Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Photo Essay: This Fraternity Life

When I was in college, I never joined a sorority, but there's a special place in my heart for the Greek system. While most upperclassmen had moved on to their campus apartment complexes or downtown bars, I spent a lot of time at fraternity houses all four of my college years. Walking up and down the Row prepared me well for bar-hopping in New York City, and forced me out of my shell. Approaching a dimly-lit, bass-thumping frat party by myself trained me how to fly solo, something I've continued to do well into my adult, legal drinking years.

Last weekend, I returned to Fraternity Row - this time not at Colgate, but at USC.



The Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity had been kicked off campus ten years ago (for undisclosed reasons) and leased their building - which they own - to another fraternity while they waited to regain their charter, which they did in 2012. In the meantime, their house had been reduced to a state of squalor by hard-partying frat brothers who hid their bongs in holes punched in the walls and slept on bunk beds broken by too many occupants, or too much activity.



Phi Sigma Kappa alumni oversaw a massive overhaul of the building which clocked in at over $900,000 in just two months' time, readying the building for its new residents by August of last year.

Almost a year later, the building has held up remarkably well, by design.



The front facade, which had once received a bad stucco job, has been returned to its original wood siding condition, though the wood itself is new, and now positioned horizontally instead of vertically.



Inside, cedar lines the stairwell and mezzanine of the upstairs level...


photo courtesy of MASS Architecture and Design



...bordering a Phi Sigma Kappa mural which has been pained directly onto the now-exposed brick walls (once covered in drywall).



The building's original mailboxes were also once drywalled over, and now have been exposed as a marker of the building's past, though they are no longer in use. (Not even to store bongs.)



The common areas of the ground floor were once dark and less-than-inviting...



...and now have been brightened...



...except for the game room in the rear of the building, with its wood-stained walls, mood lighting, and deep red billiard table.



In fact, nearly everything seems awash in red, the painted basketball court(yard) reflecting against the single-level annex...



...and into all the rooms.



Whenever possible, signage was painted on - like the room numbers - to prevent theft by souvenir-collecting graduates and vandalism by rival fraternities.



The rooms are set up motor lodge-style, each facing the outside...




...rather than long, dormitory hallways or Animal House-style common areas.



Upstairs, the vertical wood siding has been restored, using the original wood...



...allowing it to retain its mid-century feel...



...but also giving it a contemporary update.



There are many renovations that got cut from the budget (a garden! a pool!), and some plans are still pending (rooftop solar panels!)...



...while construction continues on the upper level...



...to build more rooms...



...that will be more durable...



...and hopefully stand the test of time (and finals).

We woke one summer-dwelling frat brother up so we could look inside his room, evicting the poor kid from the new steel-and-wood lofted bed that rises to just under a foot below the ceiling and requires him to climb like a monkey up into and down from it. The former closet door in his room (which had a habit of being torn off its hinges, which all closet doors did) has been replaced with a heavy-duty denim curtain. Worn carpets have given way to the underlying concrete floors. And the sinks are from IKEA, making it easily (and relatively cheaply) replaceable when they inevitably get torn out of the wall. We'll see how long those newly-installed windows last before shattering.

This building had to adapt to its residents, whose faces may change from year to year but behaviors remain the same. Fraternities are no different now they were 20 years ago when I first went to college, a shy first-year who'd never been to one high school party, who sought refuge and camaraderie in Greek Life.