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Lee Altenberg © 1988

Synergy House seems to have the remarkable ability to act as an antenna for the waves of cultural change that have occurred in America. Its history reflects interweaving threads of cultural movements, always apart from, but interacting with, the world “down on campus.”


The story of the house begins in 1891 with one Carl Lane Clemans, riding on a train from Cornell, where he had just graduated, to Palo Alto, to become among the first students at the new Leland Stanford, Junior, University. He already had plans for his first day: to organize a Stanford Chapter of the Sigma Nu Fraternity, and as soon as he arrived he began recruiting. Among his recruits were the Crothers brothers from San Jose. Clemans was the quarterback in the first Big Game and George Crothers went on to become a strong ally and Trustee of the University.

The Beta Chi Chapter of Sigma Nu was the third fraternity to be chartered at Stanford, and the first one to build its own chapter house on campus. The original house was down by the athletic field, but by 1910 the Row had taken shape, and so Sigma Nu built its second house “on top of the hill,” at 664 San Juan, intentionally as secluded as possible from the rest of the Row.

But it wasn't until Clemans and Crothers encountered Leland Stanford that another one of their projects, one with a multi-million dollar legacy, would come into being. Leland Stanford, the great “Robber Baron,”” builder of the Central Pacific Railroad, had developed a peculiar notion about the direction American industry should take. He believed the time had come when the capitalist (such as himself) could be dispensed with in the industrial system, and that the workers could organize, operate and own their industries themselves, as cooperatives. This was no idle thought of Stanford's. As U.S. Senator he introduced a bill to foster the creation of worker owned cooperatives, and in his founding of Stanford University, he intended the fostering of worker cooperatives to be “a leading feature lying at the foundation of the University.”

Clemans and Crothers hears Senator Stanford tell them at the Opening Exercises that “We 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.” Inspired, one must surmise, with Stanford's vision, Clemans, Crothers and others founded the Leland Stanford Junior University Cooperative Association on December 7, 1891, to serve as the first campus bookstore, with Clemans president and Crothers on the Board of Directors. The student share-holding system was found to be problematic, so in 1897 the cooperative was reorganized under a faculty board of directors to become today's Stanford Bookstore. The book rebates you get there are a result of its being legally a cooperative.

These two interests of Clemans and Crothers their first quarter at Stanford — the Sigma Nu house, and cooperatives — were to finally come together 70 years later, when the Beta Chi chapter house became Synergy House. But there is a story to tell in between.

December 7, 1941 was a significant date. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on this day, the Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the Leland Stanford, Junior, University Cooperative Association, and the U.S. entered World War II. All the fraternities shut down as the men went off to the armed services, and “for the duration" their houses were given the names of U.S. Presidents. Sigma Nu became “Chester T. Arthur House.” Meanwhile, President Roosevelt sent all Americans on the West Coast of Japanese descent off to internment camps, and so the Japanese House became vacant. A bunch of students kept the house from being empty by organizing the first student housing cooperative which rented it from the Japanese Student Association. Walter Thompson Co-op was named after a “kindly political science professor" who had been active in the cooperative movement. The co-op was very successful, but a few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Dean of Housing announced that Walter Thompson Co-op would be terminated. The "obituary" written in the Stanford Daily about the house was the last appearance of the idea of co-op housing for another twenty years, and the last mention of Leland Stanford's dream of a co-op America for another forty years.

After the war, the Sigma Nu house seemed to have changed. Several times it was put on probation for running an illegal bar in what is now called the “Opium Den.” At one point they had among the worst grade point averages of the fraternities. In 1959 tragedy occurred when one of the Sigma Nu brothers, on his way back from the Big Game Bonfire, passed out in the driveway 50 ft. up from Dolores, and was run over and killed by another fraternity brother. Sigma Nu was again put on probation, and by 1960 there were many vacancies in the house.

