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Crimson White Online

April 28, 2006

Built on a Hill

DKEs, alumni give campus' oldest frat house living funeral


By Nick Beadles, Managing Editor, News

story image 1 Alex Fleming, a sophomore majoring in business management, 

puts the final touches on hanging the sign for this year's Undertaker's Ball.
CW/ Charley Pardens

It sits on what's left of the hill like an old woman waiting to die, thinking about the good times she had with the boys when she was young.

The boys will come and mourn her tonight: The old ones, who still care for her, and came back to visit on pleasant autumn afternoons. The younger ones, who are with her now, but probably won't realize what she meant to them until she's gone.

They will come and give her a living funeral, talking and drinking under white tents in parking lots that are not theirs, remembering all the good times while trying not to get too much dust from the gravel on their nice shoes and slacks.

When they are done, they will take what they can from her and move on to something new - something that does not smell like impending death.

And when the end comes, she will be almost as alone on that hill as she was when it started, right up until the second they knock her down and take her and the rest of the hill away.

For the men of the UA chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon, the wrecking ball that ends the life of the Capstone's oldest fraternity house in May will kill a family member - a matriarch who can no longer survive as the campus changes around her, but will not be sent into oblivion without being reminded by her boys what she meant to them.

"It's like losing a 90-year-old grandmother," said John McNeil, who lived in the house for two years while he was a UA student between 1975 and 1979. "We're losing that. We're not losing any of the heritage or anything like that - that will go with us in the new house. We're just losing the 'Mansion on the Hill.' "

McNeil heads a group of DKE alumni behind efforts to relocate the fraternity after the mansion meets its end May 23 to make room for a new plaza and grand entrance for an expanded Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Ground will be broken on a new house across the street in August as the old mansion, and the hill it stood on for 90 years, is replaced by red-brick sidewalks and bronze statues of Alabama's national champion football coaches Wallace Wade, Frank Thomas, Paul "Bear" Bryant and Gene Stallings.

While the house is being built, the DKEs will be centered in a Bryce Lawn apartment building on the east side of campus next year. A 3,000-foot temporary dining and meeting hall with restrooms and a kitchen on 18 wheels will be deposited next to the their temporary home.

Losing the mansion was the last thing many of the DKEs wanted, McNeil said, but no one fights football at the University of Alabama and wins - especially if it grew up in your back yard.

"We wanted to fight it and fight it and fight it, but we knew it wasn't good for us and it wasn't good for the University," he said. "We're strong supporters of the athletics. The athletics have known how hard it is for us to move."

There first

The mansion was there first - years before Wade put football on the road to being a religion in Alabama; more than a decade before Bryant took his first snap in an Alabama uniform for Thomas and generations before Stallings ever set foot on campus.

It was born on then University Avenue in 1916 in a time when most students and alumni were wary of the Capstone's greek system, according to a March historical survey of the DKE house. Survey author Thomas Shelby writes that many independent men on campus complained that the greeks were a "self-constituted aristocracy" that snobbed them from campus politics and athletics. In 1915, a bill banning greek organizations from state schools was barely defeated by the Alabama Legislature.

But George Denny, the University's most prolific president, wanted that aristocracy on campus, instead of deposited in rental houses around Tuscaloosa, to make their lives healthier and more intertwined with the UA community. Phi Gamma Delta built its chapter house on campus in 1914, and soon many fraternities, including DKE, had planted their homes along the west section of University Avenue.

The "Mansion on the Hill" nickname came soon after the DKEs emigrated from their rented house on Queen City Avenue, because, other than the mansion and the hill, there was little else save a road, a field and a cemetery across the way.

As the mansion sat through the 20th century, football and the rest of the University slowly encroached on its territory. Many fraternities plopped their mansions along University, though many ended up on the east side of campus by the end of 1960s and '70s when New Row came together, Shelby writes. Denny Stadium opened in 1929 with 12,000 seats and kept finding ways to get bigger every few decades, finally taking on Bryant's name in 1975.

