MacG 50ish years ago

Every now and then I get a cool email from the outside world. Here’s a recent one: Jim Olson ’74, OG MacG resident, answered some questions I asked in a rambly 10-minute-long video tour of my MacGregor single. Enjoy this edited and

lightly⁠01

ever since Petey gave us the annotation feature it's been hard not to annotate every single thing, so this is a qualified <em>lightly</em>

annotated version of his email!

Abby,

 

A Google search of MIT MacGregor House led me to a video you posted last year about your room.  I can offer you some rare feedback on questions you raised in your video.

I was one of the

324 students⁠02

I think we're at about 320 now. Four singles were lost in the construction of an extra GRT apartment for Spanish House, who were exiled from New House a couple of years ago due to an extensive renovation effort.

that moved into MacG as construction was being completed in September 1970.  I was a young 18 years old then.  I’m 67 now, a nearly-retired Course 6-1 graduate living in Indianapolis.

I assume that Course 6-1 still means

electrical engineer of the hardware variety.⁠03

indeed it does

  In my era, MIT had

no computer science department.⁠04

fifty years later, comp sci is synonymous with Course 6 and is breaking off to become the new College of Computing, my how things have changed…

  Everything computer was a trivial subset of Electrical Engineering. 

We Course 6 majors dominated the Institute back then.⁠05

…and yet things seem to stay the same

 

Getting into MacG in the fall of 1970 was akin to hitting the Mega Millions jackpot today.  Every other dorm on MIT’s campus that year was a steaming pile compared to all-new MacG.  All MacG rooms were singles except for

two doubles in F entry.⁠06

There seems to have been some modification to the original building since then that included the addition of another apartment for the Area Director, which may have led to the construction of a third double in F. As of now, the only three doubles in MacGregor are in F entry, one on each floor, with the two on floors 3 and 4 facing the Charles. They exist due to some kind of (un)intentional(?) architectural feature that would make it impossible to split the doubles into two rooms without doing more construction.

I recall that MacG rent (not including food) was

$305⁠07

compare to $5,505/semester today 🙂

per semester in 1970.  This bargain improved even more in my senior year when I got F423,

the giant wedge room that faces Prudential Tower.⁠08

Another interesting MacG architectural anomaly that affects F rooms: there are two trapezoidal rooms (one on the third floor and one on the fourth) that each have the square footage of about 1.5 MacGregor singles. I'm not sure why they exist, but seeing as they are located right next to the doubles on those floors, it may have just been the best way to turn that space into livable rooms. These big rooms don't exist in other entries. They're really nice.

 

Rooming and Government  

Senior year, I got the upper F Entry wedge room, in part because I was house

“grease,”⁠09

unfortunately this term has not been passed down to the current residents

i.e. a dorm politico.  At that time, MacG’s room assignment process gave some weight to those who served on Housecomm.  I can imagine that attitudes toward living group politicos have changed through the years.  For all I know, Housecomm might need to meet in secrecy these days.  But in those days, talented house presidents like Paul Aidala and Marty Davidoff commanded a measure of respect from residents.

Many upperclassmen assigned to MacGregor in 1970 were from Burton-Conner House,

closed a year or two before for renovation.⁠10

the eternal recurrence of MIT <del>pushing out</del> relocating living groups to fix up our antique dorm buildings– BC folks are going to go through this again next year when the dorm will close for renovations

  BIE (Burton-in-Exile) residents had been living off campus with MIT subsidy after their dorm was closed. Most incoming MacG upperclassmen chose

tower⁠11

we call it the high-rise now; this is the vertically stacked grouping of entries A, B, C, D, E as opposed to the horizontally-arranged low-rise F, G, H, J entries

rooms, only to learn that they were

hotter than hell during warm months.⁠12

can confirm: When I first got to MIT in August 2016, I was temped in E entry, and the first thing I bought was a big fan. The heat is the result of a combination of the brick oven design of the dorm and the giant windows that face direct sunlight in some rooms.

  I stayed in an A Entry room during the warm 1994 alumni weekend. I nearly moved to a hotel.

For the first year or two, A Entry folks

dominated Housecomm⁠13

when I first got here, it was F that dominated Housecomm and apparently had for most of recent history, but things have changed a bit and there seems to be more entry diversity/representation nowadays

and

staffing the front desk.⁠14

The last 3(? maybe even more than that) macdesk captains have been F entry people, and I think I basically count as number 4. An alumnus from the late 80s stopped by during an alumni visit weekend a year or two ago while I was working desk, and he said that F entry also ran desk for the most part when he was here. Whether this was due to selective hiring or lack of interest from other entries' residents or chance, I am not sure, but the current staff is a bit more balanced across entries.

