‘A bittersweet moment’: Past residents reflect on Mayflower Hall after the UI announces plans to close the dorm

Some former students recall memories from Mayflower after the university announced its plans to sell the dorm.
‘A bittersweet moment’: Past residents reflect on Mayflower Hall after the UI announces plans to close the dorm

The University of Iowa announced in February that it is aiming to sell Mayflower Residence Hall by spring 2024, leaving members of the university community with mixed feelings about the news as potential buyers tour the building.

“Sixteen years almost together and 10 years of marriage. So you think about that, that shows the kind of lasting relationships that can come from being in college and being in a great environment like Mayflower,” UI alumni Beth Tunis said when looking back on her time at Mayflower.

The broker on the sale said Mayflower could be sold by next year, potentially closing off the building that students have occupied since the 1970s.

Some people interviewed by The Daily Iowan recognized Mayflower as the least desired dorm on campus. Others reacted with sadness, suggesting the Mayflower was an iconic entry point into Iowa City and should be maintained for future generations of UI students.

History of Mayflower Residence Hall

Construction on Mayflower as a privately owned building began in 1965, according to a DI article from that year. The building was originally advertised as a “luxury” dorm, costing $3 million to construct. Today, the building would have cost over $29 million to build.

The building offered multiple amenities when it began advertising available rentals in early September of 1966, including:

  • Heated indoor pool
  • Sauna rooms
  • Shower, bath, and kitchen in each suite
  • Private men’s and women’s lounges
  • Weight training room
  • Cafeteria in the building

At the time of the residence hall’s construction, buildings across the U.S. were being constructed quickly as more students attended colleges following World War II, said Rod Lehnertz, UI senior vice president of finance and operations and university architect.

Considered a modern prototype of “international style” architecture, the building followed a machine aesthetic, including straight lines and punched windows that are sunken into the buildings, Lehnertz said.

“… You can see evidence on our campus, and other campuses as well in the 1950s and into the ‘60s, [of]  a certain sort of style that matched both the industry of architecture and architectural design trends, but also this need that we had to put things up really quickly,” he said.

Mayflower operated as a private apartment building for over a decade after it officially opened around 1968, having spaces for non-student tenants, including “faculty and married student suites,” according to a 1966 edition of the DI.

In 1979, however, the UI began using the Mayflower Apartments specifically for student housing. According to a 2012 article by Iowa Now, the university began leasing part of the apartment building for students after overcrowding at other residence halls became an issue.

Ultimately, the university bought the building entirely in 1983 for $6.5 million, according to the minutes of the Feb. 17, 1983 state Board of Regents meeting. Mayflower has always had ties to the UI, Lehnertz said.

RELATED: Mayflower Hall and its future — Inside the $45 million price

Since then, Mayflower Residence Hall has remained in operation for the UI, undergoing multiple renovations to fit student needs. While there is no longer an indoor pool or cafeteria, the residence hall has a gym, multipurpose rooms, a game/activity room, and a computer lab.

Additionally, the rooms still have personal bathrooms and kitchens, which are not featured in other dorms on campus.

UI decides to sell, build new dorm

The Feb. 14 decision to close Mayflower soon after the spring of 2024 semester came after an internal review published this year. The review shows that Mayflower is the last chosen and first transferred from the residence hall for first-year students.

The low desire of students to live in Mayflower likely stems from multiple different causes, like the distance from campus, the dining halls, and classes, Lehnertz said. Mayflower is located a little over a mile away from campus and a 20-minute walk from downtown Iowa City.

Mayflower can hold 1,032 students and features suite-style rooms, meaning students share a kitchen and bathroom with their roommates and suitemates.

He added that community building between residents and their peers can be more difficult to achieve at Mayflower as it is further away from the other residence halls and the heart of Iowa City. Since rooms in Mayflower include a bathroom and kitchen, he said students have fewer reasons to leave their rooms.

“When we don’t have full capacity on campus, [Mayflower is] the one that has vacancy, which adds to a bit more feeling of isolation there,” Lehnertz said. “It lacks some of the socializing spaces on each floor that allow members of each floor to get to know each other, to become part of a community.”

