For the first time, the surprising full history of our AU chapter houses can now be told
A little-known story is now being fully revealed chronicling the unlikely path that brought us the current Sigma Chi chapter house on 28th Street. And it involves war-time powers used by the Navy to seize or “requisition” private property, a university happy to acquire Sigma Chi property near the heart of the campus and an astonishing offer from John Wayne himself.
Alpha Upsilon has had many rented and purchased houses since inception – each with its own unique identity and place in history – including one previous chapter house described by The Magazine of Sigma Chi as “America’s most luxuriant chapter house.”
In June 1889, when tuition was just $20 per semester, Alpha Upsilon became the first men’s fraternity at USC; the second men’s fraternity did not establish itself for about 20 years afterward. For the first 18 years, the historical record makes no mention of the brothers living together at all.
But in November 1907, a chapter newsletter says, “Our chapter is on a much firmer financial basis than any time previous and we have leased and furnished a suite of rooms in a large building one block from the campus for lodge purposes.”
For the next 15 years, the Alpha Upsilon brothers bounced from place to place, never securing a long-term home:
1907. “Leased, furnished a suite of rooms in a large building one block from campus.”
1908. 721 ½ W. Jefferson Street. Rooms in a building.
1908. 955 W. 34th Street: First actual chapter house all to the brothers. “A pretty new bungalow, two blocks from campus.”
1912. 3526 S. Figueroa Street.
1917. 2823 Flower Street.
1917. 3436 S. Figueroa Street.
1919. 2719 Ellendale Place
1920. 400 West 31st Street
1921: THE IVY-COVERED LODGE
In 1921, Alpha Upsilon secured what could be called its first semi-permanent chapter house by leasing a former sorority at 504 West 31st Street. It was called the “Ivy Covered Lodge” located on what is now a FedEx parking lot where 31st Street intersects with the Santa Monica Freeway at Flower Street. The first known photo of this Sig house is dated that first year 1921. The Chapter Editor’s entry in The Magazine of Sigma Chi: “The house is large, can easily accommodate the entire chapter, if necessary, is well arranged for dancing, has an artistic appearance on the outside, and is, in fact, the most adequate house for a fraternity home of any on the campus.”
The house is long gone, but the one that stood next to it is still standing, forlorn and falling apart – but still there.
1927: THE FIRST HOUSE BUILT FOR
ALPHA UPSILON, 848 WEST 36TH STREET
By 1927, everything changed. For the first time, the Trojan Sigs had developed an alumni base so strong that it funded $135,000 through loans and bonds – a fortune back then - to design, build and furnish a magnificent all-new chapter house at 848 West 36th Street. The lot had been shrewdly purchased three years previously in an effort led by brother Ralph J. Bell. That lot sits near the present-day student bookstore - 36th Street is now a pedestrian promenade called Childs Way - just yards from the Tommy Trojan statue.
“When you think that we were the first fraternity and that we ended up right in the middle of campus is not surprising,” says Dr. Wayne Gertmenian (AU 1962).
USC President Rufus von KleinSmid had been in office only a few years in 1927 when that Sig house was located adjacent to valuable campus property without any apparent opposition from the university administration. In fact, he joined in the 1927 group photo outside the house. “Rufus was a Sig. He was fine with it!” Gertmenian says. But that prime location would become an issue years later.
On the day this spectacular new house opened, March 19, 1927, it was a pleasant 67-degree
Saturday at the start of a coming heatwave. Everyone was there: The proud AU Sigma Chi architect named Arthur C. Munson (AU 1910), the legendary Harry Lee Martin representing the entire house corporation, and a young recent graduate named Craig Nason who’d been Consul the year before (and who’d later become the 47th Grand Consul) representing the entire undergraduate chapter. Martin spearheaded the financing. Nason ran the effort to float bonds to moms, dads and other friends of Sigma Chi. Munson presented his blueprints. Brother Frank Kranz delivered truckloads of lumber, brother Hugh Fillmore delivered thousands of stone tiles – and together they both furnished the house – at cost.
The Magazine of Sigma Chi called this house “probably the outstanding fraternity structure of its time,” and the “Fraternity’s finest home.” It was an Italian Renaissance architectural beauty with stone tiling, arched windows, custom wrought iron railings shaped into Sigma Chi icons, wooden beams crossing the high ceilings and a chapter room rivaling any great meeting venue.
“Everything about that house was amazing,” says Gertmenian. “It was a great place.”
