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(Frat) Houses of the Holy

By Dan Shine
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Fraternity Brothers Find New Home in Old Church

The popular saying in real estate is that it’s all about “location, location, location.”

For the brothers of Sigma Phi Epsilon at U-M, their real estate saga has been more about location after location after location. After location. The itinerant fraternity has had four houses in the past 12 years, executing more moves than Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson on a football field.

But this past fall, the Sig Eps finally found a place to call their own. And their new home is what many would consider an ill fit, a paradox of sorts. That’s because the fraternity’s new chapter house—at the corner of Tappan and Hill—is an old church.

“From the beginning there were some jokes made,” chapter president Michael Freedman says.

Memorial Christian Church was built in 1890 at the corner of State and South University. The U-M administration bought that land and moved the church to its most recent site at Hill and Tappan. (Image courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha Alumni Association.)

Memorial Christian Church was built in 1890 at the corner of State and South University. The U-M administration bought that land and moved the church to its most recent site at Hill and Tappan. (Image courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha Alumni Association.)

But before you start visualizing John Belushi’s Bluto and his Delta brothers at Faber College turning St. Peter’s Basilica into “Animal House,” take a moment to consider. Freedman, a junior studying kinesiology, says the Sig Eps actually are the perfect fit for the church. The fraternity espouses the ideals of the “balanced man”—one who excels in academics, athletics, community service, and leadership.

“There aren’t any drunken keg stands,” Freedman says. “That’s not to say we don’t have our fun here. But we’re a different fraternity. We have other ideals.”

The members of Memorial Christian Church, which sold the building to the fraternity, saw that difference.

“When they got the building they were so thrilled,” Jack Walls, a church member since 1978, says of the Sig Eps. “They said they were going to respect the history of the building. That made us all feel good.”

Seeing the Light

Memorial Christian Church’s roots run deep at the University. The church was built in 1890 at the corner of State Street and South U. In the early 1920s, U-M wanted the land where the church stood to build its Law Quad and paid to move the building to its current location at Hill and Tappan. Each of the stones from the foundation was numbered, put on wagons, moved to the new site, and rebuilt.

“The church used to have an academic chair at the University,” Walls says. “The intent was to have a church for students and the community. It worked well for the first 30 years. And then the kids became less interested.”

The congregation continued to worship at its new location through the years, peacefully coexisting with the growing campus around it. Then a few years ago, the old building began showing its age. Repairs were needed and the 40-member congregation was not sure they could pay for them.

The original chapel room is now a gathering space for the Sig Eps brothers. (Photo courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha Alumni Association.)

The original chapel room is now a gathering space for the Sig Eps brothers. (Photo courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha Alumni Association.)

“It just got old,” Walls says of the church. “I think in the last 30 years we’ve replaced the boiler, the roof. Other parts are showing their age. We said, ‘We’ve got to get out of here. We don’t have the money to pay for all that needs to be done.’

“It stood for us for as long as it could. But without tremendous upkeep that we can’t afford, we had to sell it.”

Start Spreading the News

The church offered to sell the property to U-M, but the administration declined, Walls says. So members started spreading the word the church was for sale. It didn’t take long for that word to reach Jerry Mangona, a Sig Ep who graduated in 2001 and now serves as adviser to the chapter house.

Sigma Phi Epsilon, like Memorial Christian Church, also has deep roots at the University. The fraternity formed on campus in 1912. For many years—from 1937 to 1994—the fraternity enjoyed its prime location at the corner of Hill and State streets. Following a hazing incident, however, the chapter surrendered its charter in 1994.

The fraternity sold the property, which burned in 1995, to U-M. The site is now the home of the Ford School of Public Policy.

In 1998 the fraternity returned to campus. And thus began its Goldilocks-like adventures when it came to chapter houses: One house was in a great location, but its boxed-off interior lacked a communal feel. Another boasted an ideal gathering space, but was in an undesirable spot. Still another offered some good attributes but no parking.

Mangona was tasked in the early 2000s to find a house that was just right.

“The number of lots zoned for a fraternity, sorority, rooming house, or co-op in Ann Arbor is small,” Mangona says. “And the number that comes up for sale is even smaller.”

Still, Mangona had a real estate agent constantly on the lookout for the right house. When he got a call about Memorial Christian Church, he was admittedly skeptical.

“I lack architectural experience so I couldn’t envision how the space could be converted,” he says.

Construction in chapel room

Renovations started in January 2012. (Photo courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha AlumniAssociation.)

He was not alone. While the fraternity’s upperclassmen, who had lived through multiple housing changes, were ecstatic, the younger brothers were “more muted.”

“They weren’t there as long for the struggle for a chapter house,” Mangona says. “They were comparing the church to other fraternities on campus, so this was greeted with much more skepticism.”

But a majority of the brothers trusted the fraternity’s alumni board, and the sale was completed following two years of negotiations and appearances in front of the city’s zoning board. Renovations to the church interior began in January 2012. Among other things, a 1957 addition was converted from office space into bedrooms, and upgrades were made to the kitchen as well as the electrical and plumbing systems.

