The Perkins and Will Student Apartments at George Mason

by Catalina Mayer

President’s Park, Hampton Roads, and Dominion Hall are among the many student housing buildings on the George Mason Fairfax campus today. However, that was not always the case. For a large portion of Mason’s history there was no student housing on campus at all. The main reason for this was the vision of Mason’s founders. In the early years, Mason was designed as a commuter college for the community of Northern Virginia. The target student populations at its beginning were military veterans on the GI Bill after World War II and adults living in the NOVA area. As time went on, the university grew and this led to a debate amongst the community and the university officials. Some faculty members argued that as a university expanded, student housing would become a requirement in order to support the needs of the students. Evidence of this need was showcased in newspaper articles such as in the Northern Virginia Sun. In one such article, Charles Repp from the Mason Office of Financial Assistance and Placement begged the community to provide housing for the students. In addition, the students that did live in the community attracted parties and parking problems for the neighborhoods where they resided. In the end, the debate over student housing for Mason was a debate between expanding the university academically or focusing on student facilities.

Figure 1. This article describes the struggle of Mason administrators to find jobs and housing options for student returning to campus in the fall of 1974. Northern Virginia Sun, July 26, 1974.

One of the first discussions of student housing occurred on May 24, 1973 in a letter referencing a Board of Visitors meeting.1 It indicated a desire and need for student housing. The letter also brought forward the idea to create low income housing for students in order to accommodate all. At the time of the letter Mason only had access to one piece of land for the potential housing site.2

At the beginning of the housing debate in 1974, Mason brought forward a consultant. The consultant, Mr. Richard Arms, was tasked with describing the requirements of building housing. He noted important factors that needed to be discussed before construction, containing both positive and negative considerations. He disclosed that there were three tracts of land on which this housing could be constructed. He noted that the university wanted only 40% of students to live on campus, while the average campus at the time had about 60% students and faculty on campus. With this in mind, he noted that the more people who live near the university, the more activity a University will have in terms of extracurriculars. This was something that Mason struggled with, as seen in ads placed in the University or the student newspaper Broadside. Yet, with housing on campus then there would be little room for academic development past 1985 since the space available would be occupied by student housing. There was also a concern that with 12,000 students on campus it would cause major traffic problems.

It was April 10, 1974 when the Board of Visitors officially pushed forward with the housing and started discussing specific details.3 This led to the decision on October 16, 1974 when Mason chose Perkins and Will as the architectural firm.4 Their plans were illustrated in various blueprints and sketches from the Perkins and Will apartment designs showcased in January 1975.

Figure 2. This blueprint of the planned student apartments exhibits plans for two, four, or six potential roommates. Broadside Photograph Collection, January 17, 1975.

Figure 3. This blueprint of the planned student apartments shows a laundry room, snack area, and common room. Broadside Photograph Collection, January 17, 1975.

Figure 4. An external view of the planned student apartments. Broadside Photograph Collection, January 17, 1975.

The blueprints are important in showcasing the inside of the apartments. The first blueprint exhibits plans for two, four, or six potential roommates. As the second one shows, there is a laundry room and snack area with common rooms for the students to socialize. In addition to an external view, the Broadside also published a chart that displays the amount of room each dorm would receive and indicates if there is a living room or kitchen. The Broadside photo collection also holds photos of construction in 1976, which corresponds with the groundbreaking of the housing complex on March 2, 1976.

Figure 5. This area summary chart detailed the planned square footage and student occupancy for Mason’s first student housing. Broadside Photograph Collection, January 17, 1975.

Even considering the push for housing, opposition remained. Harrison Mann, for example, was a founder of the university who had helped gain approval for the creation of George Mason College, but he did not support the housing plan.5 He argued that the creation of Mason housing was not allowed due to the contract and the design. He claimed that housing would make the university expensive for both the student body and the state. Housing also attracts out of state students, meaning that attendance would grow, he argued, and Mason would no longer be serving the local community. Again, Mann emphasized that Mason’s vision was to be a commuter school, and student housing would draw focus and money away from academics, including other new buildings, more staff and new programs. Mann was not the first to express this view; this was also a core idea in many of the early oral histories. Even Mason’s president of the time, Vergil Dykastra, found student housing to be opposed to the purpose of Mason and its future. He argued that Mason was meant for the community and that student housing would draw individuals from further and further away, isolating the very people the university was meant to help. Even so, the long range planning committee acknowledged that, in order to serve the community they wanted to help, they must build housing. It was important for the students to have a dormitory to remove them from residential locations in the community since they would often party and cause noise and disturbances.

