Another defunct college campus, cleft in two.

If I call this article my third installment in a trilogy on abandoned campuses, I guess that implies that I’m done with the subject for a while. And I am. But after exploring old campuses in small cities (or perhaps “big towns” is the better term) in Nebraska and South Dakota, it’s time to take a turn to a much more densely populated setting: an abandoned campus in metro New York City.

Upsala College, in the city of East Orange, New Jersey—the suburb immediately to the east of Newark—closed in 1995. Like Dana College, it owes its origins to Scandinavian Evangelical Lutherans: the Swedish-based Augustana Synod, instead of the Danish Lutherans that built Dana. Founded in 1893 in Brooklyn with the intention of providing a sound liberal arts education to Swedish-American immigrants, it quickly moved first to the Borough of Kenilworth, about eight miles to the southwest of Newark. Its enrollment grew steadily, accommodating foreign-born students of non-Swedish origin as well as African Americans.  Among New Jersey colleges, Upsala was the first to grant a four-year degree to a woman. Then, by the mid-1920s, the Trustees purchased a larger tract in East Orange, more ideally suited for a college that at that point taught over 300 students.

 

img_6545At that point in time, East Orange was surging in population, establishing itself as a middle and upper-middle reprieve from the high-density residential patterns of nearby Newark. In its new home, Upsala College continued to flourish through the mid-century, retaining a reputation as a highly selective liberal arts college with a diversifying student body—far less dependent on Swedish immigrants than its early days. The school enrolled nearly 1,400 at its peak in the 1960s.

East Orange and Upsala experienced a reversal of fortune in 1967, in the aftermath of the Newark Riots—one of the worst and highest profile of many riots that took place in the latter half of that decade. An already mounting exodus of middle-class from Newark suddenly burgeoned after the riots, with neighboring East Orange absorbing much of the Newark Diaspora. In the process, East Orange suffered as well. Middle-class whites fled the city, as blacks from the troubled streets of Newark escaped to what they no doubt hoped was a more welcoming, safer environment. Unfortunately, by the mid-1970s, East Orange’s reputation largely echoed that of Newark as a predominantly dangerous place. Not surprisingly, Upsala College suffered grievously as a result. Enrollment plunged, as its previous middle-class student demographic avoided a city with the reputation for crime. The college’s response was to change its academic mission to better synchronize with the demographics of its surrounding neighborhoods, which translated to a school that overwhelmingly attracted first-generation college students, largely either African-American or international students from the developing world. The shift failed to stem the decline, and by the late 1970s, enrollment had dropped by half.

In 1978, Wallace Wirths, a retired executive of the Westinghouse Corporation, made a stopgap philanthropic gesture: the donation of a 229-acre farm in the rural township of Wantage, close to the New York state border.  The leadership at Upsala wrung their hands over this generous offer, holding some graduate classes in makeshift barns on the site. Ultimately the trustees chose not to build at Wantage, instead remaining committed to location in East Orange, despite the ever-worsening socioeconomic conditions there.

Fortunes did not improve. Not only did Upsala’s enrollment drop below 500, but the academic standards shifted to adapt to a student body that came from much more disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s possible that prejudicial attitudes from former Upsala supporters may have exacerbated the situation, since most evidence suggested that the mostly white alumni and major donors impugned the board of trustees’ decision to shun the Wantage offer and to continue plunging resources into enrolling non-white students, many of whom the school accepted under lower qualifications. The students often were not academically prepared for the Upsala mission and failed to complete their schooling. The school began to bleed over $1 million annually.

A final effort in the early 1990s almost seemed to rescue the floundering school. Hiring a new president in 1992 spawned a major fundraising campaign that brought in $5 million and doubled the enrollment. The trustees approved expenditures on considerable improvements of the buildings and campus.  By 1994, some estimates suggest that Upsala may have boasted a greater number of students than ever before. The school focused its energies on additional training for students with particularly low SAT scores.  But the stimulus came at a lethal cost: the school’s formerly rigorous academic standards. And it radically outspent its capacity, even with the renewed enrollment. From what I can tell, a mid-1990s review of Upsala’s accreditation by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, coupled with the revelation of a $12.5 million debt, sealed the school’s fate. The Association withheld its decision until 200 seniors could graduate on May 14, 1995. Then it withdrew accreditation.  And the ninth president of Upsala—a different individual than the one who initiated the school’s brief revival just a few years earlier—oversaw the dissolution of the school’s assets. Auctions of the college’s prized artwork and historical documents helped raise about $900,000, a far cry from the eight-figure debts.

