Commuter Headquarters: The Story of Van Der Heyden House
“How about an ‘Ask Aggie’ story about Van Der Heyden?” wrote Jane Turner McKersie ’51 of Chelmsford, Mass. “I do not know the history of how the dorm for day students was established but I do think it was unique for a college to have a place for day students which so closely resembled dorm life. We had a house mother, Miss Lovell and lots of social functions like teas. At Christmas, Miss Lovell used to make a wonderful wreath for the big mirror at the entrance. Each class had a room of its own and there was a study hall, a kitchen, two formal living rooms, just like most of the dorms…I am thankful that I had the VDH experience for my four years at Sage and several of my counterparts have recently expressed the same feelings.”
After being vacant for several years, the building just south of Wool House, at 85 First Street, was acquired by Russell Sage College in 1919. The building—known as Thompson House—had been the George Thompson family’s winter home since 1878, until George’s death in 1914.
Thompson House served as a residence hall for Sage students through 1934, when it became a “home away from home” for the students who commuted to College each day.
As Thompson House director Mrs. Walter P. Warren explained, President Meader “had long had it in mind to establish a residence for the day students, since he felt they had no real place on the campus and were therefore not receiving full benefit of the college education.” Day students had been using an area in the Gurley Hall basement which had dark walls and was lighted by “perhaps three 25-watt bulbs,” and envied the “dorm girls,” who were able to change clothes, take a nap, or store books and school supplies during the day.
Thompson House had the same officers and committees as did the residence halls. House dues paid for “entertaining, flowers, Christmas presents to the maid and cafeteria helpers, and other expenses.” An affordable hot lunch was available each day, thanks to Miss Southworth of the Home Economics department and later, Mrs. Coonrad.
During Mrs. Warren’s seven years as director, the students started many activities which became traditions. There were father-daughter parties, suppers before informal dances, candy and cake sales, and mother-daughter teas. The day students thus had the same opportunities as the residents to practice social skills and hosting etiquette.
Mrs. Warren attributed the name change from Thompson House to Van Der Heyden House to Jane Smith ’40, who suggested the name better described the students who used the building. Most of the day students were from Troy and Troy’s original name was Van Der Heyden after the family whose farm became the city. President Meader and the Trustees approved the change, and a brass plaque was affixed to the front of the building. The day students became known as Van Der Heyden or VDH students.
After seven years, with a Sage degree in hand, Mrs. Warren left the College. Miss Margaret Lovell became the house director in 1941 and, as did Mrs. Warren, served the students in many capacities. In November 1944, Miss Lovell spearheaded a 10th anniversary celebration for Van Der Heyden House, which was organized by the VDH Class of 1945. VDH alumnae and Mrs. Warren were invited back and College administrators and VDH House President Helen Wilson ’45 spoke at the gathering, sharing the history of the house and the story of the day students.
The concept of a house for day students became a model for other colleges, and Van Der Heyden House was featured on a radio program, entitled “Open House of the Air.” The broadcast, “A Day at Van Der Heyden House”— written and produced by Hope Herzog, ’45—aired on WTRY.
The Class of 1949 gave as its gift to the college money to construct a courtyard and garden behind Van Der Heyden and Griswold Houses. Miss Lovell promptly requested two back windows to be changed to French doors for easier access to the new garden.
According to Miss Lovell, “every space in the house was used and loved. No words can ever describe what Van Der Heyden stood for in the lives of Russell Sage College girls.” She retired in 1957.
In the summer of 1962, Van Der Heyden House, along with Griswold House and the Jewish Community Center, was razed to make way for the new residence building named Slocum Hall. A lot has changed at Sage since President Meader established a headquarters for day students in 1934. Today, day students— known as commuters—make their campus home in newly refurbished digs in the short wing of McKinstry Hall. But the spirit of Van Der Heyden as a welcoming place for day students to cook a meal, study and socialize between classes or club meetings, team practice and play rehearsals, endures.
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