Dick Snedeker, West Windsor
As a one-time resident of what you refer to as “Butler barracks” in your Dec. 4 issue, I would like to add a few facts about this frequently misunderstood and misidentified housing complex on Harrison Street. My new wife and I lived there for five years, from 1952 until 1957, when we moved to our “permanent” house in West Windsor.
More correctly known as the Harrison Street Project, it was just that. “Project” was a common moniker for low-cost housing of all kinds in the days following World War II. It was built in 1945 — not just for graduate students — but for any university student (graduate or undergraduate) or employee who had been in the service and returned from the war with a family. It was built on what had been the university polo field — Devereux Field — also referred to much later as the Butler tract. The other streets were named for military leaders during the war: Eisenhower, Marshall, Halsey and King.
There were 252 “units” in the original layout — more were added some years later. Some were called “small” and some “large,” depending on the length of the rooms. All had a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms, and a bathroom with a shower (bathtubs took up too much room).
When we moved into our small unit in 1952 the rent was $40 per month. We moved to a large unit about a year later — same rent. By the time we left in 1957, I think the rent was up to $55 per month. One advantage of the large over the small units was that the former had a big enough living room for a television set, a definite luxury if you could afford one. Of course, it had to have an antenna on the roof, and you had to tell the university you were putting one there.
Yes, there was lead-based oil paint inside, usually put on by the occupants in making the place nicer to see. This was before any other kind of paint existed for painting the inside of a house. Acrylic and water-based paint had not been invented then, nor had vinyl shingles for the outside. Our shingles were asbestos, as were most artificial (non-wooden) shingles in those days. The benefit of asbestos, of course, was that is was fire-proof. Its toxicity was unknown then. When it was recognized as dangerous to your health, the university had all the units redone with nontoxic siding.
Heating the units in cold weather was an adventure. Each unit had a kerosene-fired space heater near its center, and during cold weather each day you brought in a large metal “pitcher” of kerosene that was stored in a 55-gallon drum outside the back door. (You paid the local oil company by the month to keep it filled.)
Since bringing in the kerosene was an unpleasant chore, many occupants installed a small copper tube from the drum outside, under the floor, to a hole just below the heater where it was attached to the fire box with a small valve You had automatic, gravity feed from then on.
Living there for as long as we did was an adventure, but we saved a lot on the rent and made many long-time friends, some of whom still live in the area. Oh yes, our first daughter who was born there just became a grandmother.
Dick Snedeker, West Windsor