On an island

Now the mansion's surrounded, holed up. The stadium grows larger and more looming behind its back. Work on the plaza and impending doom digs closer to its face.

Most of the hill is now a brown manmade chasm waiting to be filled with sod, shrubbery red brick and streetlights.

"It's the 'Mansion on the Island' now," McNeil said. "You didn't realize how big that hill was until the hill was gone."

It's harder to get the boys to come spend time with the house now - even for dinner. Stadium construction has taken their parking away and the house has seen much better days.

Only a little more than 10 or so members still live in the house. Some, like David Hawley, have moved out since January because of the construction. They're tired of waking up to find their parking lot is replaced with piles of gravel and the cacophony of the machines gnawing through what was once their front yard.

"When they were digging up the promenade or whatever, it was just right there," said Hawley, a junior majoring in real estate finance, who moved out in February. "It always seemed like every day they would dig up a water line or a gas line or something. One day I couldn't take a shower because the water was off."

The cruel consequences of age and hard living have set in. Her once elegant looks are wrinkled, dented and worn, her insides failing.

Handcrafted door frames hang tentatively over bedroom entrances. Mildew scars, thought to be from a poor attempt to do laundry that ended with soapy water cascading down the house's front stairwell, rot away in the dining hall ceiling.

"This house is like a really fine antique," said Beau Fleming, a DKE member and a senior majoring in health studies. "It's kind of sad to have to do anything."

Many facelifts

Operations have kept the house looking fresh and alive, the biggest of which was in 1962. The mansion was gutted and remade, according to Shelby's historical survey, as its kitchen was expanded and its second-floor sleeping porch, a room full of bunk beds where every member slept, was converted to several cramped bedrooms to which two men were assigned. The rooms are private now.

The house paid a price to look modern, however. Shelby writes that the 1962 renovations were "tactless" and killed much of what made the house distinctive at the time, like Venetian gable windows and a latticed porch. The operation also tacked on fire escapes and window air conditioning units that were "unsightly," according to the survey.

There were minor surgeries performed before and after the 1962 renovation and the 1970 addition of a ballroom. Problems would be repaired and walls would be repainted every year before school began to keep the house fresh and strong - until this year, McNeil said.

With the mansion acquiring new afflictions every day, it has become harder to justify each procedure meant to ward off a death that is so close, said Gwen Burt, 69, DKE's house mother since 1998.

"Toward the end, you have to try not to spend money on the sink and stove," she said. "That's not the attitude you have, though, when the old people are coming back one last time."

'Can't go back home'

The old boys will be back tonight for one of the DKEs' most infamous traditions, "Undertaker's Ball." The event, started in 1957, is a living funeral for a DKE member, a "dead man" chosen by means cloaked in stock fraternity secrecy.

After an extravagant funeral procession, the chosen DKE member is eulogized by a "preacher," one of his fraternity brothers, while he does his best corpse impression. At some point, there's a fraternity party.

Tonight there will be a funeral band, there will be a mule-drawn carriage, there will be a procession, but no dead man eulogized - only the Mansion on the Hill. Men who pledged DKE as far back as the 1930s will return to say kind words about the mansion and the times with it.

In all, McNeil said, about 900 to 950 alumni - and dates - are expected to flood into the house and pack tents set up in the few neighboring parking lots that the stadium construction hasn't completely eaten up.

It's appropriate, however, given the impression the event leaves on many DKEs. McNeil said the 1979 ball, in which he was the dead man, was his favorite experience with the house.

But the house is also reminds him of when Alabama rarely lost a football game, or when the DKEs defied the pale blanket of snow that covered the campus by lighting a bonfire in the house's front yard.

Another alumnus, Bill de Shazo, a UA student and DKE member from 1974 to 1978, said the event left an impression on him as well, especially the awe it left him in his freshman year.

He related mourning the house to mourning his late father.

"Kind of an empty, hole in the gut kind of thing," de Shazo said. "It's kind of like moving from your hometown or something -- a 'can't go back home' kind of thing."