Figure 6. This article describes students’ desire for housing the the housing crisis they were facing. Northern Virginia Sun, NOvember 28, 1975.

Considering the state of the university today, at its 50th anniversary, it is interesting to recognize Mason’s efforts to reduce the number of commuters in the 1970s. There is still a debate that remains today about whether to cater to the needs of the student life or focus on the academic buildings. Everything that is required for a student to live on campus can be quite costly, such as the gyms, dining halls, dorms and any other accommodations, like the Hub or Johnson Center (JC). Yet these can take away from funding for research projects, new or expanding academic buildings and even staff. Even so, there is a strong sense that Mason tried to grow academically before catering to a larger student population.

Figure 7. The Board of Visitors approved 123 units to house 500 students. This article emphasizes the BOV members’ opinion that student housing was necessary to serve the community of Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia Sun, April 26, 1975.

Figure 8. Construction in progress on the future student apartments. Broadside Photograph Collection, September 14, 1976.

Figure 9. Construction in progress on the future student apartments. Broadside Photograph Collection, September 14, 1976.

In the end, Mason students won this debate with the opening of the Perkins and Will student apartments on Saturday, October 15, 1977. However, by all accounts it was not smooth sailing for the students. The Broadside showcases a student climbing the stairs, lost, trying to find his room on opening day. New residents also faced the apartments flooding. As one student described, “the toilet overflowed and the water seeped into the middle of the living room.”6 That same Saturday, students had to evacuate in the middle of the night due to a power outage. The students also had to adapt to supplies being sent out late. They also encountered roommate disagreements over small fridge sizes. The newspaper echoes a lot of experiences I personally experienced and shared with my peers. The previous students’ move-in day reflects my freshmen move-in day, trying to get situated, people grabbing boxes from your car, one of your boxes getting lost. The flooding of their apartments resonates with the shower that doesn’t have a shower head in the Kennedy building in Presidents Park or the drain that is always clogged in the shared bathroom. Walking out due to the power is similar to the many times that one has to walk out due to the fire alarm. These newspaper accounts resonate for me as a Mason student with the idea that, even with all these problems faced in the dorm, it really is central to the experience of Mason.

Figure 10. Students move into the new student apartments carrying boxes. Broadside Photograph Collection, October 15, 1977.

Even with all the hassle and problems the dorms faced, like many modern stories of dorm life, they created a community. The students felt a connection to the space and found it easier to build relationships with other students. As one student described, “you feel like you’re in college, the atmosphere is better."7 One could argue that it was student housing that created the campus as we know it today. Another student described, “the whole feeling around the campus is wonderful. Everyone is friendly, I love it.” Another student even described how it is easier to meet people through the dorm. The Perkins and Will apartments were one of the vital building project that helped build community at Mason. It gave students a reason to stay on campus. It provided them with a home at Mason and a place to interact and socialize. Without the dorms, even with a snack or lounge area, the students did not have a central place to socialize. The apartment buildings were also central social spaces for non-residents, as the blueprints show a snack room and living rooms that gave students a place to hang out in. While students got a student center space in 1974 with Sub 1, this didn’t resolve all the challenges of involvement on campus. Shared student spaces were a real issue for students and a demand they continued to voice. When the university built this first housing, it sided with student needs and allowed the students to create a new dynamic on campus. The campus apartments allowed Mason to host students from other regions, and they allowed Mason students to build their own community.

Catalina Mayer is an undergraduate history major at George Mason University who will receive a Bachelor of Arts in History in the summer of 2022. She also studies communication and hopes to continue her education in law school or graduate school.

Suggested citation

Please use the following as a suggested citation:

Catalina Mayer, "The Perkins and Will Student Apartments at George Mason," Mapping the University, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (2022): <>.

  1. Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 2, Folder 8, June 21, 1973. ↩︎

  2. Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 2, Folder 22, September 11, 1974. ↩︎

  3. Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 2, Folder 17, April 10, 1974. ↩︎

  4. Board of Visitors Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 2, Folder 24, October 16, 1974. ↩︎

  5. Office of the President Records, Special Collections and Research Center (SCRC), George Mason University, Box 25, Folder 14, June 6, 1975. ↩︎

  6. Broadside, Vol. 20, Number 9, October 24, 1977. ↩︎

  7. Broadside, Vol. 20, Number 9, October 24, 1977. ↩︎