The year was 1977, and the fervent activism of the '60s had, to a large extent, died down. Many students felt that the College had become apathetic. Bart Laws '77 commented in a letter to the editor of The Phoenix on April 7, 1977, that "I have seen the student body grow increasingly concerned with its own comfort and financial future, increasingly conventional, ever more steadfast in its refusal to face the necessity to seek new ways of living to think speculatively, to reach out into the world emotionally to empathize with the organism Earth which gives us life." It was in response to these sentiments that the Community Housing Project (CHP) was founded.
Community Housing, as it was originally known, began as a directed reading led by Bruce Cummings, a professor of political science. The topics for discussion were "socialist control of production, environmentally sane planning, psychologically health living spaces, depoliticization of control, nonviolence in associative interaction, new motivational systems, resymbol-ization vs. innate tendencies in Man, manageable sizes for self-governing units, specialization without dehumanization, appropriate technology vs. profitable technology, privacy without atomization, community without domination of the individual, etc." The stated goal of these discussions was to see how these concepts could be actualized.
The primary difficulty in starting the CHP was finding space for it. the students completed a survey of all available housing options. The idea location would be off campus, would have some community space and kitchen facilities, and would have a variety of interconnecting rooms.
Given these criteria, the members of the CHP identified Woolman, Ashton House, and the third floor of Mary Lyon as their best options. The CHP was initially granted Woolman, but there were ultimately given Ashton because many women complained about the reduction in all-female housing (It is interested to note that at that point, Dana was all women and Hallowell all men). Ashton House, which is located a block away from campus in the direction of the Springfield Mall, is currently the College's guest house. This location was originally rejected because it was "too small", and the CHP had to reduce its estimate for the size of the group from 20 to 16.
The CHP began its operation the following year. The Ashtonites cooked meals for each other, organized political action groups, held several all-campus parties, built a sauna in the basement, and started a small library. To boost their environmental consciousness, they spent a day without electricity. The group held weekly meetings during which they discussed readings and topics such as the ideal structure of families and the raising of children, the necessity of monogamy and the institution of marriage, and autonomy and the relations of community to the outside world. They shared their dreams.
At one meeting, they held a sensitivity exercise in which they paired off and explained their visions of utopia to each other. Each meeting included singing and, at the end, a listing of the positive and negative aspects of the meeting. Approximately every month they issued a statement explaining their accomplishments and goals. According to the the statement of Projects and Goals for 1977-78, "throughout all these things our main goal has been enhancing individual responsibilities, taking care of the house, and sharing leadership in the house and in duties."
During the CHP's second year, the Ashtonites continued their experiment in communal living. All rooms in the house were communalized, including most possessions such as bicycles, typewriters (yes, typewriters), and stereos. Some rooms were designated for sleeping and others for studying. Several private sleeping rooms were also designated to make sure that residents had some personal space if they so desired.
Unfortunately, CHP was not without its problems. Some conflicts resulted from the simple frictions of daily life, such as unwashed dishes and residents not giving money for the detergent fund. Others were more serious, such as the perception of heightened sexual tension within the CHP community.
Furthermore, after several years, it seemed to some that the CHP was nothing more that a coed frat. Questions arose as well as to whether residents of Ashton House should stay for more than one year. Some argued that the students who had lived there previously would give the community a sense of continuity, but others claimed that "If you have lived in the house and given to it and received from it, your next responsibility is to move on and give someone else a chance."
Ultimately, Ashton House died of apathy. The CHP was not renewed for the 1982-83 school year. Although, according to an article in The Phoenix from April 1982, "Response to the most recent housing survey showed that 76 percent of the students supported the general concept of the CHP...only one new student sign up as desiring to live in Ashton [in '82-'83]." The project had been founded as a community of activist students who, by living together, would be much more able to "form a base from which they could participate in local community projects and also educate the College community on many humanitarian issues."
However, the CHP seemed to have become more focused on simply living together, without paying much attention to the activist component of the communal experience. The CHP was set to be reevaluated in a year. The final entry in the last Ashton House log documents its death by apathy. "this house died a death of many blows. Each blast, failure to communicate or participate let a little life out of the house. In this last month, I think that we had given up...I hope that CHP starts up again, but considering the conservative turn the College has taken, an activist dorm may be a thing of the past."