(SYNERGY HOUSE SINCE 1972)
AS A POINT OF HISTORICAL INTEREST
Prepared by Lee Altenberg, Ph.D., May 1991. Revisions, August 2009
The Beta Chi Chapter House of Sigma Nu (Synergy House since 1972) is the only fraternity house designed in whole by the Bay Area's preeminent Beaux Arts architects John Bakewell, Jr. and Arthur Brown, Jr.. Stone contractor John D. McGilvray and his sons in the fraternity recruited Bakewell and Brown for the 1910-1911 project, three years before McGilvray and Bakewell & Brown built San Francisco City Hall. It is their second known collaboration that was an Arts-and-Crafts style house, the first being their first work on campus, the 1908 ‘double’ houses at 625-627 Salvatierra Street built for the Board of Trustees. The Beta Chi Chapter House was built three years before they were hired by the Trustees to become the University architects (their last work on campus was Hoover Tower). McGilvray was the preeminent stone contractor in the Bay Area; his work includes Stanford's Outer Quad and Memorial Church, and San Francisco's Civic Auditorium, St. Francis Hotel, and Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.
The Beta Chi chapter is of historical interest for the role its alumni played in Stanford and California history. Founding members George Crothers (Stanford Trustee in 1910 and later a Superior Court Judge) and John Sheehan (1891), with Francis Keesling (1894) organized the campaign which passed an Amendment to the California State Constitution (1898-1901), written by Crothers, preventing the potential legal collapse of Stanford University. Founder Carl Clemans was the captain and victory scoring halfback of the Stanford football team in the first Big Game with the University of California.
The circumstances that lead to Bakewell and Brown designing a fraternity house are unique to the early history of Stanford University.
John McGilvray, a Scottish stone mason who had in 1897 established the McGilvray Stone Company in San Francisco, moved to Stanford University in 1898 when Mrs. Jane Stanford hired his company as the new university's builder. He and his family lived in Escondite Cottage, home of the famous “Frenchman”, for the rest of his life. His company built Memorial Church, the outer Quad, and all the other stone buildings during the period now known as “the Stone Age” at Stanford. In 1903 and 1906 McGilvray's sons Alexander and Walter Scott, who had grown up on campus, entered Stanford as students and joined the Sigma Nu fraternity.
In 1906, Sigma Nu wanted to build a new house on the Row. Walter Scott McGilvray lead the effort to organize the building. After their fundraising efforts collected only half the money needed, his father John McGilvray put up the other half. McGilvray turned to his friends Arthur Brown Jr. and John Bakewell, Jr., with whom he had worked on their more monumental projects, to personally design the chapter house. In October 1910 Bakewell and Brown applied for the building permit, and in November, 1911, students moved in to the new house.
The house incorporates many aspects unique to fraternity design, including a Chapter Room, Sleeping Porch, a Music Room, and a stone fireplace hearth bearing the Sigma Nu coat of arms. It is not Bakewell and Brown's characteristic Beaux Arts style, but the Arts and Crafts style of brown shingle house. The house also included contemporary passive solar design in the form of a south facing commons room with panoramic windows which was called the “Sun Room” since at least 1926. It is the only fraternity house that Bakewell and Brown designed from the ground up (they later also designed additions to Ernest Coxhead's 1893 Beta Theta Pi House in Berkeley).
In 1913 Stanford University hired Bakewell and Brown to be the University architects, which they remained until 1941, Hoover Tower being their last project at Stanford. The Sigma Nu House is the first known building on campus they designed, three years before they became the University architects. Historians speculated the Stanford Trustees had learned about Bakewell and Brown from their designs of Berkeley City Hall, San Francisco City Hall, and the Horticultural Building at the Panama Pacific Exposition. However, it may have been their previous work on the Sigma Nu house that was their entree to the Stanford Trustees. They built the Sigma Nu House at Stanford in 1910-11, while Sigma Nu alumnus George Crothers was also a Stanford Trustee, so one would suspect that it was Crothers who introduced Bakewell and Brown to the Trustees.
John D. McGilvray died in 1916, after having built many of the monumental buildings of San Francisco: the Spreckels Building, City Hall (with Bakewell and Brown), the Public Library, Civic Auditorium, St. Francis Hotel, Standard Oil Buildings, Pacific Coast Stock Exchange, and Emporium.
McGilvray's sons Alexander, Walter Scott, and Malcolm, all Beta Chi alumni, together with sons John and Harry, continued the McGilvray-Raymond Granite Company, and built the War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building (with Arthur Brown), the new US Mint, Federal Reserve, and others. The Sigma Nu house thus represents something of a family project in which Walter Scott McGilvray got his first experience in organizing a construction project before joining the family company to begin a career that would include constructing many of the great stone buildings of California.
The founders and early members of the Beta Chi chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity made a number of contributions to Stanford and California history, the most significant of which being the campaign run by Beta Chi alumni 1898-1902 that passed an amendment to the California constitution rescuing the faulty legal foundations of Stanford University from possible collapse, and obtaining a tax exemption for the University which saved it $240,000 a year.
