Sesquicentennial Memories

College Opens First Residence Hall

By Michael Smith

College Opens First Residence HallAs Rhode Island College awaits the recommendations of a feasibility study to construct a sixth residence hall, it is interesting to review the events surrounding the opening of its first residence hall 42 years ago, on September 10, 1961.

From its earliest days, the Rhode Island Normal School was considered a commuter institution. In fact, an ancient state law permitting a mileage allowance for commuting students was repealed only recently, although even the best memories at the College were unable to recall how long it had been since any funds had been allocated for such a purpose. Nonetheless, it was recognized even in the early years that students residing in outlying areas might choose to board at private homes and boarding facilities near campus. For example, the 1901 Normal School Catalogue noted that “…those who desire to board in the city will be aided in securing accommodations. Students should consult the principal before engaging board, as they will be permitted to board only in places approved by him.”

By 1958, with construction well underway for a new campus in a then-largely undeveloped section of northwestern Providence, opportunities for future expansion were already the focus of discussion. A good deal of dialogue centered on the possibility of building suitable facilities for on-campus student housing. In that year, alumni from the Newport area petitioned the Board of Trustees of State Colleges to consider constructing a dormitory. They were joined by an official endorsement from the Westerly Chapter of the Rhode Island College Alumni Association. On March 23, 1958, The Providence Sunday Journal weighed in with an editorial, entitled “Should R.I.C.E. Become a Resident College?" The editorial went on to call such a plan “a desirable and modest development,” and contemplated accommodations for 100 women and 30-50 men. By the annual Alumni Day observance held on May 22, 1958, the stage was set: President Gaige announced that residence halls would indeed be part of the new campus.

So it came to be that the first new construction following the opening of the new campus in September 1958 would be the College’s first residence hall. Designed by the firm of Lamborghini & Pipka, the three-story residence hall was designed to accommodate 144 women in suites of eight bedrooms each. Most of the financing for the $685,000 building was obtained through a $610,000 FHA loan. Nanni Construction Company of Johnston served as the prime contractor for the project.

Ground was broken on June 21, 1960 and the building was ready to welcome new students for the Fall 1961 semester. The room and board rate for the 1961-62 academic year was set at $775.

Enthusiasm and pride were high that fall even though the building was not filled to capacity during its first year of operation. At its opening, 73 women from the College were joined by 50 women from the University of Rhode Island, who boarded at the College until a new residence hall could be completed in Kingston.

The building was dedicated on Sunday, November 12, 1961 and named for Mary Tucker Thorp, an individual described at the ceremony by President Gaige as one of the two most important figures in the history of the institution (the other being Clara Craig).

Dr. Thorp, a member of the College’s Class of 1921 and one of the original incorporators of the Associated Alumni of the Rhode Island College of Education, had been a faculty member since 1926, Principal of the Henry Barnard School from 1938-1958, and Director of Laboratory Experiences thereafter. She retired from the College in 1967 after 41 years of service and in 1971 was awarded an honorary Doctor of Pedagogy degree. She passed away on October 27, 1974.

While four additional residence halls would be constructed at the College during the three decades between the opening of Thorp Hall and the dedication of the David E. Sweet Residence Hall in 1991, it was President Gaige’s 1958 decision to move forward with on-campus housing that served notice that the College intended to continue to grow into the modern, regional institution of higher learning that it is today.

PHOTO CAPTION: In 1961, properly attired Alumnae carefully tour the College’s first residence hall, then still under construction.

In each edition of What’s News at Rhode Island College during the course of the College’s Sesquicentennial observance, Michael Smith, Assistant to the President, presents a brief glimpse of an historic College event that occurred at some point in the institution’s history corresponding to the publication date of that particular edition of What’s News. This is the seventh installment. The author gratefully acknowledges the contributions of Marlene Lopes, Special Collections Librarian, for her assistance with the research. Much of the information for this series is available from the College Archives, located in Adams Library 416.

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