This article was first published in the summer 2009 issue of The College of Charleston Magazine.
It’s not on the National Register of Historic Places. It wasn’t built or owned by some prominent 19th-century Charlestonian. It doesn’t lay claim to any state-of-the-art student-focused attributes. In fact, it was never even intended for students. In many ways, it’s the College’s architectural and aesthetic black sheep. But for the thousands of students who’ve called it home, there’s no place quite like College Lodge.
As the unexpected darling of residence halls, the former Charleston Downtowner Motor Inn has been winning over its occupants and visitors alike ever since the College acquired it in 1975. Its residents – known as Lodgers – form something of a cult, expressing their love for their home-away-from-home on the walls of the 15+ Facebook groups dedicated to the Lodge.
One such group, The Lodgers, describes itself as “a very prestigious group. Only people who are fortunate enough for the Lodge to be their humble abode can join. Yes, I know you[’re] jealous, but hey we can’t all be Lodgers. Som[e]body has to live in those ‘other’ places. Long Live The Lodge.”
Another, College Lodge Groupies, lists some hassles of the College Lodge experience – erratic elevators, hot water deficiencies, construction noise – but admits: “We can’t help it. [The Lodge] just has that special degree of sketch that we all know and love!”
There’s just something about the Lodge. No one claims that it’s the newest or nicest residence hall on campus, but – ask any Lodger you meet – and they’ll all tell you it’s the best.
“College Lodge proves that you don’t have to live in a brand-new hall in order to be in a really cool place,” says Heather Farley ’05, who lived in Berry Hall her freshman year and served as an R.A. “all over the place,” including College Lodge (2001–2002), where she went on to be the residence hall director from January 2004 to May 2005. “I think what’s different about College Lodge is that it looks the most like a dorm, but it feels the most like a residence hall. It’s not just a place where students go to sleep, it’s a social place where they go to have fun and be with friends.”
And, let’s face it, that’s what most students are looking for. For Jon Moyer ’81, who lived in the Lodge from his freshman through junior years (1977–1980), perks like maid service, central location, free access to washers and dryers, in-house parking and even a cafeteria downstairs all paled in comparison to the friendship and camaraderie that he cultivated in College Lodge.
“It was just a fun place. If you were ever bored, you could always find someone to hang out with,” he recalls. “Your door was always open, and you’d just go from room to room. It gave you a great sense of community.”
And that’s exactly what seems to set it apart from other residence halls.
“RAs have this constant challenge to be community builders, but at College Lodge, I didn’t really have to do anything. There’s just this natural community that just sort of emerges,” says Farley. “It’s impossible not to be part of the community at College Lodge.”
It just goes with the territory. Year after year, this College Lodge kinship seems to develop organically – almost as if it’s an extension of the building itself.
“You instantaneously got great camaraderie there,” says Barry Cohn ’94, who lived in the Lodge from 1988 to 1990. “You knew everyone you saw, and you had this bond with them because you spent all your time together. Everyone was friends.”
And, with 144 residents, that’s a lot of friendship.
“We always say, ‘If you know one person from College Lodge, you know 40 people from College Lodge,’” laughs Farley. “Hanging out there is a great way to make friends. There’s no chance of being a loner at College Lodge.”
But that doesn’t mean that the Lodge is made up entirely of social butterflies.
“You have the biggest cast of characters at the Lodge,” says Cohn. “It was really eclectic, but everyone got along.”
“It’s the kind of place where you don’t have to fit in to fit in. The people are very real, very laidback,” agrees Farley. “I don’t know if it’s the kind of people it attracts, or if the structural elements of the building create this kind of family.”
In many ways, College Lodge could be considered a poor design for a residence hall – a place where students are expected primarily to study and sleep. Typical of the Downtowner Motor Inns that were popping up all across the country in the 1960s, the former hotel features long, outdoor hallways that – while probably not the best design for noise reduction – create an open layout that certainly lends itself to community building.
“The openness meant it was noisy,” says Moyer, “but that just added to the community atmosphere – you could always hear someone somewhere nearby.”
Despite this minor drawback, however, the building really does represent a unique example of the international style of the 1960s.
“It really was cutting edge for its time, and it was so different for Charleston,” says Michael Turner, the College’s director of housing facilities services, explaining that the Charleston Downtowner was built in 1963 and featured a kidney-shaped swimming pool (which was filled in when the College bought the property), the fine-dining Royal Garden Restaurant and the Royal Cellar for nighttime entertainment. “Many Downtowners have been demolished or irreversibly renovated. We believe we have the only one of its kind left.”
Known for their retro vibe and their emphasis on convenience and “come-as-you-are informality” for “modern people,” the Downtowner Motor Inns created for their patrons an environment not so different than from that of College Lodge.
Both encouraged tenants to take advantage of the building’s central location and to get out and see the sights.
“Just like on vacation, if you’re staying in the room, you’re wasting your time. The Lodge kind of forced you to be out there experiencing things,” says Cohn, although he admits to spending a lot of time entertaining fellow Lodgers in his room, where he could often be found showing off his drum skills. “I had a drum set in my room for a whole semester! Can you believe that? No one said anything. It was unbelievable. I still can’t believe I got away with that.”
Rightly or not, College Lodge has long been regarded as one of the more lenient, “anything goes” residence halls on campus. Maybe it’s the exposed nature of the building, the feeling that everything’s out in the open, that makes Lodgers feel that they’re getting away with something they shouldn’t be. Or maybe they are getting away with more – maybe the very fact that they are so exposed presumes that they’re on the best behavior and therefore causes more mischief to be overlooked. Regardless, the pretense of laidback lenience is a popular one among Lodgers.
But, oh, if those walls could talk! There are stories of traffic stopping dead at the sight of a student scaling the outside railing from the second to sixth floor, and of frantic onlookers assuming the worst when students threw a stuffed dummy over the side of the building. Yes, everyone has a story.
It’s an odd thing, though, to hear the similarities and even some repetition among the Lodgers’ memories. It’s almost as if nothing has changed in the 34 years that students have lived there. And, aside from the 2004 renovations that brought the Lodge back to the retro roots of its Downtowner days, nothing really has.
Sure, it’s still a little at odds with the rest of buildings on campus, but its fan base continues to grow. Every day, as Lodgers continue to visit each other’s rooms and meet one another on the balcony, more friendships are forged and more memories are made – and, every day, the College Lodge community gets stronger. And no, no one’s saying the Lodge is perfect. All they’re saying is it’s not such a bad place to call home.
As Farley puts it, “There’s just no place like College Lodge.”