alumnus offers a memorial to a vanished city of prefabs and the aspirations they
We were the
lucky ones. Rent was $45 a month, utilities included, for a place to live
while we built our future. The married WW II veterans who came to Chicago on the
G.I. Bill shortly after the war-on a monthly stipend of $90, later raised to $120-inhabited
a world of housekeeping, families, shopping, getting together for picnics or bridge-and
trying to balance the budget.
In spring 1946 my
wife Sally, AB'44, and I, along with a brand-new baby daughter, were among the
first to move in to the Project (a.k.a. "veterans' housing" or the "prefabs")
just east of Burton-Judson Courts where the Law School is today. Another group
of converted barracks stood across the Midway near the Lab Schools, but with almost
100 units covering a city block ours was the largest concentration of vet families.
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prefab-which, according to the story we heard had housed wartime workers at Camp
McCoy, Wisconsin-stood among row upon row of drab buff plywood units. The lines
of houses facing gravel roads were broken by an east-west drive that divided the
block into north and south. Just north of the cross drive were two "wash
houses" with coin-operated washers and centrifugal dryers.
on concrete-block foundations skirted with trailer park-style sheeting, the prefabs
looked like boxcars and contained not an ounce of insulation. In winter ice often
formed in the bedroom closets. In summer the units got so hot that residents sat
on their front stoops reading and talking until midnight and placed sprinklers
on their roofs to cool them down.
Units came in
two sizes: two bedrooms for a family, one bedroom for a couple. Both sizes had
a "great room" that included a tiny kitchen equipped with plywood cabinets,
counters, a sink, an old-fashioned icebox, and a two-burner hot plate with a removable
Dutch oven for baking. The room was furnished with a wooden table, four chairs,
and a single bed that fit under a long plywood cabinet with angled doors. Bed
and cabinet combined to form a couch (and an extra bed for company). Dominating
the room was a gigantic, hard-coal burning stove.
stove took some learning to operate. During the first zero spell, I shook it down,
then filled it with coal. Soon its top was cherry red. The temperature in the
house went above 90 degrees-I thought the place was going to burn down. When I
was away attending a conference one March, the family nearly froze because Sally
couldn't get more than to-touch warmth from the black monster.
bathroom was appointed in galvanized iron. There was a medicine cabinet, but only
one 60-watt light fixture, so showering was done in semi-darkness. We bathed our
young daughter in a galvanized tub placed in the shower, while she screamed and
fought us in the cave-like atmosphere.
was just wide enough for a narrow aisle between two twin beds. At the foot of
one, a square plywood cabinet extended into the room. The master bedroom came
with twin beds, but the children's bedroom was furnished as the renter desired-and
Within this basic structure, each family
created a home. Rooms were painted, curtains and pictures hung, rugs and linoleum
laid, a pad made for the back of the "sofa," second-hand furniture added.
One fellow worked a deal with an appliance distributor to sell electric refrigerators
to residents to replace the iceboxes.
It may seem
that we lived under spartan conditions, but we were the envy of many married students
who lived in the neighborhood's one-room, shared bath-down-the-hall units-former
six-room apartments converted into three or four units per floor. Moreover, we
prefabbers were all in the same boat, struggling to balance school, family, and
a bare-bones budget.
Wives met at the wash houses
and organized baby-sitting and cooperative preschool activities. Men met on the
way to and from school. Most of us didn't have cars, so shopping expeditions to
the stores on 63rd Street were organized, and wives formed processions of baby
carriages and wagons overflowing with kids and groceries. We socialized by going
next door for bridge or discussions or relaxed on the front steps in the evening.
the togetherness, we formed a varied lot: law and medical students, master's and
Ph.D. candidates, undergraduates. Down our street one family spoke French to their
kids in the morning, German in the afternoon, and left it to them to learn English
from playmates. Next door to us a family squeezed three kids into their unit.
Across the street a scientist practiced his golf swing with his briefcase and
expected to be in Who's Who before he turned 40. One devout couple, children of
missionaries, left their five-year-old daughter-and God-to baby-sit their toddler
when they went out at night.
The G.I. Bill was
a wonderful thing, but the monthly living allowance didn't really cover a family.
Wives without children commonly worked full time, and husbands got fellowships,
assistantships, or part-time jobs. I worked two days a week in the book department
of Popular Mechanics Press, later inventoried crop insurance policies for the
government, then got an assistantship. The last year I was writing my dissertation,
my G.I. Bill tuition benefit expired, and I worked full time for the Home Study
Department making correspondence courses out of Navy training manuals. Sally had
dinner ready at 5, and I worked on the dissertation in my office in the department
from 6 to 11 each night. Crossing on the Midway cat-walks with the winter wind
howling, I often thought my precious dissertation draft would be blown away and
my future lost.
But of course it wasn't. We lived
on the brink of poverty, but we were getting a priceless education, thanks to
the G.I. Bill and the University, and that was future enough.
A. Harper, PhB'46, SB'47, SM'48, PhD'50, of Carbondale, Illinois, is professor
emeritus of geography at Southern Illinois University and the University of Maryland,