Office of the VP for Communications – Keeping alumni and friends connected to U-M

That old house

No one now remembers exactly how a great American architect came to design Ann Arbor’s first permanent fraternity house. But William LeBaron Jenney was in town that year—it was 1878—and somehow the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon’s Omicron chapter found him.

Michigan’s chapter of DKE was U-M’s third fraternity (after Beta Theta Pi and Chi Psi). It had been started in 1855 with just six members. By 1861 it had grown fast enough to send 51 boys to the Union Army.

After the war, the chapter again grew steadily. Members held meetings at Ann Arbor’s Masonic Temple and roomed separately all over town. By the early 1870s they were talking about building a clubhouse of their own, and that led them to William Jenney.

Shant from a distance.

Like a tiny fort on William between Maynard and State Streets, William Jenney’s “Temple,” since nicknamed “the Shant,”  holds court behind a brick wall and a locked gate. (Photo: D. Holdship.)

A castle in miniature

Born and raised in New England, the architect had spent the Civil War years as a Union engineer. He started a practice in Chicago, but in 1876 he began commuting to Ann Arbor to teach. (His courses were U-M’s first in architecture.)

It was Jenney’s contemporary in Chicago, the architect Daniel Burnham, chief designer of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, who said: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood…” When the fraternity boys asked Jenney about a clubhouse, he went at it with something like Burnham’s dictum in mind.

Historic shot of the Shant.

This image of the Shant is dated to about 1900. (Image courtesy of U-M’s Bentley Historical Library.)

Jenney’s portfolio included a magnificent Gothic cathedral for Chicago’s Grace Episcopal Church. He now borrowed from that same design, though on a shrunken scale. What he envisioned was not a practical meeting place for rough-and-tumble undergraduates. It was more like a miniature medieval castle.

The sketches on his drafting board had steep, slanting Gothic lines; blocky chimneys like turrets; and a toothy entablature encircling the roof. Jenney said the style was 13th-century French Gothic. It looked like a fortress for gremlins.

DKE alumni raised $2,300 to buy a narrow lot at 611½ William Street and borrowed another $1,000 for the building. The cornerstone was laid in 1878. Construction was done in time for a dedication in the spring of 1879.

At first, the boys apparently called it “The Temple,” but after a while—again, for reasons no one remembers—they started to call it, mysteriously, “The Shant,” and that name stuck.

See you at the Shant

The Shant wasn’t big enough for the members to live in. Instead, Michigan’s DKEs started the “club system” of fraternity living at Michigan—upperclassmen rooming and dining together in a single boarding house and bringing younger members in for meals. The house was Mrs. Hathaway’s at 609 South State (where the Law School’s Hutchins Hall stands now). But every Saturday night, very late, the boys would march up State Street in hooded black robes, heading for chapter meetings at the Shant.

That became a permanent ritual. Long after 1923, when the chapter purchased and took up residence in a sprawling house at 1912 Geddes, the brothers—including a future president, Gerald R. Ford, ’35—gathered every week at the Shant for meetings. (William LeBaron Jenney had long since left the faculty and gone home to Chicago, where he gained fame for designing the world’s first steel-frame skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building.)

Closeup of the Shant today.

Though weathered, the Shant still stands in all its gothic glory. (Photo: D. Holdship.)

So it went until the 1960s, when fraternities in general and Michigan’s DKE house in particular fell into disfavor and neglect. DKE’s big house on Geddes burned down in 1968. The chapter staggered and the Shant, left to decay, was burglarized and vandalized. (There was at least one good moment in that era: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen played a summer concert in the Shant’s front yard.)

Save the Shant!

But the Shant’s day was not done. Determined DKE alumni saved it in a 30-year series of rescue efforts.

First came a Detroit industrialist, Wilfred Casgrain, a U-M DKE who had graduated in 1916; he spearheaded a fund drive for essential repairs. (One major improvement: the 19th-century gas lighting system was replaced with electric lights.)

