Greek history: Homes tour provides a glimpse into contemporary fraternity and sorority life
Long before John Belushi gave us Bluto, fraternities were as far as it gets from beer bongs and food fights. The world's first fraternities were formed in the 18th and early 19th centuries as literary societies where students could discuss scholarly matters and debate. Their knowledge of Greek language and mythology led them to ways of distinguishing their groups.
This weekend, 150 years of Greek life at UW-Madison will be celebrated with a Parade of Homes: Guided Tours of Fraternity and Sorority Chapter Homes on Sunday. For the first time ever, even non-Greek members of the public are invited to enter the normally secretive sanctums.
Some of the city's most distinguished historic buildings, several of them designed by renowned architects such as Louis Sullivan (Sigma Phi) and Madison's Frank Riley (Gamma Phi Beta, Delta Gamma), belong to Greek chapters. A few of the houses were built with Greek mythological symbols: The 1915 Chi Omega house has windows shaped as owls, the symbol of Chi Omega, with other symbols in its exterior plaster. Some chapter houses stand on prime Lake Mendota real estate with sunset views and private piers.
"A lot of these large historic homes have been very carefully maintained and still have original details," said Barbara Kautz, who oversees the Greek chapters as student involvement coordinator. "A lot of large homes from that period have been broken up into apartments and lost their character."
Aside from the striking architecture of some of the chapter houses, there is the unique history that unites Greek alums of all generations. The UW's first fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, was established in 1857, and membership increased significantly after the Civil War. Sororities originated on campus in 1875 with Kappa Kappa Gamma. Much of the land on campus now occupied by Greeks was acquired by fraternal organizations in the late 19th century. Before university dormitories were built, Greek chapter houses provided much-needed student housing.
And they provided, more importantly, camaraderie. Fraternities and sororities allowed students to pick the people they'd live with — people from similar backgrounds with similar interests. Community service was another part of the deal, with chapters supporting charities of their choosing. In 2005, campus Greek organizations raised more than $50,000 for charities and donated more than 10,000 hours of community service, Kautz said.
The 1950s marked the epitome of Greek life at UW-Madison. But what followed in the 1960s and '70s was widespread disdain for the Greek system, when fraternity rituals and pranks seemed, to many, to be glaringly out of sync with the tumultuous era when baby boomers took over campus.
Oddly enough, it took a raft of comedy movies in the "Animal House" genre to revive interest in the Greek system. The peak year for pledging in post-Vietnam Madison was 1986. Interest plateaued in the 1990s, but in the last couple of years, according to Kautz, interest is once again rebounding.
This year there are 2,700 members of Greek chapters, or 10 percent of the undergraduate population. Growth is especially strong among minority Greek chapters. Since 2003, three Latina sororities and one Latino fraternity were founded, and a Native American chapter began in 2003. And of the nine African-American fraternities and sororities nationwide, eight currently have Madison chapters.
If you go:
Parade of Homes: Guided Tours of Fraternity and Sorority Chapter HomesParade of Homes: Guided Tours of Fraternity and Sorority Chapter Homes
Open houses at UW-Madison's sorority and some fraternity houses will be held on Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. to mark the 150th anniversary of the university's Greek community. All faculty, students and community members are invited, and admission is free.
Participating sororities include:
• Alpha Chi Omega, 152 Langdon St.
• Alpha Epsilon Phi, 220 E. Lakelawn Place
• Alpha Phi, 28 Langdon St.
• Chi Omega, 115 Langdon St.
• Delta Delta Delta, 120 Langdon St.
• Delta Gamma, 103 Langdon St.
• Gamma Phi Beta, 270 Langdon St.
• Kappa Alpha Theta, 108 Langdon St.
• Kappa Kappa Gamma, 601 N. Henry St.
• Pi Beta Phi, 130 Langdon St.
Participating fraternities are:
• Alpha Gamma Rho, 233 W. Lakelawn Place
• Sigma Phi, 106 N. Prospect Ave., in the University Heights neighborhood