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Helen’s Housing

When you walk in through the back door of the Helen Newberry Dormitory Residence Hall, you are instantly confronted by a portrait of the woman herself. It is painted in traditional Victorian style with muted colors and muddy strokes. Her eyes follow you up the stairs. Even when you think you’ve left her behind, her piercing gaze still bores into your back.

120 residents all nervously joked that Helen haunted the building. Every creak of the pipes, every unexplained slammed door, every unclaimed footstep was just Helen. 

It was a joke until all the hand dryers in the second-floor bathroom were triggered by absolutely nothing in the empty hours of the morning. A joke until the hinges of the doors snapped and the radiators seemed to fill the entire building with dense heat — heat so thick that sleeping and studying were near impossible.

There is a certain level of fear a person can reach until you can no longer feel it at all. You laugh at it, despite knowing it is horrifying. That was the way I felt during the six months I lived in that building. And it is a feeling that still lingers, the same dread washing over me every time I walk past it.

Helen’s Price Tag

From the outside, Newberry looks innocent, cute even. A sky-blue painted exterior is accented by red brick and a gorgeous little courtyard. But don’t think about the crows that fill the trees of the courtyard — they certainly will never cause you to wake up in a cold sweat as they circle the building before sunrise.

When you enter, more of the same follows: old woven rugs, original detailing, paintings that make the whole place feel antiquated. At first, it can be thought of as charming, and you don’t even think about how much you’re spending to live there. 

On-campus housing is, in general, scarily expensive. Most students who have spent time in a dorm can confirm that actually renting an apartment or house off-campus ends up being significantly less expensive. This was something I had always been quite skeptical of, so I decided to break it down — an activity that invoked true horror. 

I lived in Newberry during the 2019-2020 school year. There were many, many issues with on-campus student housing that came with the pandemic, but let’s pretend for a moment that it was a normal year. Looking back through my personal financial aid documents, the University of Michigan estimated that “housing,” which includes either on-campus or off-campus, is around $11,996. I ended up paying around $11,500 under the Type 4 Room Rate from two years ago. 

The prices and estimates have changed since then, but when focusing on those numbers, it’s important to note dorms are not assigned on 12-month terms. You move in at the end of August and are out by the start of May. I gave the term 10 months, to be generous. This is approximately $1,150 per month, a number far higher than the rent I paid with a roommate in a high-rise apartment during the 2020-2021 school year and in the 400-sq. foot studio apartment in Kerrytown where I currently live.

But what’s even more frightening is that the price I paid for a double in Newberry is the same that I would have paid for a double in South Quad Residence Hall. The same price but without a dining hall, or nice study space, or dryers that worked consistently or centralized heating. Instead, it is filled with eerie portraits, doors that sway by themselves and swarms of blackbirds.

Helen’s Pipes

I had not heard a single person say the word “asbestos” since the days when mesothelioma commercials circulated any and every television channel back in the early 2000s. As a child, I didn’t know what any of those words meant. All I knew was that this mysterious thing was dangerous. Something you did not touch. Something I didn’t think I would now have to experience.

Imagine the surprise of a new college student being confronted with an asbestos-ridden reality. One who has been living in a dorm for two weeks and finally decided to make her way to the study space on the first floor, only to find bright yellow tape stuck to the exposed pipes. The pipes were not wrapped, rather a 4 inch by 4 inch piece of tape was stuck on one side, hidden from plain view. In small bold letters it read, “Do not touch. Asbestos.”

It would be more dangerous to replace the pipes, the Housing Director would say when you and your roommates expressed concern. Plus, the University would be out of a few hundred student spaces for a year. Can’t have that.

I tried not to think about it. I brushed it off, joking about it every time someone else I knew complained about their dorm.

“At least you don’t have asbestos in your pipes!” I’d say with a smile on my face. I’d watch horror cross everyone else’s. “As long as we don’t touch it, it’s probably fine.”

I suppose we’ll see if any of us are entitled to financial compensation in 20 or so years. 

