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Humanities House at Fort Douglas:

Home to a Family
of Scholars

Jessica Guynn

    While new construction at the University of Utah promises opportunities to live and learn in state-of-the-art spaces, a few spots on campus still connect students to Salt Lake City’s roots. One of them is historic Fort Douglas. Nestled like a time-capsule between main campus and Research Park, the complex of Victorian Era buildings was constructed between 1874-1876. Many appear much as they did nearly 150 years ago when Fort Douglas housed the U.S. Army’s 14th Infantry; yet these carefully preserved structures aren’t simply collecting dust. Conversations filter across the former parade grounds. Laughter chimes from the gazebo that once hosted summer concerts by the Army’s brass band. An upstairs window opens. Someone lingers on a porch. This is still living space.

    The state of Utah donated Fort Douglas to the University of Utah after it served as a campus for athletes during the 2002 Winter Olympics. With support of donors, some of the structures were renovated and now welcome university students. Among them are the gabled homes of Officers’ Circle, where the O.C. Tanner Humanities House is home to 12 scholars annually. Affectionately known as the Hum House, this space offers a unique opportunity for undergraduates to live together in history. Former resident Ashley Jolin compares her experience to traditional student housing. “I chose to live at the Humanities House after I had lived in other dorm spaces on campus. The stairs creaked a bit and the living room furniture at the time was literally antique. It was an exchange from a modern living space to one with character, liveliness, and a sense of home.”

    The Hum House offers unique opportunities to live as a student family, according to Taunya Dressler, assistant dean for undergraduate affairs in the College of Humanities. Since 2010, Dressler has overseen the academic and cultural success of more than 3,000 undergraduates annually and she says there’s no environment quite like it.  “The house is meant to provide a home and a sense of belonging for the students,” explains Dressler, who has spent her career at the University of Utah seeking ways to make campus more inclusive and community oriented. Dressler’s efforts are especially appropriate to her role as a scholar of humanities, which traditionally value the human experience in all its aspects and varieties. She believes that the Hum House is a model for putting the discipline into practice. “The house’s purpose is to teach students how to live with one another by throwing together a group of 12 individuals with diverse lives and interests.”


    Residents share a common kitchen, study space, and a library donated by former Dean Robert Newman. The house appropriately “hums” with activity each day, from conversations around a communal table to housemates dividing cleaning duties. Students share abundant opportunity to engage in discussion, collaboration, and conflict resolution. “The best way to learn how to live together is by living together,” Dressler laughs.  She views student housing as another curriculum, and the Hum House as a great example of integrating experience into learning. Aaron Mendez, a former resident from 2016-2018 remembers lessons that he couldn’t get from books. “Living at the Humanities House provided me an opportunity for social development and community engagement with like-minded individuals of diverse backgrounds. I humbly remember the countless nights gathered, maybe studying with a movie in the background or cooking dinner, all while having deep or fun conversations and enjoying each other’s company.”

The best way to learn how to live together is by living together.

    The house is open to students with a declared major in the humanities, a 3.0 GPA and 24 hours credit at the University of Utah, though exceptions are made to these requirements at the discretion of the college. Students selected as residents receive a $1,400 annual scholarship toward the cost of housing. Other historic homes along Officers’ Circle host scholars from the College of Fine Arts, College of Science, the David Eccles School of Business, and others. The neighborhood comes together each fall to host a Halloween celebration called Officer’s Hollow for children from Salt Lake’s public schools. Former resident Danielle McLaughlin fondly recalls teaming up as a community. “I remember frantically running around with my housemates as we tried to finish decorating, set up games, and put on costumes before the kids came to our door. We had such a great time working on that project and giving back to the community.”

    “This generous gift will be a constant reminder for both students and faculty of the appreciation for our Chinese program from two of our former alums,” said Fusheng Wu, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah.

    Beyond the relationships formed with other students, the Hum House enhances access to university faculty. Students often receive complimentary tickets and VIP admission to campus events. As always, the goal is connection, to each other, the university, and the broader community. Residents of the Hum House enjoy these wider opportunities right in their living room at monthly “FaculTeas” where favorite professors visit for tea and conversation. “The monthly tea talks with our chosen professors were perhaps my favorite of all,” remembers former resident Charlotte Conerly. “They allowed us to delve into humanities subjects with fellow intellectually curious individuals and expand our learning beyond the classroom.”

    The value of this unique environment became particularly clear during the coronavirus pandemic when the Hum House nearly shut down completely. In the 2020-21 school year, there were only four residents who quarantined in their rooms as they studied virtually. This year the community has carefully reemerged with an even greater appreciation for the privilege of human connection. Dressler emphasizes that in an era where “remote” is the new normal, the Hum House and its family of scholars demonstrate the power of shared experience. “I’m still in touch with alums from 12 years ago,” she emphasizes.

    The college is participating in ongoing conversations with university leadership on how to replicate the Hum House’s success around campus. For now, Dressler directs traffic as her husband snaps photos of this year’s residents. They’ve gathered on the porch surrounding Stuart Culver, current dean of the College of Humanities. He’s come to toast the students at their annual faculty mocktail reception. Dressler smiles as the group strikes a pose. “There’s so much opportunity that we still haven’t explored.” The students break into conversation on the broad wooden porch overlooking the former parade grounds, now greenspace that slopes toward campus, seeming to welcome these scholars and the lessons gleaned from connecting with and in this historic space.

Last Updated: 8/8/22