  Part of my motivation to run for Housecomm was to dilute that dominance. 

Assholes⁠15

I've lived in both F and A and appreciate the alliterative insult

acted like they owned the place.

I think the ‘Tute bunked pairs of freshmen in the MacG tower

living rooms⁠16

suite lounges

by 1972, but only for a year or so as I recall.  They didn’t fill living rooms in the low-rise entries because there were

no doors.⁠17

there still aren't doors, so it's a bit difficult to party in those lounges without having random other residents walk through with like… laundry baskets

 

Friction with Contractor

Your video showed MacG’s courtyard.  The first courtyard trees were planted in September 1970 in time for the building’s dedication.  The landscaping was ripped out the day after the building’s dedication, construction thereafter continued, and Jackson Construction

replanted⁠18

kresge vibes

landscaping by Thanksgiving.  The tall trees in MacG’s courtyard were once only 6 feet tall.

Jackson Construction Company (the primary contractor building MacG House) employees were still working to finish the building during rush week 1970. Jackson’s workers derisively referred to us as the fucking stoooodents.  1970 was during the bloodiest phase of the Vietnam War and we were considered spoiled rich kids avoiding the draft.

Looking back on it with the maturity of being 67, those construction workers had a point.  MacGregor residents weren’t all rich but we were privileged in other ways. Jackson employees were suspended from ropes in the low-rise area, caulking around new windows on cold October 1970 mornings. When they peered through the glass into the warm dorm room beyond, they saw another kid their own age still asleep and enjoying protection from the draft that blue collar workers did not have.

Why wouldn’t Jackson’s workers be angered by that unfairness?  Just like us students, these Jackson guys are certainly still alive today.  Young people today should never doubt that the gaping political divide in the US in 2019 has roots in an unpopular war that ended 44 years ago.

 

Jackson Sux  

The animosity between MacGregor residents and Jackson Construction Company spawned a well-executed hack memorialized for many years in the first floor

trophy case.⁠19

We got a hydroponic garden installed in that space a year or two ago, but I bet the cornerstone got moved somewhere for storage.

A few days before MacG’s formal dedication (an affair that included attendance of MIT dignitaries) some Tower folks (names never revealed) substituted a stone engraved with “JACKSON SUX” in place of the one saying “1970” that Jackson Construction Company installed in the wall to the right of the lobby entrance.  The stone substitution was done at night by students and obscured from view by parking a motorcycle in front of it.

Just before the start of the building dedication ceremony, the housemaster issued a dorm-wide demand for the student owner of the motorcycle in the courtyard to move it.  That was accomplished quickly, exposing the JACKSON SUX stone substitution.  However, the reveal was too close to the start of the ceremony to remove the stone or cover it up.

a picture of the "Jackson sux" cornerstone

from volume 90, issue 44 of The Tech

the current "1970" cornerstone

from just now when I took the picture

There is an old picture somewhere of Jackson Construction’s project manager smiling (forced, I’m sure) in front of the bogus corner stone that highlighted his company’s running battles with MacG residents.

 

Dorm Furnishings 

Your MacG room has much of the same hardware I had in 1970.  The oak clothes closet in your video is the same one from 1970 except for some clear polyurethane sprayed on it to extend its life. Your desk is a near copy of the original ones.

The oak shelves that fit the metal tracks in the wall are the same 1970 shelves.  MIT quickly paid to

create more of them⁠20

that might explain why one of my old shelves was painted black with daisies on it

because new MacG residents were bartering (and pilfering) them.

Each MacG room had a

corded, dial-type phone,⁠21

we have phone/ethernet jacks still but no phones

although connected only to MIT’s aging campus phone system.  These dorm phones could not dial outside, only call other MIT phones.  To call home to our parents (and girlfriends), we had to pay New England Telephone Company to install a real phone, usually placed

in the suite hallway.⁠22

A lot of the lounges now have a (free) corded phone that can call both the outside world and the internal MIT network. I realized this freshman year when I called my own phone from one of the suite phones and then stored the number so that I could later call people and startle them with the ringing. No one ever calls those phones and most people don't really notice they exist at all.

  The monthly fees for these real world phones were very high, so we shared the expense among suite members.  A long distance call home in 1970 cost about $4 per minute in today’s dollars.  Having a girlfriend back home presented a serious financial burden.