Two efforts to rekindle DKE purely as a social club sputtered. Then, recognizing the need for residential quarters, alumni restarted DKE in a former sorority house purchased on Olivia Street. And to relieve the chapter of the financial burden of the Shant, alumni led by David Easlick, MBA ’83, executed a series of maneuvers that put Jenney’s old castle into the hands of a separate nonprofit.

Finally, in 2004, in a move to keep the property out of developers’ hands, the national organization of DKE moved its offices to 611½ William Street.

More remodeling followed. The first floor was given over to the fraternity’s national affairs. But, up the tight spiral staircase, today’s DKEs still gather for chapter meetings amid old furnishings and the portraits of the five DKEs who have lived in the White House—Ford of Michigan; Rutherford B. Hayes of Kenyon College; Theodore Roosevelt of Harvard; and the two George Bushes, both of Yale.

Outside, a little tombstone still marks the grave of of Abe, a fighting pit bull who served as DKE’s mascot in the 1920s. And bricks in the new patio show the names of alumni who gave money to save the Shant in keeping with DKE’s motto: “Friends from the Heart, Forever.”

Sources included Marjorie Reade and Susan Wineberg, Historic Buildings: Ann Arbor, Michigan (2nd edition, 1992; Hayley Gollub, “Hidden History,” Michigan Daily, 2/16/2006; Angus Smith, “History of the Omicron Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon,” Michigan Alumnus, vol. 3, 1896-97; Bryan Harrison and Steve Slotnick, “Omicron: Renaissant at 150,” 2005 (Papers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Bentley Historical Library); Baert Brand, “Omicron, Puissant, Enters Its 2nd Century,” 1955 (Papers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, Bentley Historical Library).

Comments

  1. David Easlick - 69, 83

    Those huge evergreens were 4′ tall arborvitae when my wife Susan and I planted them on either side of the steps in 1987!

    Reply

  2. David Burhenn - 1975 1982 JD

    Another great Jim Tobin piece. During then-Vice President Gerald Ford’s nostalgic visit to campus in the summer of 1974, I was one of the caravan of reporters following him. After he visited the DKE Shant, I asked Ford (who had been my Congressman in Grand Rapids) about any memories of his place, and he mentioned a special milk punch. Forty years on, the Vice President still remembered the recipe.

    Reply

    • David Easlick - 1969, 1983 MBA

      David, I was there as well. Guess you missed the milk punch that we served that day! Found an old recipe and Stephanie Kost or Susie Grady made a batch for Jerry.

      Reply

      • Dave Burhenn

        I was a GDI, David, so probably wouldn’t have made it past the door. One of my regrets. (Both sons are frat members, though, but not DKE).

        Reply

  3. john thieme thomas - 1957 & 58

    When at M, the DKE house on Geddes was flying high as a non-stop party place. I had wished to pledge there, but my Uncle Thurston Thieme nixed that. He lived at 3 Geddes Heights and told my mother that I’d never get through school if I joined DKE.
    Several good friends, Joe Hazelby and Al Hanselman, were DKE’s and they both got through M just fine!

    Reply

  4. john thieme thomas - 1957/58

    PS Great story by Mr. Tobin

    Reply

  5. lewis(Bill) Dickens - 1964

    There was a beautiful craftsman style chair with a leather back that had some figures oil painted on it’s leather back.
    I know who took it in about 1963.. he was a Deke and I hope that he returned it since it was a wonderful piece and belonged home.
    I worked on the restoration of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and am a Restoration Architect as well as a Modern Designer and restored the David Mackenzie house.. the founder of WSU.
    Like the Mackenzie house the Shant needs a beautiful slate roof again. Yes it’s costly but would be well worth while and would last at least 120 years if the proper slate were chosen.
    Thank you for posting this article!
    Bill Dickens ’64

    Reply

  6. Art Darden - 1969

    David,
    A very nice article. Glad you were able to save the Shant. I hope you are doing well. I’m just getting older. From an old Psi U, Art

    Reply

    • David Easlick - 1969, 1983 MBA

      Art,
      Doing fine in Beaufort, SC which coincidentally was founded by my 7 greats grandfather, Tuscarora Jack Barnwell. Good to hear from you.

