Guest Blogger: Debbie Levey, CEE Technical Writer
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.”
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.