UI Greek houses make state preservationist group's 'most endangered' list

UI Greek houses make state preservationist group's 'most endangered' list

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URBANA — Century-old fraternity and sorority houses at the University of Illinois, home to one of the largest concentrations of Greek life in the country, are an endangered species, a statewide preservation group says.

Landmarks Illinois, which promotes preservation of historic structures across the state, placed Greek Housing at the UI on its 2019 list of the 12 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois, saying an increasing number of fraternity and sorority houses face demolition.

"These beautiful homes, which have become an integral part of the architectural fabric of Champaign and Urbana, have suffered from deferred maintenance, declining occupancy rates and a rapid escalation of property-tax assessments, often making them tear-down targets to make way for new, higher-density apartment buildings," Landmarks Illinois said in its announcement Tuesday.

Compounding the trend is a recent spike in property-tax assessments, particularly in Champaign, the group said. Beginning in 2016, fraternities and sororities saw their land values triple or even quadruple as the City of Champaign Township adjusted assessments to reflect rising sale prices for Campustown properties amid a boom of apartment construction, officials said.

"The added taxes placed increase pressure on an area that has already seen historic fraternities and sororities demolished for high-rise apartment buildings," the group said.

Advocates have pushed for tax relief for sororities and fraternities, arguing that they are nonprofit organizations providing affordable, university-approved student housing. But a bill to exempt school-approved dormitories or residence halls from property taxes failed in 2018, the group said.

"The land-value reassessment in the Campustown area, on the Champaign side, has been a killer, big time," said Ashley Dye, director of fraternity and sorority affairs at the UI. Some houses have challenged their assessments, with little success, she said.

Giving way to high-rises

The former Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at 1401 S. Lincoln Ave., U, was recently remodeled into apartments, and others sold by their original owners have found a second life as home to other Greek organizations.

But others have been demolished and replaced with newly constructed fraternity houses, or were sold and razed to make way for new apartment high-rises.

Most recently, the former Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house at 310 E. John St., which was included on the National Register of Historic Places, was torn down last year to make way for a new apartment tower.

And in March, the Beta Theta Pi fraternity announced it will sell its National Register-listed house at 202 E. Daniel St., C (right). The local fraternity chapter closed in 2018. A letter from the national organization indicated that the house would be sold to a local real-estate company owned by two fraternity alumni, but its plans are unclear.

Built in 1902, the stately brick house features four large columns on its front portico, stone corbals around its front entrance and a covered side porch with eight smaller columns. It now sits boarded up and empty, with several of its windows broken.

The former Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house at the southwest corner of Fourth and John streets (left), which has been used as apartments for years, now sits empty with a "condemned" notice on the front door.

Sprinkler systems mandated

Dye said it wasn't unusual in years past for an individual fraternity to fall on "hard times, membership-wise" and decide to close or sell its house. But the period from 2006 to 2008 was the start of a wave of tear-downs, she said.

The cities of Champaign and Urbana approved new ordinances around that time requiring automatic sprinkler systems in fraternities, sororities and private residence halls to fight fires. The cities also stepped up multifamily housing inspections.

Those changes, while much needed to improve safety, prompted a half-dozen fraternity houses to decide to tear down their houses and rebuild or move, rather than face a costly retrofitting project, Dye said. That included Theta Xi, Alpha Sigma Alpha, Zeta Beta Tau, Pi Kappa Phi and Pi Kappa Alpha, she said.

Student living choices have also changed, she said. While sorority and fraternity membership has seen a steady rise over the last decade, topping out at about 7,800 students last year, fewer of them are living in chapter houses.

"It's bigger than we've had in a long time," she said, but "filling a 50-bed facility means you might need three times that in membership."

In years past, members lived in the houses for several years. Most now move in as sophomores and decide to move into plentiful new campus high-rises during their junior or senior years, she said.

Notable names among architects

About two-thirds of the UI's Greek organizations have certified chapter houses — 19 sororities and 37 fraternities, Dye said.

Built in the early 1900s, the neoclassical, colonial and Tudor revival-style homes were designed by some notable architects, including Howard Van Doren Shaw and Joseph Royer.

