University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Inside Pioneer Hall

Alumni recount their days of living at the U's Pioneer Hall dormitory, which is in the midst of a renovation.

Photograph by Glenn Stubbe/Star Tribune

When its $104.5 million face-lift is complete next fall, one of the oldest student residence halls on campus will emerge a thoroughly 21st-century facility. Pioneer Hall’s dim basement dining room will give way to a $23 million state-of-the-art, ground-level cafeteria with multiple food stations; spacious, well-lit hallways will replace the building’s fabled labyrinthine corridors; elevators, wider doorways, and other new accessibility features will create a hospitable home for students with disabilities; and residents will enjoy what has become a necessity: air conditioning.

But a burning question remains: Will ghostly denizens Arthur and Emily Rose still feel welcome? The spectral pair are said to have inhabited Pioneer for generations, wandering hallways and rooms slamming doors, opening windows, and engaging in various other mischief. The fact that Emily Rose is supposedly named after a character in a horror film that was supposedly shot at Pioneer speaks volumes about the peculiarities and quirks of the hulking, Colonial Revival-style structure.

In addition to, yes, false rumors about Arthur, Emily Rose, and the horror film, Pioneer Hall is whispered to have been an asylum in its distant past—a claim perhaps made more believable by the sheer weirdness of the physical layout: misshapen rooms, maze-like hallways clad in dark wainscoting, and haphazard staircases. To hear former residents tell it, Pioneer was not so much a residence hall or dormitory as a beloved character in a long-running television series.

Pioneer Hall was constructed in two halves—each resembling a blocky letter “C” with a tree-shaded courtyard in the middle—the first in 1930 and the second in 1934. Located at Fulton and Harvard Streets on the East Bank, it was built as an all-male dorm, with multiple floors of housing. Approximately 700 students lived there at a time, with shared bathrooms. Beds, chairs, and desks were provided. The last major renovation took place in the 1970s, when a finished basement and new heating system were added.

Men play pool in a Pioneer Hall rec room in 1936.
Photograph courtesy of University Archives

But Paul Domer (B.A. ’96, M.A. ’08) remembers the wildlife. “The squirrels had no fear,” he says, recalling that one jumped on his bike tire to beg for food while he was preparing to ride away. Another encounter took place when he and his dad were carrying a couch up the winding staircase to a third floor suite. “Just as we entered a propped door, a squirrel from the courtyard came running up to us and jumped on my dad’s chest, ran around both his shoulders and back to his chest. It then jumped onto the window base inside the stairwell. From there, it jumped off and ran through his legs and turned around to look at him as if wondering why he was in the way. Then it snuck back up the stairs, looked around, and ran back down over his feet and went outside.”

Hijinks and tall tales aside, one fact is indisputable: Pioneer Hall was the first home away from home for thousands of alumni for whom going to college meant stepping into a new world, with new friends, new callings, and new loves. Very simply, it was where they grew up.

"Pioneer Hall was the steady backdrop to our drama-filled college lives."
Molly Foley

Molly Foley (B.A. ’96) lived in Pioneer during her “pivotal” freshman year. “I finally escaped my small hometown of De Pere, Wisconsin, for the big city, to live the life I had always dreamed of,” she says. “Big loves, little crushes, new friends who would ultimately become old friends—Pioneer Hall was the steady backdrop to our drama-filled college lives. My new home on Fulton Street provided comfort after late nights of dancing at the Saloon or a concert at First Avenue and a place for quiet contemplation upon realizing I was in over my head in astronomy, severely shaking my confidence as a student.”

Over time, Foley says, she came to understand how significant her freshman year was in shaping who she became as an adult. “I can only look back with great love for my room and my friends and think about all the others who have similar memories of new beginnings there. Pioneer was the stable friend in a sea of change, only too happy to provide shelter from the ever-changing tides.”

Yet Pioneer Hall itself was not immune to those ever-changing tides. During Pioneer’s earliest years, U President Lotus Coffman enforced a policy of racial segregation that excluded African Americans from the dormitory. Students protested the policy and Pioneer was integrated in 1937, when Guy Stanton Ford became acting president.

Pioneer roommates take a break from studying in 1964.
Photograph courtesy of University Archives

Also, it opened as a men’s residence and stayed that way until 1960, when women were allowed to live in one of the wings. From the beginning, the exception to the all-male rule was the resident manager, who, according to an official U posting, would be “a capable woman director, who will live in the building and maintain a constant interest in the welfare of its residents.”

Dale Borgeson (B.A. ’62) remembers the transition to coed well. “We now had to dress better, use better language, and learn social skills,” he says. “Strangers one year had a panty raid and we were outraged that our women friends had their privacy invaded. The ladies were locked in on their side of the courtyard at 10 p.m., 12 p.m. on weekends, while we men could stay out all night. We could visit all of the rooms of the opposite sex on Sunday afternoons as long as the door to the room was open at 45 degrees. One dating couple’s door blew shut and they were on probation for two weeks.”

Borgeson met his wife, Molly, at Pioneer in January 1962 while playing bridge in a common area. “I asked her out for a coffee date in Dinkytown. Two years later we were married. My three children and six grandchildren owe a debt to good old Pioneer Hall,” he says.

For some students, Pioneer Hall wasn’t just home—it was a refuge. Following World War II, returning veterans resided at Pioneer as they undertook the difficult transition to civilian life. Luanne Laurents’s (Ph.D. ’86) father, Donald Oliphant, was one of them. His academic career interrupted by the war, he returned to the U after serving four years in Italy and Africa. Laurents recalls her dad saying that many of the veterans spent more time in nightclubs than they did in classrooms. “My father used to kid that the bookstore was still holding the books he never picked up for his classes,” she says. During Oliphant’s year in Pioneer, he and a buddy drove to Texas to visit a childhood friend who had corresponded with him throughout the war. That friend became Oliphant’s wife and Laurents’s mother. “My father died in 1989, just three years after I completed my Ph.D. at the University,” Laurents says.

Anita Long (B.A. ’93) was a sophomore when she lived in Pioneer from 1979 to ’80. “It was a year of emotional turmoil for me as I was struggling to define myself and seek out people I could trust with my identity as a lesbian,” she says. “Housing Services at that time wasn’t focused on diverse student populations, so I was very lonely. Although lonely and at times painful, it was a significant time in my life and a stepping-stone in my growth.”

Pioneer Hall is slated to reopen in fall 2019, when the next generation of pioneers will settle in. Time will tell what lore will emerge about the new, updated digs. No doubt a good deal depends on whether Arthur and Emily Rose make themselves at home.  

Cynthia Scott (M.A. ’89) is Minnesota Alumni’s former editor.

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