(Land)lords of the New Church

In spring 2012 the Sig Eps gathered with church members for a decommissioning service. They opened a time capsule, toured the gutted building, and gathered for a prayer by the minister for the new occupants.

Construction worker reveals time capsule

A construction worker brings forth the time capsule, sealed in 1924. Read more about the time capsule. (Photo courtesy of SigEp—Michigan Alpha AlumniAssociation.)

Walls says the church members were sad to leave the building. They had built up years of memories, but most knew it was time for a change.

“At one time Hill Street used to be authors, university people who wrote textbooks,” Walls says. “But in recent years it’s turned Greek. There’s a sorority right next door. When there are football games, Hill Street becomes a mess.”

Freedman, the fraternity president, says he is sensitive to the church members’ feelings and is committed to respecting the building’s origins.

“We made them understand we are the right fraternity to be in the church,” he says. “We all appreciate the history of it.”

Home Sweet Home

The new Sig Eps house features sleeping accommodations for 45 members and a renovated kitchen and dining hall. But the signature room in the house is the old sanctuary, which is now a large study and gathering space with vaulted ceilings and decorative wood trim. An alumni room off the sanctuary displays the chapter’s composites, awards, and important fraternity memorabilia.

Freedman says it has taken a while, but the former church is finally beginning to feel like a fraternity house. And living in an old church lends his brothers a certain distinction among the U-M Greek community. In fact, fraternity and sorority members on campus refer to going to a party hosted by the Sig Eps as “going to the church.”

“Most of what I’ve heard about the house from other members of the Greek community has been very positive,” says junior Andrew Criste, a business major. “The house is everything any of us expected and more. People are usually very impressed, especially with the chapter room since it’s so unique. It’s a really nice space where brothers can study and hang out. We’ve hardly tapped into the full potential of what we can use that space for in the future.”

What it won’t be used for is the keg stands Freedman mentioned earlier. Parties and alcoholic beverages will be restricted to the basement.

“We plan to keep the house very clean,” Freedman says.

Memorial Christian Church members now meet in a temporary building on Platt Road, and its leaders have a bid in to buy a permanent building on Stadium Boulevard, Walls says. The Church members are “proud of those guys, the way they remodeled the building. Their approach was that they were respecting what it once was.

“But,” he adds with a chuckle, “I’m sure as the years go on they will have their parties.”

Dan Shine

Dan Shine

DAN SHINE is manager of external communications at the William Davidson Institute at the University of Michigan. He formerly was a reporter at the Detroit Free Press and the Dallas Morning News. Follow him on Twitter: @danshine1216.

COMMENTS

  • Linda Bradshaw Matz

    Nice article. Nice to hear the reverence the fraternity seems to have for the church building. Particularly nice as I grew up in this church and attended it through high school and then periodically when I would return home from college or from out of state. It’s a beautiful old Victorian building — the old part at least!

    Reply

  • James Daugherty

    Congratulations: as a Sig Ep living in the old Hill & State St. house, I’m glad to see you’re settled in. The late ’60s was a crazy, wild time (and so was the Sig Ep house). If you heard the legend about the guy who rode his motorcycle up to the 3rd floor, that’s me. Good luck and God bless.

    Reply

  • Glen Smith

    I attended Memorial Christian Church during my years in graduate school. I sang in the choir and attended many dinners and coffee hours in the basement. I hope to see the changes when I am in Ann Arbor sometime.

    Reply

  • Ray Zondervan - 2001

    Nice article, but title is a little misleading. There are fraternities available for students that consider their faith a priority in life. Not much of the article addressed what it means to be holy and I was a little disappointed with that. Feel free to look over http://phialphakappa.com/ (just one example – as I was a past member).

    Reply

  • Gregg Sobocinski - 1990

    I love seeing creative reuse of spaces, but I’m disappointed not to see any images of the renovated spaces. I expected to at least see one of the common room after renovation.

    Reply

  • Jo Baughman

    I remember this church very well, as it sat on the corner just to the south of the Tri Delta house. I’m so glad it has been saved and that the Sig Eps now have a chapter home in such a great location. I found it fascinating that the University was not interested in the property, since it sits in the only block not owned by the school in the full footprint of State, Hill, East U, and North U. I would have almost expected it to be grabbed up for future parking for the Ross School of Business faculty.

    Reply

  • Jeffrey Poling

    I remember their beautiful frat house on the corner of Hill & State. I also remember how they sat on the roof and kicked off the rain gutters, broke windows, and trashed the grounds. That is what they did to the outside. I can only imagine the degree of vandalism on the inside. Let’s hope this generation is a more respectful one and does not build upon the legacy of past Sig Eps.

    Reply

  • Suzanne Izzo - 1957, 1958

    I lived in Tappan International House located between the church and the Tri Delta house. I attended services in the church, which had a welcoming congregation. The International House was later replaced with an addition to the church for class rooms and offices. This must be where the bedrooms are now.

    Reply

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