In an extraordinary example of the value of a good chapter editor, Robert H. Krantz (AU 1929) wrote in the 1926-27 Trojan Sig newsletter:
“At last, the life-long dream of Alpha Upsilon’s men, whether they be knights for the business world, or guardians of the cross in the sacred domain of the active chapter, has come to be a reality,” he wrote. And then his writing may’ve suggested that the Sigs leased the previous house by writing this: “Today we are residents of our own Sig home, a home as grand and splendid as any that ever afforded shelter to an American fraternity group. A home that is an eternal monument on the campus of our university, and a continuous source of pride and inspiration to the men who tread its halls. A home that is a glorious tribute to Sigma Chi and Sigma Chi ideals.”
But it was all about to come to an end.
Alpha Upsilon founders in 1889 had no chapter house.
"AMERICA'S MOST LUXURIANT CHAPTER HOUSE." The 1927 magnificent, all new Alpha Upsilon chapter house at 848 West 36th Street. But under a war-time policy, the US Navy took over the house and then gave ownership to the university in a murky deal that left us without a chapter house.
848 W. 36th Street
504 West 31st Street
907 W. 28th Street
How Hitler and World War II got the Sigs moved out of our magnificent new chapter house - forever
Within 13 years of opening our new chapter house on 36th Street, world war erupted in Europe and later in the Pacific. Under unprecedented war-time powers, the U.S. military began “requisitioning” fraternity houses at many campuses across the country turning them into barracks. Often, but not always, the arrangement was welcomed because fraternity membership declined as members enlisted. One of the rare photos depicting this sweeping policy shows men in uniform walking into an ATO house at Penn State University. The historical record is not always clear on how or whether just compensation was given to the owners of these fraternity houses.
Alpha Upsilon’s compensation was, at best, murky. Beginning in 1943, the Navy began using Alpha Upsilon’s chapter to house Naval flight students. Brothers moved out of their own fraternity house, never to return.
After the war ended things were dramatically changed. USC, keen on expanding its footprint, had grown around the Sig property. For reasons unknown, the Navy returned the property not to Sigma Chi but to USC. The name of the Sigma Chi house was now Owens Hall after a naval flight trainee who had died during the war. President von KleinSmid was retiring and no longer protected Sigma Chi's interest. Owens Hall became the USC Bursar's Office but the Sigma Chi icons in the wrought ironwork on the front stairs remained. Sigs now had to go pay their tuition and fees in what was once their home. Owens Hall was finally torn down in the early 1960’s to make way for construction of the bookstore in the center of campus.
"As a history major at USC, I see Alpha Upsilon's loss of the 1927 house as its own unique contribution to the war effort," says Gene Erbstoesser, AU 1970 and a former Chapter Advisor. "And it didn't end there. Many brothers joined the armed forces, and AU Sig Col. Frank Kurtz was a much-decorated flying ace who served in both the Pacific and Europe and flew many combat bombing missions. His plane, ‘The Swoose’, is the only B-17 to have flown throughout the entire war and is in the US Air Force Museum."
1947: THE OLD WHITE HUNTING LODGE
907 WEST 28th STREET
Even though there are no known supporting documents still in existence, Gertmenian concludes Alpha Upsilon “must’ve gotten funding from the school” for seizing its chapter house. It is presumed the compensation in the late 1940’s enabled the purchase, with no debt, of an existing building known as “the Old White Hunting Lodge” on 907 W. 28th Street, the location of the present-day chapter house. Craig Nason, who was instrumental as a recent graduate in getting the 1927 chapter house built, again helped arrange this new deal.
Brother Ron Winger moved in as a pledge in 1948, just a year after Sigma Chi moved in. "It was very nice. Some double rooms, some single. A nice dining room and a cook," Winger says. Ron's best friend Jim McAleer, also 97, pledged Sigma Chi together with Ron. "It was like coming home," he said of this house. The two remain best friend.
“The Old White Hunting Lodge” was a wood-framed house painted white with a twin-peaked roof and central main entrance and looked - well, it looked like an old white hunting lodge. It was an attractive building, but it was not built for a fraternity. It quickly became clear a new house was needed. An adjacent lot with a vacant house was also purchased to give Alpha Upsilon a larger footprint for a future chapter house at 907 W. 28th Street.
In the late 1950’s, as the Sigs contemplated how they could afford to build a new house, some really big news came our way. “John Wayne offered to pay for our new house,” Gertmenian says. “John Wayne said he was going to build us a new house, so we tore the house down.”
The Alpha Upsilon Sigs moved into nearby temporary housing in a defunct dentists’ fraternity that housed about 15 men even when utilizing “some of the closets too,” jokes Gertmenian, who lived there as an undergrad. The Kappa Sigs got kicked off campus that year and the Sigs then moved into slightly larger housing temporarily. But the university rejected the plan to have John Wayne pay for a new house, perhaps hoping to quash any new fraternity house. The astonishingly generous plan to have John Wayne fund a new house collapsed anyway when Wayne’s manager allegedly mismanaged the actor’s fortune.