Helen’s Radiators

For around five years, I worked in a Victorian Bed and Breakfast, causing a close familiarity with radiators. Still, I was surprised that a college dorm in Michigan would not have centralized heat. Just another concerning instance I brushed off too quickly. I convinced myself it was cute and quirky — no other dorms on campus had this kind of charm, no other dorms felt like they’d come straight out of a different century. The archaic radiators kept the building nice and toasty so long as you remembered to turn it off before you left for a weekend.

And while radiators get hot and certainly can burn you, they should not be so hot that brushing up against them threatens hospital trips. They should not be so hot that they give you second-degree burns. They should not be so hot that when you flick water off your hands, the droplets sizzle and smoke when they touch it.

“It certainly seems like that dorm has a lot of health hazards,” I’d hear from friends. 

I didn’t think of it that way, though. Not at the time. They were inconveniences, yes. They made daily life a little more risky, sure. But they couldn’t be hazards. Surely a university like this one — ranked #1 in public education — wouldn’t possibly put its students in danger.

Helen’s Elevators

There is a certain quality to Helen’s elevators that I’ve always found rather unnerving. Maybe it’s from iconic elevator moments in movies like “Final Destination” or “Silence of the Lambs” that give elevators their heart-pounding quality. Maybe it’s from the knowledge that they could crash several floors and effectively crush you. Maybe it’s the idea of being trapped in a confined space if it stops moving. Whatever it is, the Newberry elevator could come straight out of a horror film.

As someone with several health conditions that significantly impact my energy levels, I take a lot of elevators. If I’m ever going up more than two flights of stairs, I’ll usually opt to conserve my energy for more important things — like actually being able to concentrate during a class. This was why when my room in Newberry was on the second floor and the laundry room was in the basement, I decided to take the elevator.

That was my first mistake.

It grinds and lurches. It moves slowly then quickly. It stops and starts in fits. Sometimes the doors do not open. I’ve been in elevators all over campus, and I could describe how the “ding” from the Angell Hall elevator activates some sort of fear response in me, or how Weiser Hall has the nicest lighting for elevator selfies or how the Tisch Hall elevator may very well be the slowest on campus. But I can say for certain that Newberry houses the most frightening one.

What’s scary, though, isn’t the fact that people have gotten trapped in it on several occasions. It’s scary because it contributes to a trend of accessibility issues in dorms and off-campus housing throughout Ann Arbor. 

Known for many historical homes and structures, Ann Arbor has a history of being quite inaccessible. My own apartment — a historical house in Kerrytown — has no disability-friendly entrances, with steps at both the front and back entrances. Many buildings on the U-M campus have inconvenient and difficult-to-find accessible entrances. And while this isn’t something I personally struggle with, there are plenty of students on campus who have to find a way to deal with it.

By the end of the first month in Newberry, all of us had effectively decided to take the stairs unless absolutely necessary.

Helen’s Legacy 

Suppose for a minute that it is 1963 and you have just watched the newest Hitchcock film, “The Birds.” You are colored in sepia and static buzzes around you. Suppose you are heading back to your dorm, only to be greeted by trees filled with massive blackbirds. You keep your shoulders hunched against them, hoping to avoid a gruesome bird murder. You make it inside the dorm building, falsely assuming you are now safe.

Only now you must face Helen. Her portrait. Her ever-looming presence. Perhaps even her howls in the basement hallways.

But she is not the only terror you confront.

Challenges with campus housing are not new. Almost every other student I’ve talked to has had some horror story about their dorms ready to tell at a moment’s notice. The first college I attended — a small liberal arts college in Boston — had mice in the dorms.

Unlike the possibly haunted halls and the almost certainly cursed elevator, these horrors can’t be explained away. We could laugh at the stifling heat, but we couldn’t ignore the burns. We could brush off the asbestos in the pipes, but we couldn’t deny that it was there. The realities were horrifying. So maybe we needed the ghostly idea of Helen Newberry to distract us every once and a while.

Statement Columnist Mackenzie Hubbard can be reached at mdhubb@umich.edu.