Wilson Hall to house freshmen next fall

The reconstructed Wilson Hall will be open to freshmen when the 2011 fall semester begins. The building will be furnished with new chairs, beds and wardrobes.

Katherine Klingseis

Wilson Hall will return to its roots and house freshmen next fall.

“For decades, 2,400 freshmen — primarily freshmen — lived in the towers [Wilson, Wallace, Knapp and Storm],” Director of Residence Pete Englin said. “That’s nothing new.”

Built in the mid-1960s, Wilson Hall was one of the four buildings that consituted the Towers Residence Association. The other three buildings in the association were Wallace, Knapp and Storm.

Structural problems compelled The Department of Residence to close Storm in 2003 and Knapp in 2004. Both buildings were demolished in 2005. Englin took his position as the director of residence three weeks after their demolition. He soon learned how important the buildings had been to their former residents.

“For over a year, I took requests from former residents to get a piece of the buidling as a keepsake,” Englin said. “It just tells us that where students live, wherever it is, their affiliation runs deep. They relive it. They build community wherever they’re at.”

Wilson and Wallace were left standing, but were eventually closed due to low student demand. In 2006, however, Englin’s department reopened Wallace, this time offering its rooms as “super singles” to upperclassmen.

“We offered Wallace first as an alternative to upperclass super singles, meal plan optional,” Englin said. “We had 88 contracts as a break-even point to operate it, and we had close to 140 in our first year, and up to 300 caused us to open up Wilson.”

Since then, the Wallace/Wilson community has been the home to roughly 450 upperclassmen each year.

Due to an increase in demand for on-campus housing, Englin and his staff made the decision to open Wilson Hall to freshmen next semester.

“Over the course of about six years, on-campus occupancy has outpaced the growth in the class,” Englin said. “The university’s enrollment has grown by about 10 percent, and we’ll likely exceed it this coming fall, but on-campus housing has risen by over 20 percent.”

Englin explained that the decision was made in mid-May after demand exceeded the department’s expectations.

“The number of graduating high school seniors in Iowa and the consituent states is declining, so we had a model set up that didn’t really look at this robust class,” he said. “By all accounts, it could reach or exceed any freshmen class we’ve had before, and our numbers reflect that.”

Along with the number of freshmen, the number of returning students who decide to live on campus has also risen.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen increasing return rates to the halls,” Englin said. “Last fall, we had over 50 percent of the freshmen to decide to come back and live with us for their second year, and over 60 percent of the sophomores came back for junior year, and over 80 percent of juniors came back as seniors.”

Englin said that roughly 500 freshmen will be housed in Wilson Hall next year. All rooms will be newly furnished with lofted beds, desks, a wardrobe cabinet and a microfridge. He also said that he and his staff plan to build cooking areas.

“There’s going to be a number of individual cooking units in the former Wallace/Wilson cooking area for students to do their own food prep,” Englin said. “They should have work space along with a residential kind of range cooktop [so] that they can go in and . . . enjoy a kind of community cooking experience.” 

The Wallace/Wilson community also offers access to outdoor recreation facilities, a fitness room and a common area that features a convenience store.

Englin said students living in the towers were not required to purchase a meal plan. 

“Meal plans are optional, though we were surprised because, when we opened Wallace and Wilson to voluntary meal plans, over half chose to get meal plans,” Englin said. 

The distance of the Wilson/Wallace community from the main campus has its pros and cons, Englin admitted. For some residents, he said, the towers’ distance from the main campus was part of their appeal.

“[Students] come to campus, they do all their stuff and then they head back to their community, and they have their co-curricular, out-of-class stuff going on,” he said.

Englin also explained that CyRide will allow students to travel quickly and easily to the main campus.

“While not every living environment is perfect for everyone, one of the things we’ve done when opening Wallace and Wilson is that we partnered with CyRide, and we pay for additional stops,” he said. 

To students who fear that Wallace and Wilson’s distance from Central Campus, Union Drive and Richardson Court will isolate them, Englin has a ready answer.

“We don’t provide a room, we provide an experience,” Englin said. “The students together . . . will make that a fun community, and they won’t feel like they’ve missed anything.”