Student Union Building
875 Perimeter Drive MS 4264
Moscow, ID 83844-4264
1031 N. Academic Way,
Coeur d'Alene, ID 83814
Their House is Their Home
Written by Steve Hanna
The lounge of the Ethel K. Steel House is abuzz with energy. Ten girls are gathered together talking about how this Christmas they want to cut down a tree and put it in the corner by the fireplace. They form a semi-circle, seated on chairs and couches, and friendship centers on one commonality. They live like no one else on the Idaho campus, and they’ve got the hard work, discipline, and self-sufficiency to show for it.
For the last three years, this small group of women has worked to revive the Steel House tradition that began in 1953. In spring 2006, the University investigated the original Steel House facility and deemed it unsafe for students to occupy, said Dean of Student Affairs Bruce Pitman, who oversaw the changes. “The students were asking, are there ways to keep Steel House going?”
That night, the women of Steel were devastated to learn that they would have to leave the house next year. “A lot of girls were interested in Steel because it was affordable, and a lot of girls thought they wouldn’t be able to come back to the University,” said Sara Cooke, house president that year. “Steel House has a history of getting first-generation college students to the University.”
Steel House residents currently pay little more than $5,000 per academic year for room and board, compared to residence hall costs varying from $5,464 to $6,077 per year and sorority dues of over $5,500 per year. “I think providing low-cost housing is something that we should do, if at all possible,” said Pitman.
They made it possible. Beginning in early 2007, Pitman began meeting with Del Hungerford ’83, Steel House alumna, about ways to keep the house on campus. That led to discussions with the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity that was vacating a house, and paved the way for Steel House to relocate to the fraternity house on Idaho Avenue, Hungerford said.
“It was all student led,” Hungerford recalls of the transition. Former president Cooke and a small group of five other students worked closely with Pitman and Hungerford to re-establish Steel. They handled recruitment, and successfully recruited 21 girls to live in the house this year, said Cooke.
The girls also took other matters into their own hands. When there wasn’t anywhere else to store the old furniture from vacated Steel House, they got creative. “We had Steel House stuff all over our apartment, lining our walls, tables lining our living room, in our rooms, in our closets, under our beds … that’s how bad we wanted Steel House back,” said Rayla Cooke, house member.
This level of involvement in the reestablishment process is the same sort of involvement that the students have on a day-to-day basis. Students literally “run the house” said Hungerford, Steel House Alumni Board president. “They do all of the work in the house. They clean the house. They do their own repairs. They buy their own groceries. They buy their own cleaning supplies. In other places, people do these things for them, but here they do these things themselves.”
It’s that sort of hardy, can-do attitude that defines the character of Steel House. Even the house mascot, Rosy the Riveter, is a famous cultural icon for her work ethic during World War II, when many women worked in steel factories and other industries.
Steel House continues its 56-year history of empowerment, and this year alone, their endowment funded more than $7,000 in scholarships for girls at the house, said Hungerford. In addition to funding their own endowment and protecting the long-term interests of the house, the girls also write a new constitution each year that the members sign and abide by, said Cooke.
“They have enough stability to begin looking to the future,” said Pittman, echoing the sentiment at Steel House. They are currently seeking funds and support to seek or build a permanent house, said Hungerford.
This fall, University administrators approved a new policy that requires all freshmen to live on campus next year, and that sets the stage for Steel to play a greater role in University life. And the hybrid nature of Steel will only be a good thing, Cooke said, when many women aren’t sure if they want to be in a sorority or residence hall. Steel House provides a low-cost hybrid style that’s “like living in a cul-de-sac with all the neighborhood kids,” said resident Rayla Cooke.
To make it happen, Hungerford and the alumni team are seeking help with architectural planning, grant writing and building construction. “We are a charitable 501(c)3 organization under low-income housing, and all donations are one-hundred percent tax deductible.” Volunteers don’t need to be previously affiliated with Steel, she added.
For now, the women of Steel are happy just to sit by the fireplace and contemplate the placement of the Christmas tree. Cooke’s eyes light up as they talk, and the other girls giggle. “I’m so glad I helped bring Steel House back.”