by Kayley McDonald
The Highlands neighborhood had been no stranger to development and expansion in the years before WWII. Throughout the 1930’s State College as a whole grew into its designation as the quintessential “college town” as the student population of Penn State increased and more businesses moved into the town’s commercial district. Those who moved to State College sought a suitable standard for residential life and saw the Highlands as their example. At the time, the majority of the neighborhood consisted of small family homes as well as large mansions that were built in hopes of attracting Greek life from the nearby campus. As the school grew towards university status, more and more students moved into the neighborhood. The years during and after WWII arguably had the largest impact on the boundaries and demography of the neighborhood as it is known today. The rapid development in the Highlands declined during the war, but bounced back when the war ended and veterans began to return to the area.
When the United States entered WWII, the feeling of patriotism was strong all through Centre County. The Highlands had the honor of being home to Allen Melville Green, one of the first State College men drafted into military service. Green lived at 225 S Burrowes Street and was enlisted in the Army through the Selective Service Act in November of 1940. The demonstrations of public spirit and community involvement in the Highlands encouraged the activism of students on campus as well as those who lived in the bordering neighborhoods. Penn State’s ROTC unit ran right through the middle of the Highlands as part of their training routines.
Families in the neighborhood led the charge in activism and participation. They organized food drives, sold bonds, and took on the jobs of their loved ones who entered the service. In the fall of 1942, a salvage drive arranged by well-known Highlands residents, John Henszey and Dick Kennard, earned Centre County recognition as one of the top eight Pennsylvania counties that led the charge in total scrap collected. John Henszey, who lived at 300 East Hamilton, was the son of Highlands developer J.W. Henszey, who lived at 320 East Hamilton. The depth of community involvement evidenced itself throughout the entirety of the neighborhood.
By the early 1940s, Highlands residents were active in meeting wartime demands. A majority of available resources were donated to the war effort, and existing residences offered housing to servicemen. Apartment buildings opened their doors to soldiers living among the residential homes, and a percentage of the smaller houses in the neighborhood were rented out to soldiers on leave and returning from battle. Neighbors in the Highlands also took in students who were unable to afford the expense of keeping a residence off campus while abroad. Boarding houses also became more popular in the 1940s, providing soldiers with much needed housing arrangements, and affording Highlands families additional sources of income. One such boarding house, located at 234 South Allen Street, run by a widow named Inez “Ma” Fletcher, housed at least 20 servicemen in the mid-1940s. Perhaps the most well-remembered of “Ma’s Boys” was Mike Lynch, who went on to found the Mount Nittany Conservancy. Lynch spent a total of three and a half years living at Fletcher’s boarding house and remembered her fondly saying, “She was a mother to hundreds and hundreds of students” (Chesworth, 1995, p. 138).
The larger fraternity houses did their part in aiding the war effort as well, with some even fully transforming into military barracks. The Alpha Tau Omega house served as one example of fraternity-turned-barracks and became home to over a dozen young soldiers. Kappa Delta Rho (now Kappa Sigma), located at 420 East Prospect Avenue, also became a home to soldiers during the war, providing housing to undergraduate servicemen.
After the war, the KDR house opened its doors a second time and provided housing to former residents, graduate students, and alumni. Two of the returning residents happened to be Ralph Yeager and John “Jace” O’Connor, who became the founders of the Tavern Restaurant on College Avenue. Both men had lived at KDR during the war, and discovered their mutual interest in opening a restaurant upon their return to the house as graduate students.
After the war and the enactment of the GI Bill, Penn State was met with a flood of enrollment that it was not equipped to handle. This only furthered the need for student housing off campus. When confronted with the grand question of admission in the spring of 1946, Penn State President Ralph Hetzel announced his policy to offer priority re-enrollment to the former students who had put their college educations on hold to serve during the war. The choice generated a lot of backlash and criticism, but Hetzel defended his decision, saying: “We promised them the opportunity to return to college, and we must keep faith” (Bezillla, 1985, p. 204-205). All other veterans came second on the priority list, and recent high school graduates and incoming freshmen came third. By the time Penn State finished enrollment for the fall semester of 1946, 55 percent of the College’s enrolled population was veterans. As soldiers began returning from war and students began returning to school, however, campus officials quickly realized the College’s lack of facilities in both quantity and quality. And so, both returning veteran students and non-veteran students continued to look towards the Highlands for places to live.
