By Lee Stout
State College, both the institution and the town, was a growing community in the period between 1920 to the late 1940s. Penn State saw the passing of the much beloved President Edwin Erle Sparks in 1924. His energy had been sapped by the trials that World War I brought to the campus, and he stepped down from the post of president in 1920. Sparks had overseen the growth of the college from about 1,100 students to over 4,000 in his thirteen-year term.
Unfortunately, state funding did not keep up with this growth. In President Atherton’s last years (1904-06), the state had provided approximately $170 per student in appropriations. By the end of the Sparks’ era (1917-19), the figure had risen to only $200 per student. As a result, the campus was starved for new buildings; most of the structures built in this period were small and served as stop-gap measures.
The primary order of business in 1921 for the new president, John Martin Thomas, was to raise funds for “student welfare” buildings – dormitories, recreation and sports facilities, a student union, and a campus hospital. Thomas’ $2 million building campaign gave the college a healthy start, but his grand designs for an even larger expansion of the college were frustrated by conflicts with Governor Gifford Pinchot. As a result, Thomas resigned suddenly in 1925, but the college continued its gradual expansion.
The Borough of State College’s population matched campus enrollment almost exactly; however, there was a dearth of on-campus housing for the many new male students (the numbers of coeds was restricted to the number of available beds in women’s housing on campus). The men’s needs were met primarily across College Avenue by expanding numbers of fraternities and rooming houses. Most of the faculty, along with town’s more established merchants and professionals, built houses in the Highlands, Holmes-Foster, and College Heights neighborhoods.
There was a gap, however, in the housing market for younger faculty and staff, as well as assistants, clerks, and other support workers in the town’s businesses. Unmarried members in this category, in the 1920s, might rent rooms in larger residences, and some connected to the college lived on campus in the newly-constructed University Club.
In part, their needs were met in the 1920s by new, smaller houses on the periphery of established streets. The State College Chamber of Commerce, with the newly-established O.W. Houts lumber company and local contractors, built ten small homes on Gill Street for example. More houses, row and detached, followed. O.W. Houts, who built many of them, said they could build a house with a complete residential lot for less than $4,000 in eight to twelve weeks, and they were finishing one every six days in the ‘20s. These were the beginnings of the expanding residential neighborhoods of the Highlands and Holmes-Foster.
In 1925, the Heatherbloom Apartment building opened at 126 East Nittany Avenue. It was built by John Haugh, a Scottish immigrant who also operated the neighboring Highland Market and Grocery. The Heatherbloom, the name a reminder of the most abundant flowers of the Highlands of Haugh’s native land, was designed by architectural engineering professor P. Boyd Kapp. Its many classical elements and well-loved fireplaces and screened-in porches still make it a popular non-student building today. Probably its most famous resident was English professor Julia Gregg Brill, a pioneer among women faculty members.
Another landmark apartment building was the Locust Lane Apartments on the southeast corner of East Foster Avenue and Locust Lane. The 29-unit structure was built by local developer John Henszey in 1929 and offered efficiencies and one- and two-bedroom apartments. In the 1940s, tenants included Laura Drummond, director of home economics on campus; J.R. Bracken, professor of landscape architecture; a young Harry D. Zook, chemistry instructor who would eventually be an associate dean of the graduate school, and Arnold Kalin, proprietor of Kalin’s Men’s Store. Many of the tenants moved on in the 1950s, but the Brackens lived at Locust Lane their entire lives.
With the hiring of Ralph Dorn Hetzel as president of the college in 1926, relations with the Commonwealth began to improve. Despite the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression, a dozen new buildings were added to the campus by 1932, and student enrollment continued a steady rise to almost 7,500 by 1940.
Many communities across Pennsylvania saw deep downturns and high unemployment rates. However, both town and college employees fared reasonably well through the Depression, with few layoffs and small salary cuts. In fact, one might hardly recognize a depression in State College’s housing market by the later 1930s. More than one hundred houses, with total construction costs reaching almost a million dollars, were built here in 1938 and 1939 alone.
The Highlands neighborhood had many private residences, and a number of these structures were built to be rentals. The distinctive, simple white Moderne Style building at 527 South Fraser, for example, was a tri-plex built in 1939. In 1947, the tenants of the three apartments were retired campus physician Dr. Joseph P. Ritenour, and Penn State librarians Evelyn Hensal and Helen Cooper. In other two-, three-, and four-plex buildings, it would not be out of the ordinary to have faculty members, a store manager, and married students renting the apartments in these small buildings.
Perhaps the best-known of all the apartment buildings in the Highlands Historic District is the Glennland Building, at 205 East Beaver. It was built in 1933 by O.W. Houts and local doctor Grover Glenn, one of the family of State College’s earliest medical practitioners.
The four-story Glennland, with 40 apartments and offices, was designed in the Art Deco Style and was the largest and tallest building in town for many years. For many, it is memorable for its indoor swimming pool, where several generations of Penn State male students took their swimming tests (sans-suit, me included) and swim meets were held.
The Glennland also hosted a wide variety of tenants. In the 1940s, they included women’s Phys. Ed. Director Marie Haidt, campus librarian Katherine Stokes, chemical engineering head Merrill Fenske, State College’s pioneer aviator Sherm Lutz, and English professor and tennis coach Theodore Roethke, who would later become a nationally-known poet.
Beginning in the 1950s, increasing numbers of apartment buildings were built, and, since the 1970s, increasing numbers of formerly private residences and rooming houses have turned into student rentals. Driving the streets of the Highlands District today gives the impression that apartments and house rentals outnumber owner-occupied residences. Nevertheless, despite the abundance of rental properties, the Highlands retains its character as one of the three primary historic residential neighborhoods of State College.
Lee Stout is the Penn State Archivist emeritus.
Lee can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org