Thus, Upsala College closed, leaving a blighted space in a city that was already suffering its fair share of residential vacancy. And that’s where this article’s exploration begins.img_6544Approaching the campus from the south, it’s easy to tell that the adjacent Doddtown neighborhood was prestigious at one point in time. The trees are mature, the front yards generally seem well-maintained, the lawns are certainly much more expansive than one would typically expect to encounter in Newark. It looks like the sort of neighborhood one would expect adjacent to a college campus. But a premier neighborhood shouldn’t have homes like this:img_6546Obviously vacant and neglected. The fact is, Doddtown is probably among the strongest and most stable neighborhoods in East Orange, but it apparently wasn’t enough to attract many prospective students to Upsala during the rapid decline of the 1970s.

Upsala’s campus essentially stretched across about 40 acres, bisected by Prospect Street.img_6572The east side of the campus has fared well. The East Orange School District purchased the property almost immediately after the college’s closure for $4 million, then used the buildings and grounds to host a relocated East Orange Campus High School. One of the most prominent buildings is visible from Prospect Street.Upsala East CampusLooks good. And it’s clearly identifiable under its new role.img_6563But that’s a mighty tall fence out front.img_6562The powerful wrought-iron gate clearly hints at the crime problems the surrounding area continued to face. Incidentally, it’s a much taller fence than the one at the Yankton Federal Prison Camp that I referenced a few weeks ago. Two decades after Upsala’s closure, crime remains a serious concern in East Orange.

But it’s interesting nonetheless to see how this school, with an enrollment of approximately 1,600 students (about the same as Upsala at its peak), has adapted so much of the campus for different academic purposes, most of it clearly branded through the tall fence.img_6559A more contemporary building nearby looks like 1960s-era construction, probably from Upsala’s final days as a successful, financially solvent enterprise.  I suspect this might have been the student union.img_6558Either the School District demolished many of the other buildings from Upsala’s East Campus, or it retained what used to be the school’s athletic fields.img_6565Surprisingly, the back entrance, from Clinton Street, was completely open on a Sunday afternoon.img_6567img_6568img_6569The Ballard Gymnasium survives.img_6570img_6571The typical American public high school does not split its instructional efforts across multiple buildings, but this may help endow East Orange High School with a more college-prep physicality, creating a more manageable method of working with the large student body by splitting pedagogy into smaller structural units. (I’m really guessing here, because I can’t quite discern the advantage of this approach, other than it was available cheap real estate.) But it hasn’t necessarily spawned any revitalization in the surrounding neighborhood. Though some of the homes fronting the old east Upsala campus are in good repair, others are not, and still others appear completely abandoned. The homes in the photo below directly face the athletic fields that once belonged to Upsala’s grounds.img_6566

The portion of Upsala campus west of Prospect Street suffered a direr fate. After determining that its development plan would only involve the eastern campus, the School District sold the remaining western half of the campus to the City of East Orange for $1. Despite much effort marketing the property, it did not attract a buyer—at least not one that had the financials to pass all the tests through a two-year approval process.   According to the bankruptcy court trustee, each month it cost $50,000 to maintain, secure and service utilities to the Upsala property. But after the School District bought the eastern half, it was difficult to justify even the reduced expenses for upkeep on the remaining western half of the campus.   The City could not afford it. Before long, the buildings went neglected; they suffered vandalism and looting. One fell prey to arson. (Numerous online photo collections chronicle the west campus in an advanced state of blight.)  Finally, a decade later, the Alpert and Alpert Development Group agreed to redevelop the site, demolishing the buildings and replacing it with The Woodlands at Upsala, a mix of single-family houses and townhomes.

Today, the western half of Upsala College looks like this:img_6550Notice the street sign.Upsala Former West CampusUpsala Court. Most of the new homes feature three or four bedrooms, and it appears that, ten years after the redevelopment announcement, the majority of the neighborhood is complete.Upsala Former West Campusimg_6553img_6554img_6556The developers attempted to integrate the street grid with the surrounding area, so, despite the fact that the homes are obviously newer, the transition is reasonably subtle. Reasonably.img_6552The old Doddtown housing that faced the Upsala Campus offers a different streetscape, and the pedestrian connectivity isn’t always as consistent as it could be.img_6551img_6555And much of the time, the older housing is simply obvious because it’s in much poorer condition.img_6547img_6564

Considering the reputation that much of East Orange suffers these days, it may come as a bit of a surprise that The Woodlands at Upsala would offer market-rate housing. After all, the City has suffered decades of disinvestment. But the estimated asking price for single-family homes at the Upsala site is around $400,000—well above the national average for single-family detached housing, but only half the typical price for homes in the area. Less than two miles from Doddtown, affluence prevails, so a 2,000-square-foot home at $400K is quite a bargain.

