Finding family in the Ferry House Fishbowl

Emily Lesorogol ’22, Gabby Kimbraugh ’22, Joshua Fearing ’23, Chloe Levin ’23, Jancely Arias ’24, Eliza Schiff ’23, Leo Derosby ’23, Meghan Hayfield ’22, Georgia Calvert ’23, Ella Foster ’23. Courtesy of Sari Gubar ’23.

Oddly shaped and adorned with hammocks strung along the exterior, the Dexter M. Ferry Cooperative House sits tucked away behind Main Building. Ferry, as the house is affectionately called, was the first modernist building on campus and one of three cooperative housing options offered by Vassar. It is home to approximately 20 students who come from various backgrounds, class years and academic disciplines. While academic and extracurricular interests vary among members of Ferry, they all strive to exercise and exemplify environmental sustainability and mindfulness, an ethos students have gradually developed since its opening in 1951. 

According to the Office of Residential Life, Ferry House was designed by Marcel Breuer in 1950 after a generous donation was made by Dexter Ferry, a businessman and owner of one of the world’s largest seed companies at the time. The Ferrys, who also donated the funds for the construction of the Alumnae House, had numerous family members attend the college throughout the twentieth century. The construction of Ferry in 1950 took place under the direction and approval of Sarah Blanding, Vassar’s first female president.  

Ferry’s unique T-pattern shape and floor-to-ceiling glass sliding doors are guaranteed to catch the attention of any onlooker, especially those enjoying a poke bowl outside of Retreat or making their way to Sanders Classroom for a 9 a.m. English class. According to the Vassar College Encyclopedia, Ferry’s eccentric layout was designed so that noise would not travel from the first level up to the bedrooms. Additionally, sliding doors and panels were installed to create a more flexible living space that could adapt to the wants and needs of students living there. In the upper level of the house, Breuer ensured the wings would face east-west to allow direct sunlight to shine into all the bedrooms during the day.  

Courtesy of Eli Feay ’24.

Over the years, Ferry House has adopted many names, some of which include: the “Ferry Fishbowl” (its architectural transparency allows anyone to sneak a peek inside the home) and the college’s “little experiment” (its experimental nature since its 1951 debut). Ferry’s proximity to Main earned the buildings a joint nickname of “David and Goliath.”

Like any other dorm or apartment on campus, Ferry’s internal dynamics frequently change from year to year as different residents cycle through. These lifestyle shifts have not always merged into the successful and self-sustaining environment present today. According to the Vassar College Encyclopedia, the College temporarily shut Ferry down in 1994 when students failed to take care of the living space in a way deemed sanitary and safe. However, Ferry reopened the following semester, this time with a more clear vision for what sustainable and cooperative living should look like. 

A constitution created for Ferry elaborated further on this vision. It declared that the efficiency and wellbeing of the house is entirely in the hands of its residents. This document also renews the wellness and sustainability commitment adopted by the house, but this time in a concrete and established manner. After this constitution was introduced, a further screening process for applicants was added to ensure that students moving into Ferry were aligned with the same ideals of sustainability and collaboration that members of the house aim to live by.  

Currently, Ferry students partake in sustainable living practices such as recycling and composting. Members of the house are also conscious of their energy use, encourage eco-friendly clothing options and emphasize limiting food waste by sharing all their food and reinventing leftovers to be eaten for multiple meals.

Although dynamics are constantly shifting in Ferry, an emphasis on community has remained. Each year, a unique combination of students come together and learn to function as a family unit. While these individual people come and go, the source of community this cooperative living situation provides stays. 

Sari Gubar ’23 says she thrives in the community Ferry has provided her with this past year. “People here are passionate about their community and always have creative thoughts on what we can do better or how to make this place a better home,” Gubar stated.

While students living in dorms had to wait weeks for an approved podding system, members of Ferry house have been podded since arriving on campus. This year, Ferry’s 18 residents formed a “mega-pod,” which has only amplified the house’s community-focused ethos. “I think the community this year is especially close; it’s just really fun and joyful and artistic and creative,” Gubar explained. Most often, Ferry folks can be seen at any given time either sunbathing, playing Settlers of Catan or cooking. 

Eliza Schiff ’23, one of Ferry’s newest residents who transferred to Vassar this spring, is thrilled with her new living situation: “Everyone is always down to have fun; We play games, make forts, have movie nights and even cuddle in the hallways.”

To Schiff, joining Ferry meant becoming part of a close-knit, energetic group of people. “I knew before stepping foot on campus that I wanted to live in the sort of collaborative and community-based living situation that Ferry provides and since being here it has really fueled my extrovert energy in the best way,” she commented. 

Schiff’s favorite part of Ferry is the house dynamic. “We’re just a bunch of silly loving goons who care about community and creating an active space for love, growth and sustainability,” Shiff noted. “We’re just learning how to be adults together,” she added. 

While there are mostly sophomores living in the Ferry Fishbowl, a handful of seniors and juniors are living there as well. One lucky freshman even has a seat at the unusually long dining room table this semester. Jancely Arias ’24 moved into Ferry at the beginning of this semester. “I was really intimidated at first that I wouldn’t fit in among upperclassmen, but everyone was incredibly welcoming,” Arias shared. 

While Arias had planned to move to Ferry at some point during her Vassar career, she did not expect to move in her second semester. She was originally assigned to Davison House, where she quickly realized dorm life was not for her. “It felt really lonely there at times and I was really looking for a family unit, something I came to realize only Ferry could provide,” Arias explained.

Ferry’s policies and student selection processes were originally heavily controlled by administrators until the early 2000’s, when the Vassar Student Association (VSA) supported Ferry’s petition to become independent from other on-campus housing options. Since then, all decisions regarding the house have been solely in the hands of the students living there. 

Additionally, since Ferry is an egalitarian community, all decisions are made as a group and there are no elected positions within the house. As a result, members of Ferry host a meeting every Sunday to have a casual conversation about upcoming events, any house issues and to continue an ongoing discussion about how to live sustainably. “We’re a big fan of the Google form during these meetings,” Schiff joked. 

House responsibilities, including taking out the trash, ordering toilet paper and scheduling house events, are assigned to an individual at the beginning of each semester. In addition to individual jobs, members of the house also take turns cooking and cleaning in groups.  

Schiff and her dinner group have taken their weekly chore to a whole new level by assigning a theme to their meals. Last month, they cooked a western murder mystery themed meal, complete with chili and cornbread, followed by a sauce night and a dinner in which they cooked potatoes in every way possible. 

Most members of Ferry agree that their favorite part of living together is eating dinner as a family five nights a week. “I live with a lot of people back home so it’s really nice to have that environment here, especially because I know I wouldn’t get it in any other housing option on campus,” Arias said. Although being vegan or vegetarian is not a requirement for living in Ferry, all communal meals are vegan. “It feels really good to have people care about you enough to cook you a lovely meal and then clean up after,” Gubar commented. Arias, who is part of the Wednesday group, often makes pasta or soup as her go-to meal for their quick cook times and simple recipes. “There was a time when almost everyone was making soup so we had to have a talk about that,” Arias joked.

Currently, members of Ferry House are reviewing applications for next year’s residents. Each member is tasked with reading and taking notes on the 25 applications before sharing their thoughts at their next meeting. Since all applications have to be submitted anonymously, student’s names and class years are only released once an individual is selected to live there. This ensures everyone is guaranteed an equal opportunity to live in Ferry. 

With this process well underway, Ferry House is preparing to welcome a new community into its doors, a mix of returning students blended with newcomers. While the faces may change, the unique environment Ferry provides will remain centered on sustainability and community for years to come.

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