When I moved into my TH this summer, it was an empty box waiting to be filled. The walls a standard beige, a bare tile floor and dorm-regulation couches. Over the year, my housemates and I have added posters, artwork, throw pillows and an illegal green armchair we store in the house Prius during fire inspections. But at the end of the year, all of these personal stamps will be stripped away again, creating a blank canvas for its next inhabitants.
Off-campus houses, however, come with a little more baggage. In some cases these homes, most of them along College and LaGrange Avenues, hold nearly a decade worth of stuff.
“The house was a little run-down and came with a bunch of junk,” said Amy Cao ’15, who lives at 146—colloquially known as one-four-six—College Ave.
She explained, “In our house in particular, there’s this room off of the living [room] that’s the size of a large walk-in closet and over the last three years, it’s been filled with junk.” Cao said she and her housemate Taylor Pratt ’15 spent the last two weeks of the summer sifting through old notebooks, textbooks and belongings of residents past. Most of the long-forgotten items were destined for the trash, but Cao and Pratt uncovered some salvageable clothes, records, furniture and miscellany, keeping what they wanted and selling the rest at a yard sale the first weekend of the semester.
“What hasn’t changed for a really long time is the living room—there’s this yellow couch that has been there for at least five years. When you walk in, it’s the first thing you see. It’s so gross, but I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it,” Cao added.
Many pieces of furniture have become permanent fixtures at 146. “My room came with a desk and a dresser and everything I needed because when people graduate they usually don’t take that stuff with them,” she said.
For Sofie Cardinal ’15 and Jeffrey From ’15, the sheer amount of things filling 136 College Ave., wasn’t welcoming so much as it was overwhelming. As they planned to live in the house, called Brown House, over the summer, the process of cleaning up and clearing out began much earlier and went on for much longer.
“Jeff told me a story about when he was helping to clean the house after they had all moved in this summer. They pulled up a couch cushion and there was vomit encrusted on it. Dry, moldy vomit,” recounted Emma Gregoline ’15, who lives with Cardinal, From and three other housemates. Alix Masters ’15 made a horrified face as she split a cookie with Gregoline in the Retreat.
“Brown House used to be the Frisbee house. They just trashed it and it’s a really cool house once you unearth the architecture of it. But when we all started moving in, there was shit everywhere,” she said.
She added, “When Sofie and Jeff were cleaning the house, one of the Frisbee boys said, ‘You’re turning our house into an Anthropologie.’”
Over the course of the summer and into the school year, they cleaned out garbage, discovered more hidden vomit (this time on window blinds) and repainted the kitchen, living room and some bedrooms. Though it’s no Anthropologie, the house is discretely different from just a year ago, marking a fissure in Brown House’s history.
However, more often than not, off-campus houses get passed down among friend groups, giving each one a distinct identity. All of this is to say that houses have lineages and legacies, myths and mysteries.
“It feels like the closest thing to sororities or fraternities at Vassar, where they get passed down, but it’s kind of unofficial,” said Gregoline. “But you can think back to when something happened in the corner of 152 or remember back to when you kissed someone at Chabad.”
For Cao, the continuity of one-four-six’s history remains almost self-evident. “It’s a place where all of my friends used to live last year: Hannah Ryan, Jonny Gottlieb, Joanna Kloppenburg and Robbie Troccia. It’s a really competitive process to get an off-campus house because there are only a handful of ‘staple houses,’” she said.
October of her junior year, Cao reached out to Ryan, who helped her get in contact with their landlord. And now that she lives there with three of her closest friends, she jokes that they have all taken on the personas of its most recent residents.
“So often in our house we reference how each of us has taken a role of someone who lived there before. Joanna and Thea Ballard used to live in my room, and I’ll post pics showing how I changed the space,” said Cao. She continued, “We joke about how I’m the Joanna, Taylor’s the attic boy, Julia [Kawai ’15] is living in the tiny room like Hannah [Ryan] did, and they’re both good at utilizing the tiny spaces, Layla took on Robbie’s room…”
But sometimes, along with the inheritance of identity and memory comes the very Real: defaulted mortgages, wasp infestations and black mold. All of these things led to the foreclosure of 150 College Ave., fondly remembered as Chabad. Boarded up and condemned, it’s a dark mark on the history of off-campus houses.
“Whenever I walk past Chabad, it’s like a haunted house of off-campus parties past. It’s kind of looming,” said Gregoline.
Mike Pauker ’14 remembers it well. So well, in fact, that when I emailed him asking for details, he sent me back a two-page narrative article and attached a dozen photos and an 18-page legal document from the Supreme Court of New York State.
“I arrived at ‘Chabad House’ having seen the house only once during sober daylight hours. From the outset, it was immediately clear that [it] would be a strange place to live. Each room was filled with the personal possessions, furniture and detritus of previous ‘generations’ of students: handmade paintings, a broken piano, old mattresses, with scuff marks on every surface,” he wrote. Though this image of dilapidation is a familiar one to most off-campus residents, it gets worse.