Upsala College’s fate is hardly all that distinctive, and, in hindsight, it demonstrates the capacity for a non-profit institution’s persistent mismanagement to sew the seeds for its own demise. Plenty of schools have operated in declining neighborhoods and continued to thrive. Others, particularly the larger and most prestigious, have successfully galvanized a revitalization of their surrounding communities. Upsala lacked the resources to stimulate such a turnaround, and it seems to have wrung its hands over the costly prospect of a complete relocation. By adapting itself to East Orange’s decline, it declined in tandem. As is the case with Dana and Yankton, the most ardent alums will offer the best opportunity for extending Upsala’s legacy into the future. And, in hindsight, the school serves as an example of what not to do when faced with socioeconomic change at your front door.

Life after Upsala may serve as a lesson for future liberal arts colleges, which, I suspect, will face profound challenges in the decades ahead. The cohort born during the peak of the Great Recession (a time when the US birthrate was at an all-time low) will eventually reach college age, only to find that some schools couldn’t handle the dip in enrollment. Hopefully most colleges will anticipate this shift in demand and avoid the fate of Dana, Yankton or Upsala. Because, as Upsala proves, the odds of a single buyer finding a use for an entire college campus are slim.  It is almost inevitable that subsequent transactions will subdivide the grounds, leaving some parts in a mothballed limbo that will eventually face the wrecking ball.  Otherwise, the only prospect that might preserve the buildings is another institutional use. Or turn all the grassy areas into parking lots. We never can get enough parking.

 

Special acknowledgement to Chris Henry for pointing out to me the existence of the remaining buildings from the Upsala College campus.

13 thoughts on “Another defunct college campus, cleft in two.

  1. Rebecca B.

    Have you ever done a write up about now-closed water park hotels? I saw a couple on my way to Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago and there’s one on Indy’s north side… They all kinda look alike. I wonder if there is any connection as to why so many opened and have since closed, or at least the water slides.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Good observation, Rebecca. And thanks for the comment! To be honest, I haven’t done one on that topic, mainly because it hasn’t occurred to me. And I didn’t realize that so many had closed (including the one on Michigan Road), but now that you mention it… I suspect it was a fad whose time has passed, especially considering that 1) public pools often now have good water parks and 2) the “really good ones” that are open only in the summer meet the demand, even if they cost more. The hotel water parks might not have gotten enough cold-weather visitors (could they even operate in winter?) to justify the expense, and all that aquatic infrastructure might have seemed like an albatross. If hotel A chooses to depart or closes, that extra baggage probably doesn’t help the resale value and may scare off hotel B, driving down the overall value of the building. If it’s a good location, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gets demo’d for another, more “contemporary” hotel at the same site. But probably you know more about this than me! What are your thoughts?

      Reply
      1. Rebecca B.

        I also wonder if there are more year-round water parks now that didn’t exist then. For instance, there’s a chain of indoor water parks called great wolf lodge https://www.greatwolf.com/ There’s also a pretty new outdoor/seasonal water park in Carmel, the Monon Center, but I’m not sure when it opened compared to when the water park on Michigan Road closed. I had the same questions you have, plus I wondered if someone was selling the idea of these indoor water parks to hotels as a novel idea if they all popped up around the same time, but even if they were popular at first, I imagine they weren’t getting enough business or maybe they were just too expensive to operate (insurance, heat in the winter, etc.).

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I wasn’t familiar with Great Wolf. You might be right about market saturation on these sort of things, and that second-tier waterparks quickly fall out of favor because they don’t upgrade their facilities to meet the standard of the latest and greatest (which might easily just be 30 miles away). It’s amazing how many amusement parks have closed over the years, so why should water parks be any different? Didn’t Indy have a water park called Thunder Island that closed in the late 90s? I remember going there once. One other thing…I learned recently from a hotel manager that, even especially in the winter, many families “make a weekend of it” in mid-price hotels like Holiday Inn, bringing the kids to play in the indoor pool and watch movies and clown around…5 miles away from home. That was never something I did growing up, but I guess it’s popular. Probably explains why Holiday Inn typically has had a very pro-kid/pro-family image (which it seems to have tamped down on in more recent years).

