Knapp House is an intellectual and social haven

February 13, 2001

Nestled along the shores of Lake Mendota in Madison’s historic mansion district, the Knapp House, 130 E. Gilman St., boasts a history nearly as colorful as the city itself.

One can almost feel the ethos of Gov. “Fightin’ Bob” La Follette, and the melodies of legendary violinist Ole Bull permeating the brown sandstone bricks of the house, which was declared a city landmark in 1972. Over the years, it has served as a governor’s mansion, a prestigious private residence and, since the late 1950s, a residential community for UW–Madison graduate students.

Despite the building’s rich history, perhaps the most intriguing characters to inhabit the house have been the students themselves, who share a culture all their own, by sharing their interests, research, ethnic traditions and daily struggles.

Drawn from all corners of the world and various academic departments, the 12 scholars who comprise the house have created a community that combines the cohabitation challenges of MTV’s “The Real World” with the culinary antics of the “Iron Chef” and academic inquiries much deeper than Regis’ $1-million-dollar question.

“The Knapp House is really a special kind of place since, in grad school, people tend to live and interact mostly with people from their own departments,” says Chuck Degeneffe, a rehabilitation counseling psychology Ph.D. student who serves as the house historian.

“We get to know people we probably wouldn’t meet otherwise and learn about what they study, which is extremely interesting and rewarding.”

In addition, nesting with other graduate students provides an important support network for the hectic and stressful process of dissertation writing.

“Most people here are dissertators, and even though we all write about very different subjects, there are similar kinds of academic challenges we face. Having other people to share your frustrations and successes with is a really wonderful support structure in academics,” says Anupama Jain, an English student who also lives at the Knapp House.

These out-of-classroom learning and support experiences often take place in the parlor under the watchful eyes of Kemper Knapp himself, who gazes stoically at the “Knappers” as they watch movies, play chess, read and discuss topics ranging from Homer’s Odyssey to Homer Simpson.

Even when the Knappers aren’t present, evidence of their shared learning experiences remains. A jungle of house plants frames the bay window, sowing the seeds of discussion about landscape architecture and horticulture. Across the room, a plush Victorian chair stands poised for an upcoming discussion about turn-of-the-century art and architecture.

Even the kitchen seems to tell a story as the students’ collection of foods seems reminiscent of an ancient spice trader’s voyage to the Far East. Each month, the Knappers pool their collective culinary talents to create a feast for the guests of the “seminar dinners” the house sponsors. For each of these events, the Knapp House residents invite a speaker and nearly 40 guests to participate in discussion, dining and entertainment at the house.

“Each of the people in the house has special parts of the process that they enjoy,” Degeneffe says. “We try to use everyone’s talents.”

In recent months, speakers have included political science professor Virginia Sapiro, who spoke on the 25th anniversary of women’s studies at the university, and Afro-American studies professor Craig Werner, who led an engaging discussion about African American culture’s contributions to popular music.

“The seminar dinners are a place where people have a chance to come together from different disciplines, backgrounds and ethnicities and exchange ideas with each other as intellectuals,” Degeneffe says. “Plus it’s fun to see people from different departments mingle and interact with each other.”

While seminar dinners and informal conversations and debates provide many Knappers with opportunities to broaden the scope of their academic experiences, many simply enjoy reveling in the house’s history, soaking up sun in the parlor or reading books at a desk where debutantes used to powder their noses.

Plus, since the university owns the house, Knappers get to enjoy amenities most of the legendary Knappers enjoyed, such as housekeeping and lawn tending.

“Sometimes I feel like a king here. You get to be in this beautiful house and someone mows your lawn and cleans your bathrooms,” Degeneffe says.

And, from the perspective of these financially strapped dissertators, the free room and board isn’t so bad either.

Each year, a number of students are selected for the house through the Marie Kohler fellowship program, which covers housing expenses for the 12 Knappers. And, when Knappers graduate, they show their gratitude by giving gifts: Some donate plants, some contribute art. All must provide a copy of their dissertation.

Perhaps the best gift that Knappers give to the university, however, is their legacy, both as scholars and as characters in the university’s lively history.

“Being here has made me think a lot about not only what I do, but who I am. It has helped me reflect on my knowledge and training as part of something bigger,” says Ya-pei Kuo, a Knapper who studies history. “It has been one of my most memorable experiences.”

Tags: learning