      Reply

  7. Liz Wason - 2012

    Thanks for this–I’d been wondering about that building for a while. Interesting to know that it’s still in use! I’ve never seen it look anything but abandoned.

    Reply

  8. Wallace Hayden - 1977

    I was walking by the building in 1974 just when then Vice President Ford was leaving after his tour. A long haired protester was standing on the wall and shouting something in a angry tone. I was surprised that the security didn’t take him off the wall, but they did move Ford and his motorcade along William Street, then north on State Street really fast.

    Reply

  9. Charles Liken - 1959

    I loved those gas lights. I wish we could have saved them when we electrified the Shant.

    Reply

  10. Peter Rogan - 1977

    My late father was a Deke the same time as Jerry Ford, and he told me some hair-raising stories of the place. For one, a Deke sat on the pinnacle of that roof and dropped glasses onto a pillow on the sidewalk fifty feet below, to test them for toughness at Deke parties. Apparently none met the test. They also used to have carved wooden placards, in the shape of a paddle, inscribed with the names of the members that year. My father and the former President should have been on the 1935 plaque, but it was missing. The Gerald Ford Museum in Grand Rapids doesn’t have it. I can only presume some forgotten Deke absconded with it long ago, and it lies forgotten in some dusty attic, musty barn or half-drowned basement waiting to be discovered. When you find it, dear reader, would you let me know? I only want a photo of it.

    Reply

    • David Easlick - '69 MBA '83

      That paddle is one of six mounted just inside the front door. I’m sure if you called DKE National they’d be happy to take a picture.

      Reply

    • Matt Davidson, LSA '80 - 1980

      Peter, My Dad was also a DKE in that era. He was in the class of ’40. My mother is still living and is still very crisp, I will ask her about your Dad. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any old DKE Frat composites.

      Reply

      • Matt Davidson, LSA '80 - 1980

        My father’s name was Wilbur S. Davidson. Other, older relatives, including my grandfather and great uncles, were also DKE’s in the 1910 era.

        Reply

  11. Derrick Foster - 1979, MArch 1981

    Very interesting history (great story) for a beautiful building.

    Reply

  12. Libby Wedesky - 2007

    I dated a DKE all through college and they held parties at this building. I remember going to a Halloween party there one year, it’s a very cool piece of history for the town. Whenever I pass this place when I’m out and about it’s cool to know what it looks like inside, very few know it’s purpose. It’s beautiful architecture, inside and out. DKE house now resides on Oliva and Cambridge…no longer on Geddes…

    Reply

  13. Mary Anne Pahl Zinn. (Wife of George H. Zinn,Jr.)

    The DKE Shant is a very special place and certainly a historic one. Many U of M students thought it was an old church. Thankfully further restoration is taking place as we speak, due to the efforts of Jim Grady, Geoffrey MacGlashan, Charlie Licken, and other concerned DKEs. As I vaguely recall about the same time or shortly thereafter that the gas lights were replaced, gentlemen and ladies’ washrooms were also installed. Thank heavens, guests no longer had to cross the side alley to the” helpful” resturante. It’s a great place to gather after football games …..renew friendships and make new ones. May it continue to be a special building..

    Reply

    • David Easlick - '69 MBA '83

      Mary Anne, I bought 5 grand worth of slate to redo the roof from Rad’s Roof Repair in Ann Arbor before DKE and I parted company. He still had it in his yard 3 or 4 years ago. Maybe somebody can finish the job before the current leaks collapse the roof. David

      Reply

  14. Chris Cox - 1995

    My pledge class from Deke at Cornell road tripped to the Omicron chapter in 1992 and enjoyed a memorable time at the Shant. Very cool article, thx for sharing!

    Reply

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