          Reply
          1. Rebecca B.

            I also went to thunder island once … I think the slides were still there for a long time after it closed. I also vaguely remember passing there after it closed and wondering what happened. Now that you mention it, my family did the hotel weekend a couple times when I was a kid. I remember staying downtown once or twice. I think we would are a play at IRT or a performance of the symphony but maybe we did just hang out at the pool.

    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Chris. From what I can tell, the old gymnasium where they used to play is one of the few buildings that survived.

      Reply
  2. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    If you haven’t been, you’d love exploring Ft. Sheridan in Chicago’s north shore suburbs. Unlike Upsala, where half was demolished and redeveloped and the other half mostly repurposed, Ft. Sheridan had its wonderful historic buildings renovated or remodeled, with new homes interspersed among them. The new construction is quite blah and inappropriate with big driveways and front-facing garages, but it’s a very interesting example of institutional redevelopment because the existing architectural bones are just so good.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I have been to Ft. Sheridan, Jeffrey. But many years ago. My undergrad was just a few miles to the south. It’s probably changed quite a bit since then; my last visit was only a handful of years after its closure and de-commission.

      I didn’t really notice the “blah” new construction, but I wasn’t really attuned to that sort of thing back then. The whole image was striking to me, since I had never seen such a conversion before. I can’t help but wonder if the blah architecture might have had something to do with risk-averse developers at a time with BRAC-induced closures were still a novelty. Something tells me that the more recent repurposed bases have a more seamless integration, since, to a certain extent, they serve as a grandfathered new-wave Traditional Neighborhood Development. And, in some circles, that sort of thing is trendy.

      Military bases are an institutional use that seems better suited to repurposing than most college campuses. After all, they largely feature single-family detached housing juxtaposed with buildings well-suited for multi-family. They usually have plenty of parking. And the fact that they encroach on the surrounding neighborhood much LESS than a typical college may be to their advantage, since the surrounding residents don’t feel they have as much at stake. Campuses are trickier. They seem far more likely to remain tethered to institutional uses–whereas bases can effectively get “de-institutionalized” through redevelopment and adaptive re-use.

      Reply
  3. Anonymous

    On Long Island the state run psychiatric center in Central Islip was converted to NYIT and then abandoned. Maybe a use for these abandoned collages could be very large old age homes. A large medical complex that is mostly outpatient services could be another use.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I think you may be onto something with the old-age homes. In another decade we’re really going to see that “silver tsunami” with most, if not all, the Baby Boomers being Medicare beneficiaries. Granted, many of them will have incomes that allow them more appealing choices than converted classrooms. But maybe a smart developer will turn a campus into a large assisted living community, with various continuum-of-care support services. But the converted campus will have to be an appealing environment. Dana, Yankton and Upsala are not necessarily in environment that will appeal to many.

      Reply
      1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

        Assisted living communities have such specific and onerous building and fire code requirements that retrofitting an existing structure, even a hospital, could be an exercise requiring quite heroic design interventions. Not that it can’t be done, but while on the surface it looks easy, the reality is anything but. Even fully new construction is quite difficult to manage with different requirements for assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing, ambulatory care, common areas, fitness rooms, rehab, you name it. Of course, if you have an existing building already made up of fire rated wall assemblies due to its construction type (concrete block and poured concrete floors instead of drywall and wood/steel framing) then maybe you gain some advantages, but woe be you if the corridors are 1″ too narrow.

        Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          You no doubt know better than I do, Jeffrey. It’s not like a developer can seek a variance on a building code, even if an adaptive re-use would be feasible if only the corridors were 1″ wider. Perhaps the need for adaptive re-use, and the escalating demand for various types of assisted living communities (coupled with the simultaneous declining demand for liberal arts colleges) will spawn some sort of widespread overhaul of building codes. But it won’t come without significant pain, and, of course, as you noted, the standards can vary greatly depending on the type of assisted living: memory care, ambulatory care, rehab, etc. And have we yet made a compelling case that we NEED adaptive re-use? Sure, we (the beknighted “we”) want it, but…is there a latent demand for it?

          Reply

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