Alums remember row houses’ fraternity roots

For those who wanted to live in the coveted row houses 50 years ago, room draw had a very different name: rush.

These days, students prefer the houses because they have some of the largest bedrooms on campus, nice kitchens, big libraries and common areas for people to congregate in. However, few realize that Perry, Wood, Spencer, Agard and Garfield were neither originally built by the College nor the sole fraternity houses on campus. Brooks House, for instance, is not a row house in the traditional sense, although it stands on the original site of a former fraternity house that burned down. The plot of land that is now home to Sawyer Library used to be the site of the Sigma Phi Fraternity House. In an ironic twist of fate, the library was named after the College president who successfully began the campaign to phase out fraternities at Williams in the 1960s.

Tyler House, Mears House, Bascom House and the Fort Hoosac House were also some of the 15 original row houses purchased by the College from the fraternities in the 1960s. The Center for Developmental Economics was originally built by the Delta Psi Fraternity in 1884 by architect Stanford White of McKim, Mead and White, one of the most prominent architectural firms of the time. It was also the last fraternity house to come in the College’s possession in 1972.

The College did not come to own all of the row houses. Several of the original houses burned down, including one on the site of the Williams Inn. One fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, refused to cooperate with the College’s decision to phase out fraternities and sold the house to Williamstown instead. The former Phi Gamma Delta house is now the Williamstown Town Hall.

“There was intense loyalty to your fraternity,” said Robert Behr ’55, a member of the Sigma Phi Fraternity. “Each had a distinctive personality. Some were very academic and stressed scholarship. Others were more social, and some attracted athletes. There was one that tended toward the arts, music and drama. But the majority were average Joes who had a little of everything.”

Stories about fraternities have become legends here at the College. Almost every student wonders about the truth behind the “Perry Goat Room,” and many students aim to locate the trap door that allegedly constituted the only entrance into the room until the College purchased the property from Alpha Delta Phi. Anyone who happens to walk alongside Weston Hall, the former Phi Delta Theta fraternity house, can notice the backward swastika in the brick. While legend has it that Phi Delta Theta was a racist fraternity, the backwards swastika, in reality, has nothing to do with anti-Semitism. It is actually symbolic of the sun in Dharmic religions; the building was built before the swastika took on negative connotations.

“There were secret meetings and allegedly ancient ceremonies,” Behr said. “But they started to lose their importance after World War II when the veterans returned and weren’t of traditional college age. They were skeptical of the ceremonial goings-on of the fraternities.”

Acceptance into the fraternities was a big deal at Williams. Originally, first-years were rushed before they even attended their first classes. John Kingston, whose late father John was an alumnus of the Williams Phi Delta Theta fraternity, said, “I remember him saying, ‘We used to rush them on the train,’ since a lot of incoming first-years came into Williamstown or North Adams via train from New York or Boston.”

During mid-1950s, the College noted that this tradition was detrimental to scholarship and alienated many first-years, so Williams forced fraternities to delay rushing till sophomore year. Consequently, first-years were required to eat together and did not live in fraternity housing till sophomore year.

Homecoming and “House Week” were two important weekends for the fraternities. “You were supposed to entertain alumni during Homecoming. But House week was related to the semiformal dance and [centered on] fraternity members who were still at the College and their [respective] dates,” said John Hyde’56, in a Record interview last year regarding Homecoming traditions.

Abolition of fraternities and

the aftermath

Fraternity life came to a screeching halt with the arrival of former College President John Sawyer. Through the Angevine Committee, Sawyer held an investigation into the detrimental behavior of the fraternities. The Angevine Report, published on June 30, 1962, stated that the only way to fix the fraternity problem was to abolish the houses entirely. On Sept. 19 of that year, members of Phi Gamma Delta held a demonstration on President Sawyer’s lawn and other student backlash occurred as well. But the College’s decision was firm and the Board of Trustees officially abolished the fraternities in 1968. By this time, nine of the 15 original fraternities had closed and sold their property to the College.

The housing system implemented by the College in the post-fraternity years initially paralleled the fraternity life at Williams, but with a new twist. Women were admitted to the College for the first time in 1970, and the housing affiliation system was implemented. Students lived in one of 15 “Houses” for their last three years at Williams, dining and socializing with one another. This system was only successful for a decade and in 1980, “Row House Dining” ended for financial reasons. The house kitchens were closed and converted into common spaces and bedrooms. In 1996 the housing affiliation system was abolished, and housing at Williams stood in limbo until fall 2006 when the “Neighborhood” or “Cluster” system was implemented.

Creating housing affiliation and pride among students serves as a primary goal of the College’s current cluster system. What was once the responsibility of fraternities is now that of the Office of Campus Life and Neighborhood Governance Boards. Fraternities may never return to Williams, but the 129-year history of fraternities lives on in the Row Houses and their stories.