Pauker and his housemates battled overgrown vegetation, a wasp’s nest—”We shared our kitchen with the wasps until the winter,” he noted—and a shower leak that caused “black, yellow and green molds to bloom.”
As the state of the house deteriorated further, with the landlord becoming increasingly negligent, Pauker noticed other aspects of the house’s ownership and operation that seemed questionable.
“To begin with, this registered ‘Chabad House’ was not in fact a Jewish shelter, only a regular residence. We suspected that the Rabbi listed the Chabad house as a religious site to avoid paying property taxes,” wrote Pauker. “The situation became even sketchier when we were served foreclosure notices by Credit Suisse.”
The foreclosure notices alleged that the landlord owed the bank $269,378.83 in total. When Pauker and his housemates arrived back on campus for their senior year, Chabad was shuttered. The property was deemed “unfit for human occupancy.”
“For all its flaws, living at Chabad was pretty fun, and allowed us freedoms and privacy we would have not had in VC housing…We still have no clue which of the myriad of flaws caused the house to be condemned or whether it was even structurally sound, and for that reason I think that Vassar students losing this gross little gem on College Ave. was probably for the best,” said Pauker.
For his senior year, Pauker lived at a house on LaGrange, which was purchased by a former student’s father. However, since the Class of 2014’s residents moved out, the house has been for sale. This ebb and flow has made for an off-campus landscape that is ever-changing.
“I do wish the off-campus scene was more vibrant, because it was a huge part of what I loved about Vassar my first two years—Chabad and LaGrange. It felt really fun…it felt like a scene,” said Masters, who lived in Moon House, an off-campus apartment her junior year. Now that she’s moved back on campus, though, Vassar students no longer live there.
She and Gregoline went back and forth, reflecting on how off-campus dynamics have inevitably shifted. “Sad House moved to Blue House. Sad House used to be the [VC] Punx house…” Masters said.
“Yeah! And now Davis is like Fancy House,” Gregoline chimed in, alluding to the house where Meryl Streep’s daughter lived during her time at Vassar. The College Ave. house, however, is known as Fancy House mostly because of its private washer and dryer—a luxury for a college apartment.
Aside from the organic changes that have shaped and transformed houses’ characters, there are more concrete reasons for the evolving milieu. For one, Cao pointed to the increasing stringency surrounding off-campus parties. Recently, the City of Poughkeepsie implemented a noise ordinance, fining residents up to $1000 for their first noise complaint and up to $2000 for their second. Cao believes the ordinance was implemented to target Marist frat houses, but backfired on Vassar students.
At the beginning of the school year, the members of 146 incurred one of these fines when they threw a birthday party for their housemate.
“We honestly invited about 20 people to our party and it seemed as though all of campus showed up to it,” Cao recalled. “Luckily, we got the minimum fine the first time, but we can’t afford to get in trouble again. That has totally deterred us from having big parties, even though we really want to because that’s part of the fun of having an off-campus house. That’s how I met so many people who used to live here and I think that culture has dwindled.”
Added Gregoline, “There would be more parties if people weren’t worried about getting fined and going to court. The scene is maybe more relaxed this year because of that. People used to be crammed into 152 College Ave. shoulder to shoulder. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Though Safety & Security’s jurisdiction over off-campus houses is unclear, Cao said that she and her housemates had to meet with Vassar administrators after receiving the fine. Now, Cao and other students living on College Ave. are more cautious about disturbing their neighbors, some of whom are professors.
“We used to leave a bottle of wine outside our downstairs neighbor’s door every time we had a party,” Masters laughed. However, her junior-year apartment was located beyond the realm of College Ave., making it less likely that Safety & Security would patrol the area.
Cao speculated that over time, it is likely students will branch out and look for off-campus houses slightly farther away, where it is less likely they will be a bother to their neighbors or be bothered by Poughkeepsie police or campus security.
In the meantime, Cao said that the rigidity makes the off-campus community feel more insular. “I remember Chabad parties being huge because 10 people lived there. And they would have shed shows and use it as an art exhibition space,” she said.
This past year, 146 attempted to keep the tradition alive, hosting a “shed show” in their house.
However, now that she’s the Town Students treasurer, Cao hopes to use the funding and resources to reinvigorate the off-campus scene.
So far, it’s been tricky. What events need first and foremost is space, and it’s not always plentiful in students’ apartments. Cao and her friends have played around with the idea of bringing them to campus, though she agrees it seems counterintuitive.
“The fun is getting off campus and we don’t want to move those events on campus, but it seems like that’s the only way to go,” Cao lamented. “The off-campus dynamic is changing and there are so many forces that are changing that.”