According to data shared with the DI, Mayflower’s fall 2022 occupancy was 79.1 percent. Von Stange, UI assistant vice-president for Student Life and senior director of University Housing and Dining, wrote in an email to the DI that this was caused by the reopening of Parklawn Residence Hall.

“In fall 2022 we had lower occupancy in Mayflower. Anticipating a large first year class with potentially more students than beds, we reopened Parklawn Hall,” Stange wrote. “Had we not done that, those students would have lived in Mayflower, putting Mayflower at 91 percent occupancy.”

The UI’s study also showed that students who live at Mayflower have lower grade point averages. Overall, Lehnertz said the success of all UI students, but especially first-year students, is a top priority for the university.

“The retention of first-year students and the success of first-year students is top of our list, top on President [Barbara] Wilson’s list, and will be, should be always, and so when there’s a situation where we can do better by that, we should always try to,” he said.

According to the regents Fall 2022 Graduation and Retention Report, 89 percent of UI undergraduates return for a second year at the university compared to 83 percent of University of Northern Iowa undergraduates and 86 percent of Iowa State University undergraduates.

This effort to increase student success has led the UI to plan the construction of a new residence hall to house students when Mayflower eventually closes. If Mayflower closed today, the university would still have enough beds in other dorms to house all first-year students, Lehnertz said.

Lehnertz said the new dorm will be reserved for returning students.

“We don't have any on our campus as far as the main campus. They're all what I'd refer to as generally double-loaded corridors, two roommates to a room, those kinds of things,” Lehnertz said, referring to dorms that have a suite style with an attached kitchen and bathroom.

Sara Kirkley and her husband at Mayflower and today. Photo illustration by Natalie Dunlap.
Mayflower fosters community

While the UI’s study shows that Mayflower is the least requested dorm by first-year students, some alumni say their best relationships, friendships, and memories were created in the hall.

Sam Stewart, a UI alumni who lived in Mayflower between 2010-12, said he was initially concerned about his assignment to the dorm after hearing about its bad reputation based on the distance from campus. However, he found the experience to be great.

Living in Mayflower gave Stewart a commonality when meeting new people on campus, he said.

“I made a lot of good friends, and then you meet people on your floor, or the floors above and below you, in your classes …  it may feel like you have this weird shared experience, because oh yeah, we all deal with this, but everyone also seemed to like it,” he said.

The people that live there kind of banded together — we’re on a desert island, and it’s just us, so might as well get along with each other.”

— Tori Bauer

Tori Bauer, a Mayflower resident from 2019-21, echoed Stewart’s statements, noting that the residence hall’s reputation helps bring the residents together.

“The people that live there kind of banded together, you know, kind of we’re on a desert island, and it’s just us, so might as well get along with each other,” Bauer said.

Living in Mayflower during COVID-19 made her experience with the pandemic a bit more bearable because she had her own kitchen and bathroom, she said.

“It made me feel a little bit safer during COVID that I would be able to quarantine without risking my food or anything like that,” she said.

Additionally, Bauer said she was still able to connect with her fellow residents during the pandemic.

“Even despite COVID, the [residence assistants] that I had were really good about … facilitating that sense of community,” Bauer said.

For 2011-12 residents Molly Torchia and Kailan Harms, Mayflower is the site where their friendship began.

Torchia and Harms were randomly matched as roommates at the residence hall. They quickly became good friends and say they have remained close since.

With the amenities that Mayflower offers to the people living there, Torchia said it has benefits that other dorms do not.

“I think even though now we have these newer, nicer dorms, I think it does add character and I think because it’s so large you always see new people and are able to meet new people,” Torchia said.

With Mayflower being the “starting point” of her and Harms’s friendship, Torchia said she is sad to see the building up for sale.

“I drove by Mayflower yesterday and there were probably 50 students waiting for the bus, and it’s this bittersweet moment because it’s so exciting that they’re in Mayflower because we lived there, but then to know that this could be the last set of students that live there,” Torchia said. “It’s a bittersweet, bittersweet moment.”

Some people even met their lifelong partners at Mayflower. Beth Tunis, a Mayflower resident assistant from 2007-08, said she met her future husband at the dorm. She also was able to foster a community for international students who resided in the dorm.