As the start of the 1946 academic year approached, the concern in regard to off-campus housing for returning veterans intensified. On campus, the solution was relatively simple: build more residence halls. The matter of off-campus housing, however, posed a more extensive issue. A large fraction of the veteran students were then married with families; they were unable to resume student life as they left it before going into the service. In the initial response to the lack of housing, college officials decided to purchase trailers that formerly housed defense industry workers for the government in New Kensington, PA.
The trailers were transported to the fields adjacent to College Avenue, and, after a few renovations, they were ready for students to move in. The make-shift trailer park, dubbed “Windcrest,” was reserved for married veterans and their families. It eventually grew to around 250 trailers. Situated just east of South Garner Street and Shortlidge Road, the community of trailers stretched across the land where the South residence halls on College Avenue stand today.
After the development of Windcrest, student housing continued to expand further into the Highlands neighborhood. Apartment buildings constructed during the war became full-time residences for students; fraternity houses increased in number; and duplexes became a popular and cost-efficient solution to the housing issue. The shortage of housing affected not only veterans and returning students, but Penn State staff and faculty members as well. J. Alvin Hawbaker constructed 40 brand new double units on South Atherton Street, Westerly Parkway, and Center Lane, including some within the boundaries of the Highlands. A majority of the duplexes housed on-campus Garfield Water Tunnel employees performing naval research.
A larger number of businesses began moving into the area as well, in hopes of capitalizing on the neighborhood’s growing population. The 200 block of South Allen Street welcomed new businesses, restaurants, and bars that veterans and students happily crowded into every night. By the 1950s, as undergraduate and graduate veterans became more accustomed to their newfound independent routines, they began to seek out the “apartment lifestyle” as opposed to the formerly popular boarding and fraternity house living arrangements. One ex-GI and graduate student, Milton “Mickey” Bergstein, moved into what was called “Homer’s House” just off of Highland Alley in the 200 block of Pugh Street in order to achieve the independent feeling provided by an apartment. Many women also found themselves living in similar apartment-style complexes. Bergstein’s eventual wife, Betty Reed, lived in “Cody Manor” located at 301 South Allen Street with 30 other women, many of whom served in the war effort as well. More often than not, these apartment houses were not equipped with the facilities expected in modern-day living, but that was a small price to pay for rooming when off-campus housing was so limited. The Highlands neighborhood, by virtue of its location and proximity to the College, was able to meet the flow of students and employees that came to the College and provided for their needs accordingly.
In my own experience as a Penn State student, walking through the commercial district of State College can sometimes feel as if it is an extension of the University, and it can be hard to separate Penn State from State College. Now that I live off campus, however, I have come to appreciate the distinction between the University and the residential areas. The Highlands has a history unique within itself, and it is important to remember and appreciate that history for the value it holds. The Highlands played an especially important role in meeting the needs of veterans during and after WWII. It continues to welcome a variety of residents into its boundaries today. The University and the neighborhood have a symbiotic relationship; each party needs and supports the other. As a new resident and observer of the Highlands myself, the hospitality of the neighborhood is evident. The welcoming spirit that stems from the Highlands seems as much alive today as it was when returning veterans were received into the neighborhood with open arms during and after WWII.
Kayley McDonald is a junior at Penn State majoring in History, minoring in Business in the Liberal Arts, and earning a certificate in Museum Studies. Outside of her schoolwork she is an active member of Penn State’s University Park Undergraduate Association (UPUA), serving as the Director of Organizational History within the Department of Records. Kayley is from Pittsburgh, PA, and hopes to work in the city after graduation. She aspires to a career in museum curation and archival research, and hopes to one day contribute to the field of public history. If you would like to contact Kayley with any questions or comments, she can be reached via her email, at email@example.com.
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Chesworth, Jo. Story of the Century: the Borough of State College, Pennsylvania, 1896-1996. Borough of State College, Pennsylvania, 1995.
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Miller, Forney and Jim Jimirrio, directors. The History of Pennsylvania State College: Flick-A-Rama. YouTube, Beta Theta Pi, 1955, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvevJzYF2yw.
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Stout, Lee. “Apartments in the Highlands before 1950.” Hearts in the Highlands, Highlands Civic Association, 9 Oct. 2018, https://statecollegehighlands.org/apartments-in-the-highlands-before-1950/