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'Ashdown House' documentary wins award

Originally called Graduate House, the dorm was eventually named for Avery Ashdown, housemaster from 1933 to 1962.
Originally called Graduate House, the dorm was eventually named for Avery Ashdown, housemaster from 1933 to 1962.

Two graduate students in the School of Architecture and Planning have won a prize for best history documentary at the 2006 CampusMovieFest, the world's largest student film festival, for a video documenting the history of MIT's Ashdown House.

Ben Wood, a candidate for the master of science in visual studies in the Department of Architecture, and Luciana Pereira, a visiting student from Brazil in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, worked on the project nights and weekends over a period of five months, purely as a labor of love, they said.

"Ashdown House: The Home Where Science and Technology Live" traces the life of the dorm from November 1937, when MIT acquired the Riverbank Court Hotel as a residence for graduate students. For nearly seven decades, students from all around the world lived there, with many going on to play important roles in shaping the history of the 20th century.

The movie features interviews with a number of those distinguished alums, including Jay Forrester, inventor of RAM, recalling the invention of the first digital computer; 1990 Nobel laureate in chemistry Elias Corey Jr., recalling Winston Churchill's address to the student body in 1948; and, in what must be one of the great interview coups of all time, Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart, the first lunar module pilot, reminiscing from somewhere in outer space about cleaning toilets to help pay his tuition.

Corey went so far as to say, "I would have given my eyeteeth to remain at the Institute for the rest of my life; to me that was as close to heaven as a human being can get." Corey is now the Sheldon Emery Professor of Chemistry at Harvard.

The project also includes interviews with a number of resident housemasters and memories of many more, including Vernon and Beth Ingram, possibly the only university housemasters ever to have an asteroid named for them (Asteroid 6285 Ingram).

For executive producer Pereira, the project was an exploration of an entirely new field of endeavor. Pereira recently finished her third semester at MIT as a visiting student from the University of Sao Paulo, working with Professor Alice Amsden on her Ph.D. dissertation about industrialization in developing countries. Inspired by the interdisciplinary spirit at MIT, she took on the role of producer even though she had never before been involved in production of any kind.

For Wood, the work was closer to home. As a student in the visual arts program, Wood works with Professor Krzysztof Wodiczko in video and new media, often focusing on hidden histories of the built environment.

Except for the on-camera interviews, the video is made up almost entirely of archival footage and photos from MIT, NASA and It is fluidly edited and features music by Irving Berlin, Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby. The film was premiered at the MIT Museum in November with support from the dean for student life, the dean for graduate students and Ashdown housemasters Ann and Terry Orlando.

"Ashdown House: The Home Where Science and Technology Live" can soon be viewed online at For more information, contact Wood at

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 6, 2006 (download PDF).

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