LINCOLN — Cather Hall is Every Dorm, USA.
Handmade neon posters remind students of mandatory floor meetings, and Jimmy John's food wrappers litter lounge tables. The halls are narrow, the carpet doesn't match, and with fluorescent lighting on white cinderblock walls, it's hard to tell whether it's day or night.
On floors 3 through 7 — the only residential floors open — students linger in friends' doorways, and wafts of chicken-flavored ramen noodles are more nostalgic than unpleasant. Someone sings in the shower and the voice echoes throughout the floor.
Alex Resnick, Nick O'Donnell, Jaden Valko and Logan Sheets relaxed on the mismatched couches of Cather 6's central lounge on a Sunday afternoon, digging into bags of Doritos.
“It might not be the nicest, but it has lots of character,” said Valko, a freshman agronomy major. “Lots of … tradition.”
But if Cather represents the charm of the average dorm experience on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, right across 17th Street lies something straight out of “The Jetsons.”
A visit to the new University Suites on 18th and R Streets is like exploring an Ikea store: sleek lines, steel edges and the overwhelming scent of newness. Airy study rooms scream corporate Husker with spotless whiteboards, black leather furniture and deep red walls.
There are enough windows to eliminate the need for indoor lighting during the day, and geometric-patterned carpeting coordinates perfectly with abstract art.
It's a tale of two dorms, and two ways of living on the UNL campus.
Cather wasn't supposed to be open this year. Completed in 1963 and named for Nebraska's beloved author, the dormitory was set to close for good, followed next year by its twin high-rise, Pound Hall.
Renovating the old dorms would not be cost-effective, said Sue Gildersleeve, UNL director of housing. The completion of the new suite-style facility across the street had just added 513 beds, so it seemed safe to let Cather go.
Then, in July, the number of housing contracts exploded. University Housing recorded about 400 more contracts in 2013 than in 2012, Gildersleeve said, bringing UNL's total housing contracts this semester to 6,211, not including those for about 150 resident assistants.
Though UNL's total enrollment increased only about 1 percent this fall, the freshman class of 4,420 students, most of whom are required to live on campus for one year, is 12 percent bigger than last year's class.
So UNL announced in July it would reopen limited floors in Cather Hall for its housing overflow.
A half-abandoned dorm from the 1960s seems like the short end of the stick, a punishment for avoiding deadlines until the last minute. But to Cather's current hodgepodge of 130 students, the old building's quirks give residents no choice but to band together.
“There's only one TV that works, and it's on floor six,” said Kasia Paprocki, a freshman business administration major who lives on Cather 5. “So all the floors just go there, and that's how we got to meet everyone.”
The students on each of Cather's five available floors — three are women's and two are men's — share a bathroom, a central lounge area and a love-hate relationship with their 50-year-old living quarters.
The women on Cather 5 didn't choose their hall; it wasn't even an option when they filled out their contracts. But they are fiercely loyal to the friendships they've made through living in Cather — the kind of bonds that form through late-night study hours and the mutual fear of a rickety elevator.
What would it be like living in University Suites? “Oh, my gosh, I would never see anyone,” said Angelica Sandoval, a freshman psychology major. “I wouldn't know people. When I came to college, I didn't know anyone else. But now we (Cather 5) all hang out, mostly in this lounge.”
A double in Cather with a seven-day meal plan costs $9,029 per year. The same contract in University Suites is $9,913 per year, and comes with a different attitude.
For freshmen in University Suites, a suite consists of two double rooms with a shared bathroom, kitchenette and common area, effectively separating students into families of four. On a Sunday afternoon on University Suites' periwinkle-blue fourth floor, only one of 25 doors was open, inviting neighborly drop-ins. That's a sharp contrast with Cather's come one, come all demeanor.
But the allure of the suites is pretty compelling, said Sierra Penas, a freshman interior design major who had the opportunity to move into University Suites after a week of living in Sandoz Hall.
“I don't know how I got so lucky,” she said, “There's so much more room. You have your own shower, bathroom, a huge fridge and space for decorating.”
Penas said next year, even with the option of living off campus, she would probably choose on-campus suite-style housing for the convenience of a meal plan and its close proximity to classes. And as Nebraska and Iowa universities incorporate more apartment and suite-style housing options, Penas isn't alone in her choice.
Student housing is at or near capacity at all campuses of the University of Nebraska system, as well as Creighton and Iowa State Universities.
UNL upperclassmen Jake Evans and Karl Woerth acknowledged the lack of dorm community on their floors in University Suites, but they said meal plans and academic resources make on-campus living a better option. And neither would voluntarily return to traditional-style housing after a taste of the suite life.
Woerth, a junior mechanical engineering major, said his only complaint about suite-style living has nothing to do with the facility.
“I live on the first floor,” Woerth said. “The construction starts about 6 a.m. right outside my window and sounds like a guy just banging three hammers together with all his might.”
Woerth's alarm clock is the sound of a third suite-style facility being built next door to University Suites and Knoll Residential Center. After it is completed, an estimated 1,600 students will be housed in the R Street suites.
And Cather and Pound, along with their mismatched sofas and hand-painted murals, will soon be flattened, though Gildersleeve said University Housing doesn't have a specific timeline for their demolition. The new suite-style dorms were intended all along to replace the old towers.
Suite-style housing might be the dorm of the future, but some Cather residents said they wish destroying the iconic halls wasn't the only option.
“I love it here,” Paprocki said. “If all of our stuff wasn't so old, it'd be perfect.”