I remember the night I spent with my first love in college. We shared a drink and stayed with each other until two in the morning. I was just a freshman. It was only the second week of school, but I knew that I would never recover from this great love. There would be others, but this moment was about us.
Things started to change after my freshman year. I hadn’t been coming around as much, and we both knew it wasn’t going to work out. Things felt different. By the end of sophomore year, we called it quits. There were bigger powers at play, and we hadn’t seen each other since.
But this January, we met again. We’d both changed beyond the point of recognition, and I was immediately hit with a pang of melancholy. The latenight dining hall I wrote about with such affection on Valentine’s Day in 2015 was now a stranger to me.
Fran’s had gotten rid of her chicken Caesar salads; I’d become a vegetarian.
At the beginning of Winter Quarter, Northwestern Residential Life reopened Willard Hall and rededicated it on January 25. Over the course of 1 ½ years, changes were made in the name of progress, of building something “state-of-the-art,” and, by design, unrecognizable to its former denizens.
Sure, Willard was never “Hotel Allison,” “Hotel Lincoln,” Elder or even Bobb (and thank God for that), but it was never trying to be. Over the course of its 80-year history, over 500 students applied to live in Willard Residential College each year because they were looking for something that wasn’t state-of-the-art.
They wanted something with character and history, to be a part of a community. Or maybe they were just looking for an absurdly large room with a built-in bathroom.
The Willard renovations were part of the larger Northwestern housing plan, which requires new students to live on campus for two years to build a “neighborhood feel.” Visiting the new Willard feels like returning to my childhood neighborhood to see all the tiny houses torn down and replaced with condos and a Sweetgreen. It reeks of gentrification.
Many of the Willard Residential College traditions are events or stories that transcend location: Polka Party, the mismatched dress up affair at the Berghoff; Woo-Au Luau, the too-cold celebration of springtime; Fireside Chats about everything and nothing. But taking the memories I have of these events out of the context of the old Willard building is challenging. I can’t divorce my memories of Polka Party from the following late-night conversations in my too-big double. I cannot imagine a Fireside outside of the dimly lit, vermin-infested “Rat Trap” basement. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell, they paved paradise and put up a fitness center.
“Willard was, and still is, such a special community for me and a lot of people I know,” says Yoko Kohmoto, former Willard vice president. “Maybe it’s because I loved spending time there even though it was such a shitty building. I’ll never forget when we woke up on Dillo Day and didn’t have hot water or how bad the bathrooms smelled.”
But Kohmoto hopes that the sense of community remains despite the changes. For seniors like us, the spirit of the community is and always will be housed in 1865 Sherman Avenue. “I hope that the community can continue to be one that people feel strongly about for no specific reason,” Kohmoto says. “Especially that now they’re back in the ‘real Willard,’ even though it looks completely different.”
Incoming students have plenty of options when it comes to choosing housing. They can scope out NBN’s comprehensive housing guides, get wordof-mouth info from current students (or cluelessly read a Sherman Ave article and freak out about bed bugs, like I did). But Willard has always had something more. It rests on the laurels of the crèmede-la-crème of NU alumni who have graced its halls. Homecoming weekend my freshman year, I was delighted to see alumna Ana Gasteyer walking down my hall. I shrieked, introduced myself as a fan and fellow Willardite. We shared an obligatory “Woo-shack, Woo-rah,” and she told me she was delighted to see nothing had changed. I’m sorry we’ve disappointed you, Ana.