It was then that house began its path into the heart of the sixties. A group of Wilbur Hall freshmen, the “Future Leader of America" types, had come under the inspiration of a Professor Watson in Political Science, and came up with the idea of all living together in one house. The seventeen students approached Sigma Nu and proposed that they could either take all of them or none of them, and thus they were pledged en masse to the house. This was at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and it was not lost on these new pledges that the national constitution of Sigma Nu prohibited membership from “Negroes and Orientals.” No one could be a brother who had been “a slave or a descendent of slaves.”

In 1960, Stanford's ATO chapter had pledged four Jewish men and the National promptly revoked its charter. The young upstarts at Sigma Nu tried for two years to “work within the system" to change the National policy. At the Sigma Nu national convention in 1962, the Stanford Sigma Nu's together with the chapter from Brown University tried to pass an amendment to the constitution that would eliminate the racist exclusion policy. They were defeated 215 to 76.

After the delegates came back home, the brothers debated what to do. At their house meeting on November 19, 1962, the Stanford Sigma Nu's, voted unanimously to cut all ties with the Sigma Nu national fraternity, and the group henceforth became the independent Beta Chi Fraternity. Frat President Tom Grey (now a professor in the Law School) announced the decision, and the alumni, who held the ownership of the house, and University President Sterling, fully supported them. After this taste of self-determination, the frat would never be the same.

In 1966, the brothers freaked out the rest of the fraternities by voting to abolish their traditional selective rush system and to open membership to “any member of the Stanford community,”” including women, faculty members, grad students, administrators and others. There were no co-ed dorms at this time and women were not even allowed to live off campus. In honor of this new “open door" policy, another less progressive frat stole Beta Chi's front door. At that time Beta Chi had as many Marshall and Danforth Scholars as all of Harvard University, but conceded defeat in making Beta Chi the Harvard or the West because the house had only two Rhodes Scholars compared to Harvard's University's four.

The first women joined as eating associates in 1967, but it wasn't till 1969 that the first women moved in. That year Beta Chi had the distinction of being the first campus residence to have a drug bust. Beta Chi made campus history again by voting in the Spring of 1969 to become the Beta Chi Community for the Performing Arts, Stanford's first theme house. Beta Chi performed several plays, formed “Outrageous Productions" to run a film series on campus, and published its own artsy fartsy newspaper, “The Farmer.” Beta Chi became well known for its Halloween Parties which had bowls full of genuine LSD punch.

In 1970, the cooperative movement finally came home to Stanford with the creation of Jordan House and Columbae House co-ops. Many fraternities had closed in the late 1960's because students became repelled by their racist traditions and whole ambience, so a lot of houses were open for innovation. Into this vacuum stepped the co-ops. By this time Leland Stanford's vision of a university for cooperatives had been completely erased from Stanford history, so the idea of cooperatives came from other universities where student housing co-ops had been flourishing for decades. Columbae House was created by students interested in nonviolence and social change. In the next two years, three other co-op theme houses were created — Ecology House, Synergy ("exploring alterntives"), and Hammarskjold ("international understanding"). These four co-ops established the concept of theme housing at Stanford out of which the “academic theme houses" later developed.


After a decade of ever deepening psychic shocks to the nation, the primary of which was the Vietnam war, students around the country were in a rather extraordinary state of mind. Stanford had hired as its draft counselor Alan Strain, a Quaker and leader in the Central Committee on Conscientious Objectors, a group that helped men who were morally opposed to war to obtain exemption from the draft. To quote from the first edition of Living in Syn (1978),

“At one point, it is estimated, 42% of the Stanford male population were Conscientious Objectors. It is harder now to recall the effect of the war; the terror, the fear, the moral rage that flooded every young man at that time can only be described weakly. Men were faced with several choices: 1) to fight and kill, or be killed in a war that was illegal, immoral, and pointless; 2) to succumb to prison; 3) to attempt a life as an outlaw underground or as an alien in another country; or 4) arrange a deferment, while your friends face the other choices. Many people were hurt, physically and emotionally.”

“But the level of moral commitment and the extent to which these people, under this pressure, found new ideals and new strategies, was inspiring. Forced to seek alternatives, many did — and Synergy was a product of the idealism and commitment of that era.”

