Northwest of Campus

7 08 2008

The house of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Sigma Alpha Epsilon is one of those fraternities that tends to come to mind when people want to typecast the Greek system at Cornell. It’s large (~80 men), and prestigious, and is the subject of so many dirty rumors (true or not) that it would make Lindsay Lohan blush. The house goes by the formal name “Hillcrest”, and was built in 1915 [1]. An addition was built in the early 1960s (on the left side of the photo). This is the fourth house of SAE and the second “Hillcrest”, the first having burnt down in a spectacular fire around 1911. SAE and Chi Psi have a standing rivalry.

Next door to SAE is Alpha Delta Phi, colloquially known as Alpha Delt. The fraternity was established in 1868, and was among the first to build a chapter house, which was constructed in 1878 [2]. As students moved to different areas of campus, Alpha Delt launched plans to construct a new building in the prairie house style (which you can see on their homepage). This house was built around 1903, but due to electrical malfunctions, burnt down in a spectacular fire in February 1929. A new house, built in the collegiate gothic style (the current house) was built in 1931.

Alpha Delt has always struck me as a more upscale version of SAE. But, they’re not above visual humor; like their parking lot for instance.

I wouldn’t be a good photographer if I didn’t get a photo of their super-sketchy windowless ritual building in front of the house.  Rumor mill says someone received third-degree burns in a ritual gone wrong two years ago at their initiation. Ah, so this is why fraternities like Delta Upsilon and Phi Kappa Tau were founded; to go against the cloak-and-dagger behaviors of other organizations.


Although in a tightly packed area of high-profile houses, Phi Gamma Delta, or FIJI as it more commonly known, retains a distinct character. The house, known as “The Oaks”, is fairly nice-looking from the outside, especially since it was built around the 1900s. The original house, a private residence the fraternity bought,  looked like this before the extensive additions and modifications:

Throwing this disclaimer out there, I’m not a huge FIJI fan. The inside kinda scared me. That, and the Halloween party I went to there freshman year where some guy scantily-clad in leather was randomly hitting people in the crowd with a whip as he stood on a table. After the marks I received from that, I haven’t been inside since. Opinions aside, it’s a large house with a large membership.

One last thing…it rained shortly after I had taken the house photo. The mattress in the pickup was still there when I passed by a second time…and it was thoroughly soaked.


Mixed into the hodgepodge of frats is Watermargin, a co-op established in 1947 (co-ed since 1961/1968, the latter being the year it was formally approved[3]) by WWII verterans to promote undertanding and diversity in religion and race [94]. The name Watermargin comes from a Chinese Classical literary work, translated by Pearl Buck (All Men Are Brothers), in which fugitives fight the injustice of the Ming Dynasty at the water’s margin. Prior to 1947, the house served as a home for Phi Kappa Psi. The house was built in 1890 in the Colonial Revival style [5]. I’m still trying to determine what the house served as between 1912 and 1947.

Next door and contuinuing up University Avenue is Theta Delta Chi. They are colloquially known as “Thumpty”, or the much-maligned “Theta Drug”, supposedly because of the relative ease of obtaining drugs at the house. The house dates from the 1920s, making it one of the later constructions in the area. The running joke that I’m aware of suggests that its members are stoned all the time. Still, although they are the put of many jokes, they’ve managed to stay continuously active at Cornell since 1870, so they might as well take it in stride.

Sigma Pi is further up University Avenue. The original house on the property was built in 1870, burnt down in 1994, and a new, roughly-similar looking house, was designed by local architect Jagat Sharma and built in 1995 [6]. The fraternity was one of the largest at Cornell, until a nasty incident involving a Thanksgiving dinner gone wrong caused four freshmen to have to get their stomachs pumped[7], and Sig Pi losing recognition from the university (i.e. no pledge class). So, how about that fall rush…?

Going back the other way on University, we have Von Cramm Hall (I’ll hit Chi Psi at a later date). The co-op was founded in 1956 by an endowment from Thomas Gilchrist, in memory of his friend Baron Von Cramm. a Nazi German military officer who died trying to stop the Soviet retreat in 1941[8]. It is also the largest co-op, at 32 members. The house became open to women in the 1970s, and has a very strong leftist bent (Redbud Woods…). The house itself was built in 1955, standing on the property of one of the trio of homes owned by Robert Treman. The house, more of the textbook-style tudor, burned in 1944 [9].

