Almost 71 years ago to the day, the doors of the Sharpe Refectory opened for the first time to University students.
The project — costing just under $21.5 million in 2022 dollars — boasted a central dining room, which seated 920 students. With an additional 17 dining rooms specially for fraternities, it offered room for another 680, according to The Herald’s coverage in 1950.
When the dining hall opened, students, dressed in coats and ties, ambled up the colonial-style building’s “ample stairs and large lobbies … planned to avoid congestion” to family-style dinners served by student waiters. The menu included roast leg of lamb, wax beans, potatoes, coffee, milk and dessert, said Tara Norcross, director of residential dining for Brown Dining Services. The total cost for a week’s worth of meals came out to $14 — or 70 cents a meal.
The building quickly earned the moniker “Rat Factory.” Rat Factory, in turn, evolved into the Ratty (and for a fleeting moment in 2018, the “Rodent”).
Last Friday, students — some dressed in shirts and ties, as suggested by Brown Dining Services, but most in sweats, winter coats and jeans — walked up the stairs and into the Ratty to find “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes blasting over the speakers. Black tablecloths and silver balloons — 7s and 0s — adorned the hall to celebrate the Ratty’s belated 70th birthday party.
The celebration would have taken place last year, Norcross said, but public health conditions proved limiting. Planning began in 2021 and kicked into gear in the middle of the fall semester, according to George Barboza, vice president of dining programs.
“With COVID (and) the way we were serving, we weren’t able to celebrate,” Norcross said, leading them to push the celebration to 2022.
“I thought it was really cute and special of the Ratty to make a little thing out of today,” Claire Hightower ’24 said. “It was a great way to break up shopping period.”
Norcross shared that two students had stopped her early into the festivities to share that they enjoyed “kicking off the semester with a great party.” Staff at the Ratty, Barboza added, also found it interesting to learn about the old menus and early days of the dining hall.
In planning the celebration, Barboza said, Dining Services looked back to the Ratty’s 50th birthday celebration from 2001. Administrators also looked through original copies of old menus to pull the day’s fare together.
Last Friday’s menu included the same staples offered in 1951, along with more modern cuisine. For breakfast, prunes and french toast; for lunch, veal cutlets and wax beans; for dinner, roast leg of lamb, frosted peas, mashed potatoes and clover rolls.
Logan Schultz ’25 said he liked the lamb best out of the day’s offerings. Though Dining Services had advertised the event on social media, he said he wasn’t aware of the celebration until that day.
“I really liked the modern versus old style,” added Brian Lee ’25.
For dessert, the Ratty offered devil’s food cake and lemon meringue pie — classic ’50s desserts — along with birthday cake, which Lee noted that he appreciated the most.
“The best dessert was the lemon pie,” Hightower said. “I’m a big pie girl. The crust was on point — flaky.”
On their tables, students also found baskets with M&Ms, lollipops and candy necklaces, which were popular candies in the 1950s, Norcross said.
The building serves as a microcosm of Brown’s history: It has hosted dances, union negotiations and a student rally for the Eisenhower presidential campaign. There was public controversy when constructing the building meant demolishing the Thayer Street School, forcing 300 school children to switch schools.
In some ways, the building has not changed at all. Martin Daggett, the manager of the Ratty in 1952, listed three priorities for the operation in a 1952 Herald interview: serving a well-balanced diet with “appetizing and wholesome food,” providing an “efficient and smoothly running operation” and being an eatery that “aid(s) the educational system and, finally, keep(s) the students happy.”
Norcross noted that 70 years from now, she hopes the Ratty is still around — but also that it undergoes a “wonderful, beautiful upgrade and facelift.”
“The building is such an institution — I wouldn’t want to lose its history,” she said. “But if anybody’s ever searched for a plug to charge their computer in the Ratty, … (they would know) we would love some modern updates.”
Will Kubzansky is the 133rd editor-in-chief and president of the Brown Daily Herald. Previously, he served as a University News editor overseeing the admission & financial aid and staff & student labor beats. In his free time, he plays the guitar and soccer — both poorly.