MIT winters were much colder back then.  It was not uncommon for the window glass and metallic frame around it to frost on the inside on cold nights.

a groupme message from an f entry resident complaining about frost buildup on her window

had to dig for this screenshot

The only MacG students who had drapes in 1970 were those who purchased them from local department stores.  MIT provided no drapes in those days.  During the coldest spells, I installed a skirt board at the bottom of my window to keep radiator heat from flowing on the glass-adjacent side of my drapes.  I needed this sparse heat

on my side of the drapes.⁠23

Now that drapes are standard issue with the rooms, I don't know how people could survive the winter without them. My bed is close to the window, so when it gets cold I tape/fasten the curtains to the frame so that none of that 1970 radiator heat is lost behind them. If you were to leave your curtains open during the winter, your room would be significantly colder due to heat lost through the big window. In the summer, you have to keep your curtains closed to keep the heat from coming <em>in</em> through the window.

Overhead room lights and fire sprinklers were added to MacG in the 1980s, dramatically cluttering the look of the building’s interior.

If the architects that designed MacG were alive today, they would readily concede three significant errors they made:

Not anticipating the dramatic rise in the cost of energy during the 1970s. MacGregor’s vast expanses of brick and glass make the building an unmitigated energy hog.
Not anticipating the rapid change in building codes that forced fire sprinklers throughout, even to existing buildings. I wouldn’t be surprised if retrofitting MacG with sprinklers years later cost half the price of building a new dorm.
The

wind focusing effect⁠24

The MacGregor wind tunnel! Anyone who has lived at or past MacG on dorm row has experience with this. There have been several particularly brutal winter days where the wind very nearly could have knocked me over, not to mention the times that I've had to walk through with my eyes closed because the wind would burn my eyes. They've installed a windbreaker-like structure out front recently to help with the door-opening issue, but I'm not entirely sure it works that well.

of the tower and low-rise made it hard to open the courtyard doors.  This problem was apparent from the very first winter.  I mastered the technique of leaning against the door frame while pulling at the handle with both hands.

 

Commons

Fifty years later, the details of

food service at MacGregor⁠25

There used to be a dining hall at MacG, but then again there also used to be a convenience store at MacG (RIP MacCon). It's now a room with chairs and tables and a mirrored stage where various dance groups practice.

(“commons”) elude me.  I think it was only 15 meals per week with mandatory participation, meaning that we fed ourselves on weekends using the suite kitchens.  I don’t recall the price, but it was

painful.⁠26

IMO dining plans are still painfully out of budget for me

Commons food my freshman year was excellent and featured unlimited servings.  During red tide algal blooms in New England, the price of lobster fell to less than hamburger.  I recall that Commons served all-you-can-eat lobster every night for about two weeks.  But eating it required you to believe that lobsters aren’t poisoned by the algae. 

Roll the dice.⁠27

I believe this may have been co-opted as the unofficial motto of Maseeh dining?

By 1973, the cost of commons had risen dramatically and MIT made participation in it optional.  This decision turned the suite kitchens into

swamps.⁠28

this tradition has persisted to this day

  (Why are college students allergic to housekeeping?)

 

Forbidden Fruits

In the eyes of MIT’s Housing Office, MacGregor was

all men⁠29

This persisted in F entry until at least the mid 2000s. You can find evidence of the F men in an old webpage that is accessible if you look up <em>macgregor f entry</em>. I won't link to it, because I don't want to be called out for posting cringe.

in 1970.  But in practice the dorm was “co-ed.”  A few MacGregorites had their

girlfriends living with them in those tiny rooms. ⁠30

go figure–I can name at least three residents who have cohabitated with their SOs in these 8.5' x 11' singles and at least one couple who shared one of the F doubles

This made for interesting mornings in the showers.  I learned to make my midnight bathroom runs wearing a bathrobe because a suitemate’s girlfriend worked late and showered when she got home.

Mixing genders within a suite was not a burden in those days (at least to me). Some of the girlfriends were generous with the food they cooked on weekends.  The presence of women in the dorm was not a small matter because my class of 1974 started with about 10 percent women.  Some MacGregorites acquired Boston area girlfriends, but not many.  In those days, MIT admission was a prescription for

four years of celibacy.⁠31

no sex allowed in my dorm! >:-(

 

Farewell from the Past

Abby, thanks for giving me a rare chance to reminisce about my former time in y(our) dorm.  In 49 years, MacGregor House has spawned a lot of wonderful, intelligent, and productive adults.  Most of them are now parents and grandparents. Alas, some of them aren’t on this planet anymore.

None of us have forgotten MacGregor House or the life-long friends we made there.

 

Jim Olson 

Class of 1974

Indianapolis, IN

August 21, 2019⁠32

apologies to both Jim and audience; I've been incredibly busy and took way too long to post this

 

Read more: mitadmissions.org