Photos from the Vault

Cal Poly housing after WWII in short supply

Cal Poly aerial circa 1948. Dexter building landscaping being finished, ag buildings in what is now the campus core. ©The Tribune
Cal Poly aerial circa 1948. Dexter building landscaping being finished, ag buildings in what is now the campus core. ©The Tribune

Housing for Cal Poly students has been an issue for longer than you think.

I have seen the story from a few angles: Student, resident, parent of a student. The viewpoints come into conflict when communication breaks down.

An example: During this year’s Week of Welcome, new students were dragged through a series of morning lectures on safe and healthy decision making.

It’s important information and, having attended tragic candlelit memorials, I would prefer students avoid trouble.

During the lectures, WOW leaders took brief catnaps on hallway couches while their students were in the classrooms. The Wowies, it is safe to assume, were in similar shape.

An active schedule of events is part of the fun and, for many, this is the best orientation to the region they will have.

One leader told me she had been operating with an average of six hours of sleep a night.

Later that week at 10 p.m. Thursday, after the WOW counselors had gone home, the party packs were roaming, migrating down Slack Street from dorms toward the sound of music and parties in the California Boulevard neighborhood.

Those numbers will be augmented with the addition of 1,475 new beds in a new dormitory project at Slack Street and Grand Avenue. Construction just started on what had been a parking lot.

Sigma Pi had a better marketing plan than Cal Poly administrators, setting up an awning with free water to distribute to migrating flocks.

The students not interested in party culture weren’t there; the students most in need of the message of safe behavior were. This is where and when administrators would get the best audience.

Cal Poly had explosive growth after World War II. Poly President Julian McPhee had seen the campus teeter on the edge of closure during the dark days of the Great Depression. After the war, he saw growth opportunity for the college as veterans came home in need of training and GI bill money to pay for it.

Longtime Telegram-Tribune reporter Elliot Curry had been on the three-person staff of the paper during World War II.

On Sept. 24, 1970, he recalled his first Cal Poly housing crisis story:

Cal Poly housing shortage isn’t new; grads recall cots in gym

A Cal Poly freshman was telling Old Grad, Class of ’47, that there is a terrible housing shortage in San Luis Obispo. Almost impossible to find an apartment. Old Grad suppressed a grin. It brought back so many memories.

Some things never seem to change.

There are graduates of the Green and Gold all over America now who remember all too clearly their arrival on the Poly campus for the fall term of 1946 when their housing consisted of a folding army cot in the USO building.

It began in the fall of 1946 when the enrollment at Cal Poly suddenly doubled with the arrival of several hundred war veteran students. From less than a thousand the year before, the college suddenly had 2,044 students enrolled.

William Troutner, now in the Crops Department, was superintendent of resident students at the time. During registration week, he set up 200 cots in old Crandall Gym and 200 more in the USO, now the city recreation building.

The cots served until the college could get permission to use buildings in the hospital units at Camp San Luis Obispo. During the four years that followed, more than 2,000 students were housed at the camp at one time or another.

While the camp was helpful for single men, Cal Poly was receiving hundreds of married veterans coming to continue their education under the GI Bill of Rights.

To meet this need, President Julian A. McPhee turned to the Federal Housing Authority and began looking for war surplus housing. Within a few weeks, Poly had been allocated 75 one- and two-bedroom structures and 50 trailers from Port Hueneme and Oxnard as well as 188 surplus trailers from San Miguel.

The first of the Oxnard housing began arriving in February 1946 and formed the extensive “Vet Village,” now occupied by the baseball field and parking areas. (Now Building 13 Engineering and parking.)

The trailers were located in what is now the area of campus with brick dormitories. This became “Silver City.”

Studying for a college degree while living in a one-room trailer with a wife and one or two small children was an experience to test the toughest ex-Marine.

Travelers along Highway 1 could spot the location of Cal Poly by the diapers flapping from a hundred clotheslines.

All of the postwar temporary housing is gone now, but there are still eight of the buildings left which were built for the wartime Navy program on the campus. That’s another story.

During the war, Cal Poly operated a Naval Flight Preparatory program for about 3,500 Navy personnel. The Navy constructed acres of both housing and classrooms on the campus, of which only the eight buildings behind the library now remain. Six of them are being used for office space, and two for temporary student housing. Students using these rooms are moved to the permanent dormitories when vacancies occur.

Executive Dean E. Douglas Gerard said the old Navy buildings would probably remain in use until Cal Poly’s new library is constructed and that may be some years away.

The old buildings don’t do much for campus aesthetics, but like students have been staying for 25 years, “There’s a housing shortage.”

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