Beta Theta Pi house gets makeover
By Adam Smeltz
UNIVERSITY PARK -- The bathroom floors in this 1929 fraternity house will be heated.
Its crest will be engraved in at least one bathroom wall.
All 24 of its bedrooms will soon be air-conditioned.
Those are relatively small details in the $3.5 million, three-year overhaul of the Beta Theta Pi house, 220 N. Burrowes Road.
Financed entirely by Penn State alumnus Donald G. Abbey, the makeover is thought to be the largest gift ever granted to a fraternity chapter in the U.S.
Work at the Beta house began last summer and is expected to run through late 2007.
Beta brother Leo McCafferty said the project has brought attention to the highlights of Greek life -- camaraderie, community service and academics -- rather than the dim spots in police reports.
"People don't know what Beta Theta Pi is," McCafferty said Tuesday. "But when they see that donation, and when they see who it's coming from, they step back and wonder why we're getting it."
Abbey, a 1970 Penn State graduate, was a Nittany Lions fullback and went on to be CEO of his own firm. The Abbey Co. is a leading real estate investment and management company in southern California.
He could not be reached early this week.
But in an article by the university news service, Abbey said that the house and its camaraderie provided him with "a break from the daily pressure" in his student days.
When he returned in 2004 and "saw that the house had regressed," he said, "I felt that action was required."
"It was the best chapter house on campus in my day, and I want to ensure that it remains so in the future," Abbey said. He named a committee of brothers to make sure the restoration is maintained.
His contribution has also become a milestone in the Penn State Greek Pride campaign, intended to establish better ties among Greeks, the wider community and alumni.
Before the Beta restoration began, chapter President David Siegel said, its downstairs living room was sparsely furnished. Other living spaces, he said, were showing their age.
The fraternity knew that "it needed to be taken care of before it got out of control," Siegel said.
Abbey asked him to stay at the house this summer to monitor the warm-weather work. Siegel said project planners reviewed old house photos and bought new furniture and curtains -- on Abbey's dime -- to re-create its original decor.
"That's the main goal of the project, to try to maintain the tradition of the house," Siegel said.
The chapter, established in 1888, is the second-oldest fraternity at Penn State. It has about 50 active brothers, many of them enrolled in the Smeal College of Business.
Siegel said the restoration has helped boost recruitment. The chapter had 19 pledges last fall, after the project began; a year earlier, it had 10.
The house was designed originally in an English-country-home style, with an all-plaster interior, brick exterior walls and copper gutters, architect Al Drobka said.
Improvements, he said, include new hardwood floors, fixed plaster, freshened windows, fire sprinklers and new electrical wiring. The kitchen is set to expand, and floor space in the basement -- a party space -- is growing by about 1,000 square feet.
Official drawings show an underground "keg cooler room," but Drobka called that an outdated misnomer for a room that is actually designated for storage. (IFC rules ban kegs.)
As attractive as the house may be, Siegel and McCafferty emphasized that the chapter is about its brotherhood and friendships -- not the physical house.
"It (isn't) like a frat," McCafferty said. "It's just a group of guys who had a common interest of being generally good people. ... We're not a bunch of raging alcoholics who run around and do stupid things."