Sigma Nu’s house is tucked way at the end of Willard Way. The house dates from about 1910. The house is one of the more obscure ones to try and locate, but it has fantastic views of the West Hill in the town of Ithaca. Sigma Nu Cornell, founded in 1901, is a fraternity with a strong athletic presence.

Missed it the first time, not the second time. Sigma Phi Epsilon’s house on McGraw Place. The house was built in 1965 [10], replacing their former house at 112 Edgemoor Lane. After Sig Ep was gone in 2004 (google it, rumor mill had a field day with that one), ATO occupied the house, and Delta Chi shared it with them when they were rechaptered in 2006-07.

The Kahin Center is the second of the Treman trio. It was remodeled in 1945 as a lodge and as a communication arts center in 1970 [11]. It also mirrored the first house that burned in 1944.

The last of the trio is 660 Stewart Avenue, built about 1902 as the home of Elizabeth Treman and her husband Mynderse Van Cleef [11b]. The house of Zeta Psi for a few decades ending in 1969, the house is currently a 27-person co-op. Unlike most co-ops, this one does not have a meal plan [12].

This was really cool, since it has polished wood and it provided shelter from a sudden rainstorm. “The Chapel for Prayer and Meditation”. And what a nice little chapel it is. On the outside was the posting for a service to Mahatma Gandhi on 9/11/07. And the other events that have happened on 9/11.

And it had a great view. And this is where I’ll leave off for now.
















7 responses

12 08 2008

I’ve always liked how you’ve kept an unbiased approach to the fraternities you’ve discussed. However, I think its unfair and somewhat biased to say FIJI is on a lower rung than another house. I’m not personally in FIJI but I think you should use an objective approach throughout.

12 08 2008

You have a point, I was a little too subjective for this blog in my writing on FIJI. When I wrote it, it was under the impression of material wealth of the brothers, not on the ambiguous rankings of fraternities. I’ve modified it accordingly. Thanks for helping to keep the blog fairly neutral.

8 11 2008

Likewise, “Alpha Delt has always struck me as a more upscale version of SAE”?

Really? When you look closer, other than being neighbors, they are not much alike at all. And SAE has no creepy Goat House.

2 10 2009

Actually, during my days as an undergraduate, Alpha Delta Phi was COLLOQUIALLY known as “Alpha Douche”….

No offense intended, just some historical venacular accuracy…

8 04 2011

Hi, just found this post. I lived at Von Cramm 2001-2004. The house does not usually get political – and we were not vegetarian or vegan (though we were vegetarian-optional). The reason that the house was involved with Rosebud Woods was because the new parking lot would have prevented the house from observing its rituals. You must have heard of the naked banquet. Well, that usually took place behind the house, which was protected from the outside by the Woods. In the same vein, the house parties used to take place on the ground floor, which was also protected from the outside view by the same woods (police never went to the back of the house to enter). I haven’t been back, but I’m guessing that now it’s much harder to run good parties because of the parking lot. (As someone who was in charge of the parties.)

8 04 2011

Let me qualify what I said. The house was apolitical, although some members were involved in different causes. (But it was mostly the same people.) And I can’t speak also for everyone re: Rosebud Woods as I had graduated in ’04, but the feeling I’d got from other crammies, from my time and to whom I’ve talked, was that the focus was more on the fact that the Woods were part of the house and house appeal to newbies during the “mosey” period. (When people would visit VC deciding whether to apply.) The parking lot on the quiet side of the house (as the front side was Thursday to Sunday filled with loud music from ATO) was clearly thought to intrude on that quiet as well.

So, losing the Woods was much more for the house than just a cause (though I’m sure there would be a resident or two who’d be concerned with it).

19 04 2014
Jackie Sutton

This is excellent. I’m a Cornell alumna and a history teacher, and let’s just say I wish I had you in my class. I was never a fan of Greek life, but I appreciate its history and traditions. Thanks.

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