Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

November 5, 2003:


Courtyards and their hazards

Pyne Hall, past and presentWhen room draw came around last spring, I chose to live in Pyne, a venerable old building in the southernmost corner of the so-called Junior Slums. I chose Pyne because of an ongoing love affair with collegiate gothic — stemming from two years spent in Butler Residential College — and because I thought it would be quiet.

Last year I knew several juniors who lived in Pyne. They were bakers of chocolate-chip cookies and translators of medieval Latin, and if they had any complaints about the noise level in Pyne, they didn't tell me. As for me, living in 1901 and having already resolved to spend my senior year in Pyne, the only faults I foresaw in my future home were the twin magnolia trees in its courtyard. The trees are elegant and symmetrical, beautiful in summer, autumn and winter, but especially so in the spring, when Asian-American brides and grooms come to have their pictures taken perched on the balustrade of the courtyard. Problem is, when those pretty pink leaves turn brown and drop off the trees, the bride and groom go elsewhere for their photos and all that is left is a slippery, treacherous carpet of putrefying petals.

I could blame my frequent falls last spring — and the inevitable ones to come — on Mrs. Beatrix Farrand, who installed the trees in the 1920s, when she served as the university's consulting landscape gardener. Or I could blame myself for falling in love with a dormitory without fully considering the ramifications of living in a building with an enclosed courtyard.

Turns out the magnolia trees aren't the worst part.

When the weather was still warm, there were nightly barbeques in the Pyne courtyard. A grill was brought out, followed by frozen hamburger patties and Wawa hotdogs. The real attractions, though, were the drinks — Franzia in a plasticized cardboard box and hockey player beer, lots of it. 1 a.m,, 2 a.m., 3 a.m. came and went. And then, through Pyne's gorgeous paned windows, came an interchange between a resident of the second floor and one of the courtyard revelers:

"Hey, @#$%^&, toss me up a #$*#@!@ bun!"

"Come down here and get it, you lazy @(#$%*!"

"Did you just call me a @(#$%*?"

"Yeah, and your mom thinks you're a @(#$%*, too!"

Now that it's colder, the hamburgers have disappeared and the beer has moved into Pyne's interior. The only difference in the noise level is that now it sounds as if the medieval army has breeched the portcullis and is despoiling the ladies on the first floor, rather than merely clamoring at the gates. An occasional raiding party en route to the privies passes my room on the third floor. After releasing prodigious streams of liquid — with the door open — they return downstairs to imbibe some more. I suppose I should be glad that most of them are finding their way to the bathroom.

"Someone peed in the trashcans on the first floor of the third entryway, and I had to go to the fourth entryway for the whole weekend to avoid the smell," one resident complained. "Pyne reminds me of an English lord's manor or a castle, but in a really kinky way."

In the morning, bottles of Molson and Miller Light overflow the trashcans like gutted carcasses. The gray carpet that lines the hallways is sodden with beer and vomit. And somewhere, someone is still singing.

During the major league baseball playoffs, it only got worse. Howls of jubilation and disappointment filled the courtyard while the games were in play; when they were over, the spectators performed ‡ capella selections that invariably culminated in a beery Star Spangled Banner. On the night that the Yankees beat the Red Sox, "New York, New York" blared tauntingly, interminably, from a second-floor window.

Given its somewhat indecorous present, one might be surprised to learn that Pyne has a dignified past. One of the largest undergraduate dormitories at Princeton, Pyne was built in 1922 with funds given by alumni. Like many buildings/prizes/streets in the Princeton area, the dormitory was named in honor of Moses Taylor Pyne 1877.

In the 1940s, the Princeton undergraduate radio station WPRB was headquartered in Pyne Hall, in room 441. Founded by Henry G. Theis '42, WPRB used the University's electrical wiring system to deliver sporting news and recorded music to campus listeners. In 1941, the Saturday Evening Post ran a story about it called "Radiator-Pipe Broadcasters."

In 1969, Princeton's first class of women students was housed in Pyne, which took on the sobriquet "Pink Hall." At the time, administrators believed that consolidating the women in one dormitory would alleviate isolation in a predominately male environment. The policy backfired by drawing even more attention to the new Princetonians, and in order to make the women feel at ease, the administration refurbished Pyne and furnished it with sofa beds, off-white bureaus and desks, and built-in bookshelves. Campus phones and emergency door locks were also installed, and a proctor was stationed in the courtyard.

Would that there were one here now.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu