At first, the rattling chandelier in Apartment C of the Hillsdale House dragged students from their rooms, wondering grouchily if this was an earthquake or the guys in Apartment D above. It was the latter: D’s residents tumbled apologetically down the steps to explain that junior Christian Yiu had just been doing his jumping jacks, and the group laughed off its annoyance and piled in doorways to chat, soon joined by the girls in Apartment B. They forgot about homework and talked for a long while.
Annoying yet heartwarming, and often a result of the quirks of a house (like thin floorboards) and the people who live in it, moments like these define a home. Students in the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program didn’t come to D.C. to be at home, not even at the Hillsdale House: They came for new experiences, for internships, for people they hadn’t met before.
But with its odd architecture, incredible location, and unpredictable occupants, the Hillsdale House plays a defining role in a WHIP student’s experience.
Donated to the college not long before Hillsdale’s Alan P. Kirby Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Statesmanship opened in 2010, the 3,579-square-foot, three-story Hillsdale House is at full capacity with the 17 students who live there this spring. Built in 1900, it’s a tall house, with a turret, in a picturesque Capitol Hill neighborhood of brightly-colored townhomes. Redfin, a real-estate website, estimates the Hillsdale House’s worth at almost $2 million.
A corner house, the four-apartment building welcomes daylight and street sounds, and it sprawls, full of sharp turns and steep staircases. Apartment B is two stories high, graced with a princess staircase. Apartment C is sandwiched between Apartment A, below, and D, above. (Between those three, there is a kind of a cold war fought with A’s late-night music, C’s early-morning thonking heels, and D’s heavy footsteps and jumping jacks.)
After acquiring the house, the college renovated it significantly, Matt Morrell, operations manager at the Kirby Center, said. Hillsdale repainted the inside, installed tile flooring and air-conditioning units, and made other cosmetic changes. Every season (the house is used for Hillsdale students in the summer, too), the college has a few weeks to retouch it, keeping the walls their pleasant blue, the bathrooms clean, and the kitchen appliances functioning. Because the house is in a historic district, though, it can’t change the exterior, Morrell said.
But the college can repaint it. One morning this spring, a little commotion stirred among the WHIP occupants when painters started propping ladders against the outside walls, which are well-endowed with large windows. The disruption paid off: Yellow-green when students moved in in January, the exterior is now a pleasant gray with white trim.
Ceilings in the house are high, and everything hangs on the walls in proportion to them. So rather than noticing the high ceilings, you notice that you mostly see your forehead in the bathroom mirror, or you can’t reach the kitchen cabinets without a stepladder. It’s mystifying (until you find out, as Morrell said, that this was common for Victorian-era city rowhomes), and rather humbling.
For proximity to famous people and places, the house could hardly be in a better place. At least one U.S. senator lives around the block; congressmen frequent the restaurants down the street. A 20-minute morning jog easily winds past the Supreme Court and Capitol grounds to the National Mall, or down the bowery streets of Capitol Hill neighborhoods and Eastern Market. On a rainy Saturday, there are too many museums within walking distance to choose from.
You can get anywhere in the world from here without a car: A short walk from the house to Union Station will connect you with a train to any of three international airports.
For all the excitement its location brings, the Hillsdale House wouldn’t be much without its inhabitants.
The size of WHIP groups varies between semesters; at 21, this spring’s group is the second-largest ever, said Program Associate Bert Hasler ’15. Four students board in housing owned by the Heritage Foundation down the street.
Sometimes, living with so many people is tough –– tougher than in a dorm, because the floors are thin and the rooms are on top of each other. Boys don’t know how to tread lightly up the steps. The later it gets, the louder girls laugh. There are never quite enough chairs or mugs or WiFi bandwidth to go around. They have mice, collectively named Gus Gus, and they blame each other for them. (Noting that keeping up with everyone’s level of cleanliness is one of the more difficult aspects of maintaining the house, Morrell does send cleaners in to supplement students’ housekeeping habits).
But overall, the crowd brings good cheer. On a recent snow day (they exist down here in the snow-wary mid-Atlantic), everyone ate brunch together around Apartment D’s kitchen table, then regathered for a pizza dinner that evening. On St. Patrick’s Day, the group congregated for corned beef and soda bread. When junior WHIP student Ryan Murphy won election to class president, they crowded into Apartment C late that night to celebrate with a proper toast, in their pajamas.
Apartments have their own traditions, too. C’s residents take turns cooking and eat Sunday dinners together. The guys in D watch Korean dramas and play a board game called Diplomacy.
“I’ve played more board games since coming here than I’ve ever played in my life,” Yiu marveled.
And there’s the group chat, at first an awkward formality reserved for sincere questions about mandatory events, but which quickly loosened into a source of genuine bonding. WHIP students share mice advice, e.g., glue traps catch more human toes than rodents. They commiserate over homework assignments. They trade kitchen supplies and organize Uber rides and offer up the leftover cheese from last night’s lecture at the Kirby Center (they consume a lot of cheese and peanut butter, which maybe explains the mice more than anything).
Though WHIP students scatter across the city to their internships every day, there’s an identity and even a security in the group at the house. Much is unfamiliar and challenging: full-time internships, evening classes, the Metro system. The city demands professional performance, their most confident selves, and that’s good.
But home is where you can be yourself at your worst and your best, laughing over funny moments and crying over hard ones (there are lots of both when you’re young in an adult world). It’s humbling and encouraging, keeping us down to earth and reminding us that we’re not defined by the work they do each day.
That’s why the Hillsdale House such a crucial part of WHIP.
Lugging my bags around the corner of the Hillsdale House as I returned from Easter break with family, it occurred to me that this house was a warm place to come back to, a good transition before work the next morning. A couple guys waved welcome back and offered to help with bags. Girlfriends in Apartment B asked all about the weekend. My roommates were genuinely glad to all be back together again. And because we’re in D.C., one of them even handed out elegant wooden eggs from the White House Easter Egg Roll.
In the end, what makes the Hillsdale House good and memorable isn’t so different from what students love about the campus they left for a semester: It’s the people.