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(Frat) Houses of the Holy
January 16, 2013
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."
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.