By Gabe Brison-Trezise and Graham Reid
“It’s no secret that the New Apts are the worst housing,” Chief Business Officer Mark Kohlman said last week in his office — adorned with Kenyon hard hats commemorating successful construction projects.
Since being erected 42 years ago, the New Apartments have lost some of their “new”-ness to fire, flooding and structural problems. And the College would like them gone as soon as possible. “The discussion has always been around how much longer do we need the New Apartments,” Kohlman said. “We don’t have enough beds to get rid of them.”
The apartments were never meant to be temporary, according to College Historian Tom Stamp ’73, who cited as evidence the 25-year loan the College took out to finance the development. The College “would have expected them to be around for the duration of the loan,” Stamp said, but they were probably not “intended to be buildings that would last as long as, say, Leonard or Hanna [Residence Halls].”
The College built the New Apts “partly just as a way to allow students to make the transition from living in college housing to living in apartments after they graduated,” Stamp said.
Kip Clark ’16 gave a similar reason for choosing to live in the New Apts this year. “It felt sort of similar to what I’d like to experience after college, so call it a bridge between freshman dorms and what I’d expect post-Kenyon,” he said.
What Clark didn’t expect were walls so thin that no “matter where they are in the apartment, you can hear where people are.” Nor did he expect to encounter mice, as both he and his neighbors in D-Block did last semester. Maria Sorkin ’16, who lives upstairs from Clark, suggested the mice might have traveled between the apartments via a “gaping hole” connecting the two utility closets.
But for residents of the New Apartments, the mice may be of fairly limited concern relative to other problems plaguing the complex, such as persistent mold and moisture, as well as plumbing and appliance malfunctions.
Michael Burten ’14 said his apartment has suffered from both water damage and mold, exposure to which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can cause respiratory problems. Given their decrepitude, Burten believes the College should get rid of the New Apts, saying, “Destroy them, absolutely. They weren’t meant to last. … Our fridge broke randomly, only one of our burners works, the ventilation system doesn’t work. They don’t function.”
Although he lives in a North Campus Apartment (NCA), Max Kalifut ’14 noted, “When my parents were going here, Class of ’77, these were the New Apts and they were already old and falling down, and that was 40 years ago.”
Conrad Jacober ’15 officially lived in a New Apt as a sophomore, but the mold became so intolerable that he “ended up sleeping in a friend’s room for the majority of the year.”
“Whenever I would sleep in there, it felt like a train hit me when I woke up, so eventually I just stopped living there,” said Jacober, who is allergic to mold.
The mold problem is not new. In 2003, the College provided a 10-day stay at the Kenyon Inn for apartment D2’s residents after toxic black mold was discovered in their living space. Over the past Winter Break, the Maintenance Department uncovered more black mold in two New Apts. “We brought a third party in and remediated appropriately,” Director of Facility Operations Greg Widener said.
Kohlman added, “They pulled some of the walls apart, they found some mold inside and they did appropriate measures to remove that and then re-encapsulated all of the areas.”
Health Center Director Kim Cullers wrote in an email, however, that she hadn’t “seen any particular spike in cases or complaints as it pertains to [mold in] the New Apartments,” and Kohlman maintained that mold is not a common occurrence in the complex.
“Every time we’ve tested up there, there’s never been mold,” Kohlman said. “We get lots of calls for mold, but they always end up being something else. And that happened in Sam Mather [Hall] over the last summer when it was really humid and there was lots of moisture in the stairwells.”
Setting and Design
The dampness of the New Apts is largely due to their location in the path of a stream and initial civil engineering that failed to divert water away from the apartments. At the NCAs, in contrast, “water coming off the roofs never gets to the surface and it’s redistributed to rain gardens in two locations so that it can then go back into the ground, but not into the ground next to the buildings,” Kohlman said. “That wasn’t done at the New Apartments.”
Moisture-laden conditions can foster growth of both mold and mildew, which Kohlman said students often mistake for mold. Regardless of the particular fungus present, though, Jacober said its effects were severe. “We filed a work order, and the good thing is that mold is a high enough priority that the work order was taken care of promptly, but it wasn’t until the mold was found that we were able to report it,” he said.
Over the years, the College has added layers of drywall to the New Apts, as a soundproofing strategy, according to Kohlman. Jacober, however, suggested the double-layer drywall could be the cause of the mold’s recurrence. “From what I’ve heard — [Vice President for Library and Information Services] Ron Griggs talked to me about it — the walls are actually built on top of other walls, which are rotting behind it.”
In an email, Griggs wrote, “Putting new drywall on top of old is a common practice for renovation, like adding new shingles on top of old ones on a roof. You can’t keeping doing this, of course.”
Identity and Character
Despite the issues afflicting some of the apartments, the complex is not without its fans. Many residents appreciate the sense of seclusion the New Apts afford.
“My favorite thing is that it’s far away from campus and you can just kind of hang out and feel separate from the main part,” Issie Brauer ’16 said. Micki Missoni ’16 added, “I kind of like it because you can be relaxed with the space. It is a college dorm, you know, so I’m not asking for anything special.”
Stamp, too, has positive memories of living in F8 his senior year, when the New Apts opened. “For me, knowing that I was going to be writing a senior thesis and that sort of thing, it was nice to be in a quiet place.”
The apartments have also fostered a distinct culture and party scene, according to some. “There are South and North [people],” Burten said. “There they wear football jerseys and here we wear homeroom glasses. There they play Katy Perry, here we play — I don’t know, what’s a good hipster band? Some fucking German electronic minimalist music. The only connection we have with South Campus is the Horn Gallery.”
“It can be weird and frustrating” living in the New Apts, according to Missoni, but “if they kept them in good shape and renovated the infrastructure, it would be really good housing.” The College has, in fact, begun a three-year effort to revamp the apartments. Maintenance renovated the bathrooms and kitchens of blocks A and B last summer and are planning to do the same for two more blocks next year, and the final two the year after. But there are no plans to tackle the moisture problem, which would require a costly rerouting of culverts — structures designed to improve drainage — and the destruction of the New Apts’ laundry building.
“As we evaluated the spaces, [the kitchens and bathrooms] were the critical areas in terms of function within the buildings,” Kohlman said. “Knowing that we’re going to need to use those apartments for at least another decade, we needed to make some upgrades to make them last and be comfortable for students.”
One of the questions confronting a committee working to update the campus master plan is, “how can housing on the north side of campus be transformed,” according to Kohlman. The committee will present the Board of Trustees with an answer to that question in April.
For now, however, the New Apts remain, warts and all. “They just shove us in here and hope they work,” Burten said, but “they function the way that I wanted them to, which is to be far away from everything.”