But the event is as much a reaffirmation for the fraternity's plans for their house's $5 million rebirth across the street as it is a tentpole for nostalgia, McNeil said. The fraternity is in the "quiet phase" of the fundraising for the new house. A public campaign will begin during Homecoming in the fall.

Undertaker's, however, is not a fundraising event, McNeil said.

To protect the memories attached to the mansion, the house has been dressed up like a corpse being made up for a funeral, McNeil said. Gallons of paint have been used to cover up the cosmetic indiscretions caused by age and DKE actives.

Active members don't have the same attachment to the house of their predecessors. Two weeks ago, one of those indiscretions included jet black graffiti spray-painted on the second floor's palm green walls.

Warding off such abuse has been harder with the mansion crumbling around them, said Miller Terry, a DKE junior majoring in finance. He said fraternity leadership that would once fine members for breaking spindles on the house's staircase has been lax in recent months.

"We've treated this house like an amusement park," said Richmond Collinsworth, a DKE freshman also in finance. "We think we can do anything since it's coming down."

But Hawley said many members have been nicer to the dying house than most would think.

"You'd think everyone would be throwing stuff through the windows," he said. "But it's an old friend. Nobody's really abused it. You're going to have some people who want to mess it up sometimes.

"But there have not been any excessive or regular abuses, considering, you know, the house is about to have a wrecking ball through it."

Still, active members don't have the same attachment to the Mansion on the Hill because their mansion hasn't been built yet, said Stuart Parnell, a DKE sophomore in finance. Their house won't have mildew in its dining hall or the stink of a nursing home.

"We are going to have a nice house, we're going to have nicer facilities," he said. "Losing the history behind the house, yeah, it's a big deal, but it's something we're going to have to deal with.

"It's not going to be as big of a deal to us because we're still here."

The new house is needed, said Robert Allen, a DKE senior majoring in political science. He said he sees the demolition and construction of the house not so much as the euthanasia of an old friend, but something the fraternity needs to compete as a business, to keep getting the opportunity to invest in new members.

Especially now, when other fraternities are building or making major changes to their houses, and the UA administrators instituting a mandatory freshman housing policy while the University turns out attractive, new apartment-style dormitories.

When he leaves the Mansion on the Hill, Allen said, "I want to take the No. 3 off the door, but that's probably it.

"A couple of thieves can come in here and walk out empty-handed."


While current members may not take much from the old building, the house won't be forgotten in the design of the new mansion. Architectural illustrations look like God will reach down and snatch up the old house, heal its wounds and place it carefully across the street with new wings grafted on.

In reality, the old will be grafted onto the new. Before they let the mansion die next month, they will cut out pieces of its fireplace, mantle and chapter room so they can be transplanted into its successor, McNeil said. Five thousand maroon bricks from the house will be gathered up and used to build a patio behind the new house. Whatever's left will be sent to the most nostalgic alumni, said Moe Cook, a member of the DKE house staff.

But tonight, they will take care of her, honor her, tell her how much they will miss her when she's gone and make her final arrangements.

Athletics director Mal Moore will present the marker that will be placed in the plaza to denote where the Mansion on the Hill once stood, McNeil said. She will be alone when she dies. But when she is gone, hundreds, thousands will pass by her grave.

Sending the house out with Undertaker's is appropriate not just because of its place in the UA DKE chapter's history, de Shazo said, but the theology of the event that he theorized comes from its membership's historically strong roots in Mobile and New Orleans, where death is celebrated like any other Mardi Gras.

"For me, it's just the concept of death and mourning, and in kind of a twisted way, it's a religious experience," he said. "Although there's a certain amount of drunkenness involved in all that, in its own strange way, it's kind of like an Easter."

When the wrecking ball ends the DKE house in a few weeks, the Mansion on the Hill will experience the belief at the heart of Easter. There will be a temporary death, then a rebirth.

Just on the other side of the street.




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