The big building boom on campus for fraternities and sororities was during the 1920s, before the Great Depression, said Ellen Swain, the UI's student life and culture archivist and a member of the Champaign-based Society for the Preservation of Greek Housing. Many of them built additions during the 1960s, Dye said.

Most fraternities are clustered west of campus, including a half-dozen that still front Washington Park, also known as "frat park." But several there have been replaced by apartment buildings over the years.

Frank Butterfield, director of Landmarks Illinois' Springfield office, said the UI's Greek housing had been nominated for the list in previous years, "because this has been a growing threat on and around campus."

Its inclusion this year was motivated by recent demolitions and the increases in property-tax assessments.

"It really has put an added strain on what was already a tear-down trend in Champaign-Urbana," he said.

He urged local governments, preservationists and UI alumni to work together to stop the "tear-down trend" and enact zoning and tax-assessment policies to "help protect this important part of our cultural legacy."

Butterfield also said a new survey of remaining Greek houses would be helpful. The National Register of Historic Places in 1989 included a "thematic listing" for all Greek houses at the UI, providing a framework for individual houses to be listed, he said.

"We've unfortunately lost a lot of these homes," he said.

'Part of our identity'

Phi Delta Theta, a massive stone fraternity house at 309 E. Chalmers St. built in 1922 (above), is on both the National Register and Champaign's list of local landmarks.

Inside, the original stone fireplace, wooden beams and built-in bookcases still grace the house's recreation room — along with a pool table, foosball table and a half-dozen couches used to watch Sunday football games. The original windows are set deep into the stone walls.

"Every time I bring somebody here, they say it's the most beautiful fraternity house on campus. It looks like a castle," said chapter President Brett Melby.

On the fireplace mantel are photos of some of the fraternity's original founders and the framed National Register certificate (right).

"We have pictures of pledge classes from 1948 standing in front of the house" that are identical to those taken 60 or 70 years later, Melby said. "I just think that's cool."

Tom Garza, president of the Preservation and Conservation Association, said the point of preservation is to identify the landmarks that "over time have become part of our identity, part of our personality, if you will."

The UI has one of the largest Greek systems in the country and the houses are an example of that, he said.

"If you erase them, it just becomes a history in textbooks," he said. "It's part of what creates our character. And when that goes away, then the character changes."

Greek history

Greek houses in Champaign-Urbana listed on the National Register of Historic Places, all built between 1906 and 1937:

FRATERNITIES

Alpha Delta Phi (demolished 2018), 310 E. John St., C
Alpha Phi, 508 E. Armory Ave., C
Alpha Rho Chi, 1108 S. First St., C
Beta Theta Pi (empty), 202 E. Daniel St., C
Delta Kappa Upsilon (empty), 313 E. John St., C
Delta Upsilon, 312 E. Armory St., C
Kappa Delta Rho, 1110 S. Second St., C
Kappa Sigma, 212 E. Daniel St., C
Phi Delta Theta*, 309 E. Chalmers St., C
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, 211 E. Daniel St., C

SORORITIES

Alpha Delta Pi, 1202 W. Nevada St., U
Alpha Gamma Delta, 1106 S. Lincoln Ave., U
Alpha Xi Delta, 715 W. Michigan Ave., U
Gamma Phi Beta, 1110 W. Nevada St., U
Kappa Kappa Gamma, 1102 S. Lincoln Ave., U
Phi Mu, 706 W. Ohio St., U
Zeta Tau Alpha* (now apartments), 1404 S. Lincoln Ave., U

* — Also designated local landmarks by cities of Champaign and Urbana

Sources: Preservation and Conservation Association, cities of Champaign and Urbana

Making the list

Landmarks Illinois, a nonprofit organization based in Springfield, announced its 2019 Most Endangered Historic Places in Illinois on Wednesday:

James R. Thompson Center, Chicago
Sheffield National Register Historic District, Chicago
Washington Park National Bank, Chicago
St. Mary's School, Galena
Booth Cottage, Glencoe
Hoover Estate, Glencoe
Millstadt Milling & Feed Co., Millstadt
Hill Motor Sales Building, Oak Park
Chancery and Piety Hill Properties, Rockford
Rock Island County Courthouse, Rock Island
Ray House, Rushville
Greek housing at the UI

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