In its favor, the rent was half of what he had previously paid for an apartment on Commonwealth Avenue.

Harl Aldrich ’47, ScD ’51 remembers the mud and boardwalks during construction when he and his wife Lois moved in to their apartment in March. “Lois comments that she moved to Westgate as a bride of two weeks and moved out six years later with three children,” he says, noting that they upgraded to a two-bedroom unit.

From the start, Westgate was intended to provide just temporary housing. Already by late 1947, The Tech predicted that the wooden development would be demolished in five years and replaced by expanded playing fields, tennis courts, and new dorms. For the next 10 years, The Tech reported on many plans for refiguring the space, sometimes accompanied by sketches.

In 1957, the MIT Housing Office stopped reassigning apartments vacated by residents and systematically removed the empty buildings. The MIT Outing Club transported two discarded units to Bartlett, New Hampshire, to serve as ski lodges. Two years later the president’s report announced, “This fall will also see the final demolition of Westgate and Westgate West… We are now studying plans to determine whether we can find an economic way to build permanent housing for some portion of our 1,400 married students.”

Over its lifetime, the old development housed 3,261 student families as calculated by the 1959 president’s report. In 1963, the new Westgate married students dorm opened, followed by Eastgate in 1967, and new communities and traditions developed in the more permanent facilities.

Thanks to Ariel Weinberg of the MIT Museum for providing information.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

SOMNATH MISRA, Sc.D (1963) August 2, 2012 at 8:55 am

MIT always adored the war veterans. I recall with pride and inspiration the writing on the walls of the MIT corridor lobby, in golden letters, listing the MIT alumni and eulogizing “Only a name remains and a glory forever secure”!

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Ken Peterson August 7, 2012 at 2:09 am

In high school, I had purchased an old Greyhound bus from the Greyhound company, and converted it by mid-freshman year into a motorhome and intended it to join the house trailers lodged in the Westgate area. By the time I was ready to use it, (mid sophomore year in a cooperative course), 1956) MIT refused entry based on an agreement with Cambridge to eliminate trailers. Perhaps as a sympathy move, they aalowed me and my pregnant wife to occupy one of the last westgate west apartments. They were firetraps, one resident timed the demise of one of the buildings (Westgate west was typically made of 2-story, 10- apartment buildings. The building was done burning to the ground in 10 minutes. A sensitive wire was strung across all ceilings to trigger a fire alarm. Heating was via a low, gas-fired console in the living room. Residents had the habit of drying clothes on a wooden rack perched on the heater. Fires of drying diapers occurred periodically, usually the resident saw it and extinguished the small flames.
In my case the problem was greater, with a disappointing reaction from my neighbors “across the yard. Four barracks fronted on each other with a play yard between them. I was eating lunch in our 2nd floor apartment, when the fire alarm across the yard rang. Out our window, I saw wild flames erupting from the heater, and there was no resident there. I grabbed our fire extinguisher, ran downstairs, past the rather frantic apartment wife, who had been visiting elsewhere. As I ran, she informed me that her baby was in the burning apartment. I carried the extinguisher in the front door, and was presented with a dilemma: two closed doors leading to two bedrooms. Which one to choose first? Could I afford time to search two rooms? Having experience with fires, I was able to assess the flames. Curtains and clothing were burning to the ceiling. The walls and ceiling were in jeopardy, but I had about 20 to 30 seconds before they would catch. I COULD STOP THE SPREAD IF I ACTED QUICKLY. The bedroom doors were shut– no fire of smoke had invaded them. I was able to pull down, and stamp

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Ken Peterson August 7, 2012 at 2:50 am

out the burning material. I could hear the fire engines coming as backup. As I was finishing, and they arrived, one of the wives who knew which bedroom held the baby, entered to carry him safely away. The mother berated me. “Her baby had athsma”, She insisted I should have hunted him up and carried him through the fire zone before dealing with the fire. Perhaps true, but I knew that fire, my ability to handle it and the time available to fight it. The baby and all 10 apartments and maybe other sleeping babies had been saved.
My wife and I were one of the last couples to reside in the barracks. As couples moved out, their front door was locked by the Institute. In general, residents could stay on, until they chose to leave.
Across the yards, more than one couple had a number of children, and were cramped in their 2-bedroom apartment. When their neighbor left, the couple simply cut a doorway into the now-empty rooms. One couple had donated a very nice piano for the Sunday school classes. When they left, they gave the piano to my wife and me. It is now, after decades, a treasured instrument in our now-adult daughter’s home.

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Bonnie Peterson-Ken's wife August 7, 2012 at 3:38 am

We lived on the second floor of one apartment building and our next door neighbors had two lively little boys. I believe Bobo was the nickname of the 3 or 4 year old. He thought a swimming pool would be nice but since he didn’t have access to water he used his creative thinking skills. He got up very early and followed the milkman around as he left milk outside each of the apartments for the many children. He collected each and every bottle of milk and carried them to a low stop in the playground area and emptied each one into the low spot. He didn’t get a swimming pool depth but he could wade in the milk. Needless to say the mothers were not happy that morning.
I remember on Fathers Day we were having a picnic out in the back of our apartment and I looked up to watch as a dear family in the next building arrived home from church. They had several children. Dad left the children and mother out while he planned to drive some other folks home. Dad backed up the van and didn’t realize the youngest son was behind the van. It was a tragic day and one I think about often especially on Fathers Day.
I remember when our first daughter was only a few months old. Ken and I became sick with the Hong Kong flue at the same time. When our daughter cried we would take our temps. The one with the lowest temp would be the one to get up to care for the baby. We have been very thankful for the years we were able to live in Westgate West. The young families were very supportive. We were all in the same boat-students, children and poor. Thanks MIT for allowing us to have a good start.

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Stanley Bair August 21, 2012 at 4:13 pm

My wife and I moved into #90 Westgate in June 1947. I had just graduated from Purdue in Civil Engineering and was starting Architecture school at MIT. I had to take Arch. Design during the summer of 1947 to catch up with my new class so I could graduate in 1950. I had been in the Army for 3 1/2 years, part of it in the reserves at Purdue, and we married the minute I got back from the Pacific in 1946. My wife was pregnant and delivered our daughter at Mt. Auburn Hospital on July 31. Like the other Westgate residents, we hung wet, washed diapers on the outside clotheslines and they froze in the winter. We had no car, so my wife walked to Kendall Square to the grocery and I biked to school. We enjoyed our social group of other Westgate residents and enjoyed sitting on our screened front porch or walking the baby around our area of a few houses. I stayed up nearly all night keeping up with my classes, taught Geometry to earn money and tried to comfort a collicky baby every night—-but we made it! Life was unique in Westgate and I thank the university for building the units and looking after us veterans as well as they did.

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joe dannunzio June 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

I remember westgate but living and studying in building 22 for 2 years taught us hoe to concentrate in a study hall of 5 by 5study units and 17 roomates in one room with a single bed and a wooden loset 5 ft wide 6 ft high and 12-15 inches wide

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