The Misses Congeniality

Co-op living amid frescoed walls at the Harriet E. Richards House

By Jessica Ullian

her02During finals, residence halls all over Boston University are strewn with end-of-the-semester debris, and the Harriet E. Richards Cooperative House is no exception. But if there is a down-side to living in a beautifully appointed, lovingly maintained row house on Bay State Road, maybe it’s the way scattered notebook pages stand out amid the green marble floors and frescoed walls of the Italian room.

“We’re planning a big cleaning this weekend,” says Mary Elizabeth Pike (SED’07), as she points out both the pink-papered French room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows with Juliet bal-conies and antique wooden tables, and the “take pile,” where one resident’s outgrown clothes often supplement another’s wardrobe.

The architectural finery of 191 Bay State Road and the breezy what’s-mine-is-yours attitude of its residents have blended to create a success story in alternative college living. The co-op, also known as HER House, has existed at BU since 1928 and is believed to be the oldest all-female collegiate cooperative house in the country. Founded by former BU Dean of Women Lucy Jenkins Franklin as a resource for women who could not afford room and board in addition to the cost of a university education, it is now a housing option for female students with both financial need and a different attitude toward college life. Rent is cheap — residents pay $240 each month for room and board — but living there comes with responsibilities.

“I think our system to make the house work goes back at least thirty years,” says Pike, this past academic year’s house president. “Otherwise, it just wouldn’t flow.”

In fact, the system goes back more than fifty years — it was already well-established when Harriet Lane (DGE’55, CAS’57, GRS’61) entered as a freshman. “I don’t know where it came from,” says Lane, who was house president, vice president, and treasurer during her four years there. “You were just told.”

The time-tested routine involves an executive board of leaders, which sets the budgets and keeps tabs on repairs and renovations, several committees that manage such things as organized fun and furniture purchases, and a strict schedule of day-to-day operations. Every-one has assigned chores, and dinner is served at six o’clock. If you forget your chores, you have to pick from the “job jar,” which contains a variety of penalty tasks that no one wants to do — disinfecting the garbage cans, for example, or cleaning the bath mats.

When Lane was a resident, there were a few small differences. The house had two phones — one for outgoing calls, one for incoming — and a nightly chore involved sitting by the phone from 7 to 11 p.m. to answer calls and summon the lucky recipient. The unofficial chaperone was a “house mother,” who has since been replaced by a graduate assistant from the Office of Residence Life. And the semester’s cooking was assigned to one student, who received an additional scholarship for taking on the task — an incentive that often proved hard to stomach for the other co-op residents. “I remember one Sunday, the dinner was supposed to be roast beef, and it came to the table boiled,” Lane says. “Doris didn’t know any better!”

The 2006-07 members of the Harriet E. Richards Cooperative House, which began at BU in 1928 and is thought to be the oldest all-female collegiate cooperative house in the country. Photo by Daniel Huynh

The 2006-07 members of the Harriet E. Richards Cooperative House, which began at BU in 1928 and is thought to be the oldest all-female collegiate cooperative house in the country. Photo by Daniel Huynh

Despite the structure that keeps HER House running smoothly, a relaxed atmosphere has always prevailed. All but four residents live in double and triple rooms — albeit with high ceilings and stunning river views — and none of the twenty-four keeps her door locked. If you want to borrow something, Pike says, you just leave a note. Conflicts are handled openly, and are settled right away, says current president Hannah Warner (SAR’08). “They’re addressed more immediately than in a place you can just walk away from,” she says. “Yes, you could go sleep somewhere else, but that would tear at our community, and I think anyone who’s been through our application process cares about that.”

In Lane’s day, students were invited to join HER House by the Dean of Women’s office. Now they must sit through interviews, answer essay questions, and supply personal references, all aimed at assessing things that range from their ability to schedule and prioritize to their ideas about tolerating different political and religious viewpoints. The idea isn’t to homogenize the group, Warner emphasizes, but to make sure that the women won’t let personal opinions affect their responsibility to the house.

What do students gain from the experience, besides the opportunity to share a room with two other students and take on partial responsibility for the cleaning and upkeep of a home? “I’m more patient now,” says Warner, “and perceptive about how different groups of people function.”

“The house really helps you work on interpersonal skills,” says Pike. “It’s made me more outgoing and more confident.”

“I came from Norwich, Connecticut, a tiny little town,” says Lane. “And instead of having to adjust to the big city of Boston, I had this wonderful, congenial, beautiful place to live.”

After graduation, however, Lane, who had sometimes been assigned to assist the cook, found that there was a downside to the communal life. “I was married a year or so later,” she says. “And I discovered that all the recipes I knew served twenty-four.”

This article first appeared in Bostonia magazine in summer 2007.

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