“It was a great gesture on his part even though it didn’t come to fruition,” says Kerry McCluggage (AU 1976), president of the Trojan Sig Foundation and a key player in Alpha Upsilon’s alumni base.
THE CURRENT CHAPTER HOUSE
So, who paid for the current chapter house? Although the historical record is unclear, it appears this is how it unfolded. During the 1950’s, colleges experienced surging enrollment everywhere largely due to the GI Bill that provided tuition to legions of former soldiers. In the late 1950’s, just as Sigma Chi needed a solution, a federal initiative to build housing at college campuses provided money for schools to use. Alpha Upsilon was selected by USC for a grant to construct the current chapter house – but it came with strings attached. Ownership of the property and the house would be handed over to the university. The Sigs would pay rent and the university, as landlord, would pay for maintenance and repairs. At the time, it was too good of a deal to pass up.
The university, perhaps anticipating the demise of the Greek system, returned with a design not well suited for a fraternity, not engineered with durability and included a chapter room far too small. The house was a new, mid-century modern design in the contemporary style of the era known for its trendy boxy exterior and flat roof with vertical features and minimal windows. When it opened in about 1961, the Alpha Upsilon Sigs quickly filled the brand-new house – but it was now owned by the university. Sigma Chi was renting once again.
The current house does not sit well with Gertmenian. “From Day One, it didn’t make any sense. It might have been magnificent compared to the rest of The Row, but” it was not our concept and it was not what fraternity men needed, he says.
In about 1988, a fire broke out destroying a number of rooms and hallways along one side of the house on the first and second floors, threatening to destroy the entire house. Quick firefighting saved the structure, but questions began to arise about whether the chapter house was sufficiently engineered, up to code and whether the contractor secretly cut corners otherwise required in the original contract.
“It was built on the cheap. There was no chapter room of any consequence,” said Gene Erbstoesser (AU 1970), “a very small, cramped room.”
Gertmenian, who was there during negotiations and the start of construction, and who briefly lived in the current chapter house, is more blunt. He called the current chapter house “just a piece of junk.” It was “not exactly the kind of house that could sustain all that rough wear. So, it was very expensive for [the university to maintain]. Finally, they started sending us bills.”
Nevertheless, from about 1961 to today – more than 62 years – the current chapter house has managed to survive. In the 2000’s, Trojan Sig alums bought back the house and property from USC – a profound, history-changing feat we will explore in a separate story later on this website. “We bought it back to control our own destiny,” says Dan Vogelzang (AU 1978), the Trojan Sig House Corporation president who was part of the buy back team.
The current chapter house has been the physical manifestation for a million incredible memories for hundreds of Alpha Upsilon brothers during its era. Fraternity men are tough on a building, as everyone knows. But the current house has served its purpose and lived on much longer than anyone anticipated.
And it all came to us because of a World War II military mandate, a generous offer from John Wayne and a forced arrangement by university administrators who were only too glad to take ownership of a key piece of property.
US military personnel at Penn State used an ATO house as barracks during WWII. This was not uncommon and happened at AU. But after the war, our house was not returned to us.
This is the first known Alpha Upsilon chapter house. Beginning in 1921, the Sigs leased it for several years.
After losing our "luxuriant" 1927 chapter house during WWII, the Sigs struck a deal to buy this house in 1947 lovingly called "The Big White Hunting Lodge" located on the site of our current chapter house. Two 97-year-old brothers, Ron Winger and Jim McAleer, have fond memories of life in this house from 1948 to 1952. "It was like coming home," said Jim.
When it opened in 1927, the Sig alumni spent $140,000 to build this Italian Renaissance chapter house with lavish interior that included wrought iron railings with Sigma Chi iconography. But ownership inexplicably went to USC after the war.
907 W. 28th Street
The original blueprints for the current chapter house paid for by the university in exchange for selling the property.
John Wayne offered to pay for a new chapter house in 1960. But his finances took a hit and the generous offer vanished.
One of the earliest known color photos of the current chapter house found in the Sigma Chi archives.
The current Alpha Upsilon chapter house is now more than 63 years old and full of memories but may have run its course.
All of the old Alpha Upsilon chapter houses are gone. However, this abandoned house still standing sat next to the first known AU chapter house at 504 West 34th Street which is now a parking lot for Fed Ex trucks next to the Santa Monica Freeway at Flower Street. When you drive by it, imagine the Sigs having fun right next door.
The legendary Harry Lee Martin, AU 1896, was a tycoon who was the leader of numerous large corporations. He was also the spearhead of the 'luxuriant' 1927 Sigma Chi chapter house project. The house featured ornate Sigma Chi icons made in wrought iron throughout prominent places in the house. Lee also ran a large iron works which may've been tied to the chapter house decor.