“Sixteen years almost together and 10 years of marriage. So you think about that, that shows the kind of lasting relationships that can come from being in college and being in a great environment like Mayflower,” Tunis said.

Sara Kirkley and Brandon Kirkley also started their relationship at Mayflower, meeting when they both worked as resident assistants in the building between 2002-03.

The proximity of their job and the distance from campus allowed the Kirkleys to get to know each other well, as well as other people in the building, Brandon Kirkley said.

“My best man in our wedding was one of my suitemates at Mayflower and then a couple of Sara’s bridesmaids and her personal attendant were also roommates and suitemates and friends from Mayflower, so these were people that we obviously kept in touch with throughout our 20s, and we’re still really close friends with several of them,” he said.

Sara Kirkley said while she is saddened by the sale, she hopes it will help the Iowa City and UI community.

“It’s really sad to see a part of your history change in such a big way,” Sara Kirkley said. “ … I hope they do something that benefits the university.”

Photo courtesy of Molly Torchia.
‘It’s an open period’: Mayflower’s future unclear

Multiple Iowa City groups are currently working on the sale of Mayflower Hall, including local real estate agencies, Lehnertz said. The university is still in the early process of selling the building, he said.

“It’s an open period where questions, tours, other things can happen and then they can put together plans or ideas or proposals for us,” Lehnertz said. “What we’re working on right now is not a specific hard date for finishing that, but a continued assessment by the real estate agent with us.”

The university will assess bids and returns as they are received, he said. Currently, Mayflower is listed for $45 million on Realtor.com and is being brokered by Iowa City real estate broker Jeff Edberg of Lepic-Kroeger Realtors.

Edberg told the DI in August that he has received positive responses from local and national developers about Mayflower, indicating there is strong interest in the property. He added that he gave a tour of the building on Aug. 22.

Mayflower could serve multiple functions for the eventual new owner, including housing for students, workforce housing, low-income housing, and elder housing. Edberg said he believes the best option would be to keep it as housing for UI students, which is what many of the interested parties are considering.

“They’re mostly looking at it as a continuation of what it is as a dorm for students, largely unchanged from the current operation except that you’d have to go from nine-month terms to one-year terms, that your rent wouldn’t include tuition, meal plans, and all of the university services,” Edberg said.

They’re mostly looking at it as a continuation of what it is as a dorm for students, largely unchanged from the current operation except that you’d have to go from nine-month terms to one-year terms, that your rent wouldn’t include tuition, meal plans, and all of the university services.”

— Jeff Edberg

Some of the interested parties at one point attended the UI and lived in Mayflower, so “it’s like coming home for them,” he said. Based on the amount of interest, Edberg said he believes the building could be sold by late 2024.

“We have enough interest and that’s been discussed and in real estate, you don’t know until you know. But it is a good assumption that we’ll sell it in the near term and we’ll close around after two more semesters,” he said.

The $45 million price tag came from Edberg’s analysis of similar properties’ price points, construction costs, and a capitalization cost method that assumes Mayflower would generate income like an apartment building or commercial property.

Additionally, Edberg worked with the UI and the state to see how Mayflower’s reputation and significance in Iowa City could impact the price.

“When you come off the freeway, this is the gateway to Iowa City,” Edberg said in a July interview with the DI. “It just fills your windshield. And so, you’re seeing the Mayflower all the way down the street coming south and so you want this to be a landmark, and that’ll weigh into it too.”

He added in the August interview that the UI is a steward of the state’s money, which is taxpayer money, so a fair price and the use of the building were important to consider.

“ … it’s our [taxpayer] money they’re spending because it’s state money so they’re very mindful of making good fiscal decisions on that and in fact, they are, but they’re a good seller to work with because they see the big picture,” Edberg said.

This is not the first time universities have sold residence halls. Some schools, according to The New York Times, said they opted to sell unused or run-down dorms during the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to make money, with the buildings being turned into apartment complexes.

Ultimately, the UI students and community will continue to be an important deciding factor as the university begins looking at the sale more seriously, Edberg said.

Parker Jones and Hannah Janson contributed to this report.

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