This campaign came about through fortuitous circumstances. In 1892 the founding members of Beta Chi negotiated the first lease for building a fraternity house on campus directly with Leland Stanford. In 1898 Jane Stanford wanted the house moved, and George Crothers, now an alumnus and attorney, met with her to renegotiate the lease. She was taken with Crothers's likeness to her late son Leland Stanford, Jr., and confided in him about the legal and financial difficulties the University faced. Crothers offered his services to Mrs. Stanford, and thereby discovered numerous severe legal problems with the terms of the Grant of Endowment and the Enabling Act which were the legal foundation of the University.
Crothers drew up several legislative bills and an amendment to the California constitution which his analysis determined were needed to repair the legal and financial difficulties. He recruited his coworkers Francis Keesling and John Sheehan, both Beta Chi alumni, to organize a statewide campaign to pass the measures. Three other Beta Chi alumni, George Cressy, Lewis H. Smith, and Rea E. Maynard, helped in different parts of the state. The measures were successfully voted into law between 1900-1902.
The Pioneer class of students in Beta Chi contributed to California sports history in beginning the Big Game tradition with the University of California, Berkeley. Carl Lane Clemans, founder of the Beta Chi chapter, was the captain and half-back in the first Big Game with Cal. Beta Chi members John Sheehan, Paul M. Downing and Max L. Rosenfeld also played on the team. Clemans scored the winning touchdown. The victory song after that first Big Game went “Then shout the grand old Stanford yell, we've sent her through the goal! Berkeley's line looked solid, but Clemans found the hole.”
Beta Chi alumni played an important role in the development of student run cooperative businesses at Stanford. Clemans was the first president of the Leland Stanford Junior University Cooperative Association — the original University bookstore — and George Crothers was on the co-op's Board of Directors. In 1897 the co-op was reorganized with a faculty board of directors as the cooperative Stanford Bookstore, which has been the University bookstore ever since. Leland Stanford was a strong advocate of cooperative enterprise, and he placed clauses in the Grant of Endowment to ensure that the Trustees ªshall have the power, and it shall be their duty ... To have taught in the University the right and advantages of association and co-operation,º as “a leading feature lying at the foundation of the university.” Clemans and Crothers heard Stanford say during the Opening Exercises on October 1, 1891, that ªWe have also provided that the benefits resulting from co-operation shall be freely taught. ... Co-operative societies bring forth the best capacities, the best influences of the individual for the benefit of the whole, while the good influences of the many aid the individual.º One can surmise that this was the impetus for their founding the bookstore cooperative.
Other Beta Chi members helped develop student co-ops. In 1921 Harold D. Swett organized and was president of the Co-operative Buying Association for living groups on campus. In 1930 Robert E. Clarke was president of the Students' Co-operative Association. In 1972, the Beta Chi chapter house became Synergy House, the third co-op theme house on campus, with the purpose of “exploring alternatives.” Throughout its history, therefore, the house has been the site of students carrying out one of Leland Stanford's original intentions for Stanford University.
I mention for historical color that in 1934-6, Alan M. Cranston '36 (U.S. Senator) was a member of the house, and besides his distinction in track, he was voted by Beta Chi as having the “worst table manners”. In 1955-6 Donald David Guard was a member of the house, and after he graduated he formed the Pop group the Kingston Trio.
Beginning in 1962, the Beta Chi chapter house began the role it has maintained ever since as a site for important social history at Stanford.
Sigma Nu in 1962 was the first fraternity at Stanford to secede from its national organization over the national's racial exclusion policy. The national Sigma Nu constitution explicitly prohibited membership from Blacks and Asians. In 1961 and 1962, members of the Beta Chi chapter, lead by fraternity president Tom Grey, joined with Brown University's Sigma Nu chapter in attempting to eliminate racial discrimination from the Sigma Nu constitution. When their amendment was voted down 215-76, the Beta Chi chapter unanimously voted to secede. Beta Chi alumni, who owned the Chapter House, supported their move and the fraternity became the independent, local “Beta Chi” fraternity. Tom Grey went on to become a Professor of Constitutional Law at Stanford, and his activities include testifying at the Congressional Hearings on the nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court, and authoring the 1990 reinterpretation of Stanford's “Fundamental Standard.”
In 1966, the now independent “Beta Chi” fraternity voted to abolish selective rush and admit women, grad students, and all other members of the Stanford community, making it the first co-ed fraternity on campus, and one of the first in the nation. In honor of this “open door” policy another fraternity stole the front door of the house.
In 1969 Beta Chi decided to become Stanford's first theme house, the “Beta Chi Community for the Performing Arts”, and it was with this group that actress Sigourney Weaver got her start in acting. Theme housing at Stanford has grown to include over a dozen houses in the 22 years since.
Between 1963 and 1970, ownership of the Beta Chi house traded back and forth between the University and the Beta Chi alumni, finally settling into the University's hands. In 1972, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Alan Strain's “Project Synergy” reopened the house as Synergy House, a cooperative theme house for “exploring alternatives”, where students have worked on projects such as urban agriculture, solar energy, and co-operative enterprise. The following are some of the notable points of Synergy history: