Deal with a Colorful Past Leads to a Homecoming — and U.Va.'s First New Fraternity House in 50 Years

April 29, 2009 — It was only natural that a rivalry developed between the brothers of Delta Upsilon and Beta Theta Pi at the University of Virginia. For decades, the fraternities were next-door neighbors along Rugby Road – that is, until DU's house burned down in 1969.

The fire was ruled an arson, and U.Va. legend blames the Betas – groundlessly, it turns out.

But that's all history.

Earlier this month, the now-chummy fraternities jointly announced a real estate deal that will result in the first new fraternity house being built at U.Va. in more than 50 years, and in the return of Beta to its historic home alongside Beta Bridge at 180 Rugby Road after a four-decade absence.

"This is a joint and collaborative venture from two groups that had a rivalry for a few years," said Tim Akers, a 1982 graduate and a Beta alumnus.

The story is long and sometimes colorful, but the bottom line, said Akers and Jay Hoover, a 1981 alumnus and president of DU's alumni association, is that within the next few years, three University Greek houses will end up in either new or extensively renovated facilities.

That is something to celebrate at a time when many Greek houses are in varying states of disrepair, Hoover said.

"All of these houses are old. Certainly, they have had heavy use, have been filled to and beyond capacity for years, and are supported only by whatever rent they can squeeze from students and whatever contributions they can get from alumni," he said, noting that current tax law does not allow alumni to take a tax deduction from such gifts.

"Without a windfall or some alumnus dying and leaving a bunch of money, many of these fraternities are in trouble."

Past as Prelude

In 1926, the Omicron chapter of Beta Theta Pi fraternity commissioned Stanislaw Makielski, U.Va.'s first architecture instructor, to design a new chapter house. The house, built alongside the railroad tracks at what is now 180 Rugby Road, was completed a year later.

The Virginia chapter of Delta Upsilon settled into a house at 170 Rugby Road – now the address of Madison House, U.Va.'s celebrated volunteer clearinghouse – a little later.

Most fraternities naturally develop rivalries, whether through intramural sports, competition for the same pledges, or, as was apparently the case between DU and Beta, geographic proximity.

Thus, it is not surprising that University lore blames Beta for the arson fire that burned DU's house in June 1969. The legend holds that DU was awarded Beta's house as compensation, and Beta was exiled to a house on Maury Avenue, clear on the other side of Grounds from the Greek district.

Alexander "Sandy" Gilliam, secretary to the Board of Visitors, University historian and a 1955 Beta alumnus, says the tale is apocryphal.

Yes, they were rivals, and yes, the house at 170 Rugby did indeed burn. But the notion that Beta was responsible for the fire – or that it started with flaming arrows – is simply "not true," he said.

"There were no flaming arrows," Gilliam said. No one was ever arrested, however.

The truth, Gilliam said, is that DU simply purchased the house at 180 Rugby after a group of alumni persuaded Beta's governing organization to shut down U.Va.'s chapter in 1971, he said. At the time, drug use was prevalent, bills were going unpaid and women were living openly in the house, he said.

A group of alumni "went over to the house one night and told them that they had 48 hours to get out," Gilliam said.

The alumni then sold the house to the DUs – "the ultimate indignity" to the former Betas, he said. In 1973, DU moved in.

In the late 1970s, Beta recolonized and applied the proceeds of the sale of 180 Rugby to purchase the former Zeta Beta Tau house at 124 Maury Ave.

Sale Reshuffles the Deck

That's how it stood for three decades: Beta on Maury Avenue, DU on Rugby Road, seeking futilely to have people refer to the University's graffiti-painted railroad bridge as "Duck Bridge," in reference to their fraternity's nickname.

Things began to change in November 2007, when the Jefferson Scholars Foundation announced that it would purchase Beta's property at 124 Maury to build a new headquarters and Center for Jefferson Fellows.

Beta – which was again in the process of recolonizing, this time as an alcohol-free "Men of Principle" chapter – used some of the proceeds from the sale to purchase and renovate the former Delta Tau Delta house at 129 Chancellor St. (Ironically, that had been Beta's home decades earlier, before its fateful first move to Rugby Road.)

As an investment, Beta also purchased a 1970s-era apartment building at 135 Madison Lane.

"When we were looking at relocating, we thought the only way we would be successful would be to have a fairly large group, and have a fairly good location in the Rugby Road and Madison Lane corridor," said Akers, the Beta alumnus. They saw the Madison Lane apartment building site as a potential site for a new house.

It turns out that DU also had been eyeing the apartment building as a possible building site. With Beta interested in returning to its more-prominent historic location, the boards of the two houses began negotiating.

The deal they announced April 20 has a few moving parts.

DU, which currently has 48 brothers, will spend $700,000 for a 50-year "ground lease" of the apartment-building property at 135 Madison Lane. It will raze the apartment building – almost universally condemned as an eyesore in that particular historic district – and spend more than $1 million to build the University's first new fraternity house in more than 50 years. Construction is expected to begin in the fall – a formal groundbreaking will be held Sept. 26 – and be complete in time for the 2010-11 academic year.

The house should instantly fit in with its neoclassical Madison Lane neighbors. The three-story, 7,000-sqaure-foot house will feature red brick, two-story white columns and a standing-seam metal roof.

Inside, though, it will have 15 single bedrooms (two handicap-accessible), and will be wired for cable and Internet. The building will have air conditioning and a sprinkler system; large common areas for meeting, dining, studying and entertaining; and employ energy-saving "green" design.

Beta, with 70 brothers, will repurchase its historic home at 180 Rugby Road for $1.6 million (and lease it back to DU for a year until the new house is completed). Once the DU brothers are out, Beta will undertake the most extensive renovation in the house's 82-year history.

The four-level house will be rewired and replumbed, and new heating and cooling systems will be installed. The living quarters will be reconfigured to add up to four new bedrooms, for a total of 20.

According to the press release, "Beta anticipates that the improvements, which it expects to complete sometime in 2011, will permit the house to remain a landmark on the University's Rugby Road entry corridor for another 75 years or more."

In the meantime, Beta's renovated property on Chancellor Street, the former Delta Tau Delta house, is also for sale, Akers said. Already, a few fraternities have made inquiries.

— By Dan Heuchert