By Lee Stout
It has frequently been said that the fraternity houses are the original mansions of State College. In the past, fraternity fortunes rose and fell, both with the popularity of Greek life among students along with the social dynamics of individual houses. Today’s fraternities are increasingly challenged to be both good neighbors and to sustain their membership numbers and the houses they occupy.
The modern fraternity movement in America began in the 1820s in both rural and urban colleges all over New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Penn State’s nineteenth-century faculty and administrators resisted Greek-letter societies as anti-democratic and morally corrupting. As time passed, however, the growing college faced a housing shortage for male students. President Atherton was more open to fraternities and the ban was lifted when Phi Gamma Delta established a chapter in 1887, followed in 1888 by newly-organized chapters of Beta Theta Pi and Phi Kappa Sigma.
Phi Gamma Delta quickly addressed the housing shortage when it became the first chapter to build a house, on South Allen Street. By 1900, there were a half-dozen houses, all within four blocks of the corner of College and Allen. Of these early houses, none survive except the original Phi Gam house. It had occupied the southwest corner of Allen and Beaver and was later moved to the rear of 214 South Allen, converted to apartments, and had a storefront added to it.
Between 1900 and 1920, house construction boomed along West College Avenue, particularly between Barnard and Gill Streets; but also within two blocks of Allen Street between Foster and Fairmount; and on campus where four of the six houses along Burrowes Road were built in this era. The West College houses were large, some even had three stories, while the Allen Street houses tended to be smaller. Some survive today, having made the transition from fraternities, to rooming houses, to apartments.
However, it was between 1925 and 1933 that the houses were built that we most often call “mansions.” These primarily came in a new section of town surrounding Locust Lane and Garner Street, from Beaver south to Hamilton, intermingled with smaller, private homes of similar styles. Twenty-four fraternity houses are contributing structures to the Holmes-Foster/Highlands National Register Historic District.
This new Highland Park fraternity district was developed by realtor Eugene H. Lederer and built by John Henszey on his family’s farmland (the former Samuel Garner farm). Lederer’s Real Estate News of 1926 reported, “In a few years time this section will be one of the most beautiful in the state. We venture this statement because there will be grouped together homes of fraternities costing from $40,000 to $75,000 with spacious lawns and property landscaped.” That’s $560,000 to $1 million in today’s dollars.
These architect-designed, classical revival-style homes were the biggest fraternity houses yet—in fact, the biggest houses in town. They symbolized the continuing success of the Greek system of this era. By 1923, there were 47 national and local chapters, housing almost 50 percent of the male student body. Fraternities dominated the social scene of the campus with the House Party weekends and special dances. Greeks also dominated student government and most leadership positions in other activities.
Depression was hard on the chapters, and during World War II, the College took them over to house Army and Navy officer cadets here for special training. They rebounded after the war, and eight more nationals established chapters. By 1966, the 56 national fraternities had over 2,800 men in residence – the second-largest system in the country.
The last fifty years have seen lots of ups and downs for the Greek system, but many of the houses are approaching the centenary mark in age. They are increasingly hard to maintain, and renovations are needed in many houses. State College, the “quintessential college town,” promotes good stewardship of these structures, not just for the safety of their occupants, but also because they represent a significant part of our town and gown heritage.
However, the University’s increasingly stringent regulations will increase the cost of membership for students, while restricting opportunities to govern themselves. Social behaviors that were rare or non-existent fifty years ago, seem to be commonplace and offset the good that fraternities do through philanthropies like the Dance Marathon. At the same time, chapters face the constant pressure to maintain good grades while sustaining their membership numbers and houses.
Students living in apartments are largely free of these constraints, and with ever-increasing numbers of deluxe apartment complexes, one must wonder whether fraternities will remain a viable choice for off-campus life. In many houses, older members move out to live in apartments, leaving sophomores and juniors to run the houses. If chapters cannot remain financially sound and begin to close, what will happen to the “mansions of State College?” Will developers be permitted to purchase houses to convert into apartments or bulldoze them to build new, far less attractive structures?
Students will not likely be leaving residential neighborhoods such as the Highlands anytime soon, and the party school culture shows no sign of slowing down. Residents must ponder whether they want Greek life and the beautiful fraternity mansions to remain part of their neighborhoods in the future, and whether they will have a say in those changes. The alternative of no fraternities might end up being worse.
Lee Stout is the Penn State Archivist emeritus
Lee can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org