People granted Conscientious Objector status were required to do alternative service, so the Draft Counseling office also had the task of channelling hundreds of men toward work in beneficent organizations. The moral commitment to nonviolence and social change made many want to figure out how they could live their whole lives “conscientiously,” to integrate their moral commitment into their careers and lifestyles. So Alan Strain offered a SWOPSI course in 1971 on “New Ways to Live and Work,” whose action project was “Project Synergy.” Project Synergy's goal was to create a counseling and resource center on new ways to live and work.

The concept of “synergy" was one of the hot new ideas floating around at that time. Synergy means “together energy" (syn-ergy), i.e., the energy that can be released by bringing things into relationship, creating something new which is not predictable from the original things which were combined. “Project Synergy" was chosen as the name for this alternative careers and lifestyles project because people had experienced that, by trying to integrate their values and their working life and lifestyles, whole new solutions were discovered that they hadn't imagined before. Moreover, synergy was something you could get by bringing people into cooperative relationships. You've got synergy when “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Meanwhile, back up on the hill, Beta Chi had apparently been getting more disorganized, with drug problems developing, financial mismanagement, a crazy man living in the basement, and classic late '60s chaos. As one Beta Chi alum described it, by 1972 it was hard to walk down the 2nd floor hallway at night “without stepping in dog shit.” So the Sigma Nu alumni who held title to the house got fed up with it, and sold it to the University for $11,000.

Larry Horton, Dean of Residential Education, was friends with Alan Strain and mentioned that this new house was available. So students in Project Synergy, many of whom lived in Columbae, came up with the idea of creating Synergy House. They described their vision thus:

“Our attempt is to create here and now at the Stanford community a society we envision where cooperative relationships and collective actions are encouraged, where all the aspects of our lives can be integrated. ...[Synergy House] has been organized around the theme of alternatives. ...Here people will live and work together to create a community integrating work, study and interpersonal relationships and maintaining close contact with other alternatives.”

The last days at Beta Chi were apparently tumultuous. The Housing Office came in and took away the fabulous Persian rug from the living room, never to return it, but replacing it with a more modest one, which is now in Lathrop, and finally giving Synergy the more worn out one that is there today. One Beta Chi resident began ripping light fixtures off the walls. Other forgotten chaos ensued...

In the summer of 1972 the Project Synergy students began working on the house to get it ready for the Autumn when everyone would move in. The sleeping porch was divided up into bedrooms, and much renovation was done. And in the fall, Synergy House opened.

Once everyone had moved in, the question was, what exactly are we supposed to do? The open-endedness of Synergy's theme of “exploring alternatives" made for some initial vagueness but for long term vitality. John Junkerman, one of the main organizers, characterized the first year's activities as “building the house.” Synergy started right out with many of the practices pioneered at Columbae, including consensus decision making, bread baking, vegetarian cooking, co-ed bathrooms, and organic gardening. One of the first real debates in the house was whether to continue the Beta Chi tradition of having a bowl of acid punch at the Halloween party. After long discussion the consensus was yes — but it would be kept upstairs so as to be more responsible about it.

The big project for the year was the Synergy Conference on Alternatives, which Project Synergy and Synergy House organized. Five hundred participants from the Rockies west assembled under big tents in the Cowell Cluster during May 9 - 13, 1973 to share their experiences in trying “to live out new relationships, create new work forms, build new institutions" and “to work on common problems collectively.” Anthropologist Margaret Mead was invited but declined. “I regret that I am unable to accept your invitation, as I will be doing field work in New Guinea this spring," she replied. The Bridge had held a very successful Spring Fair benefit the year before, and so this was integrated into the program as a “Festival of Alternatives.” The Bridge's Spring Fair continues, albeit as a mainly commercial affair, to the present.

The areas that were represented at the Synergy Conference included:

For the first night, the co-ops provided food for the participants: Synergy provided macaroni and cheese, Columbae and Ecology: soy casserole, Hammarskjold: green salad, Jordan: bean salad and jello.

The Festival part had crafts, yoga, folk dancing, an ongoing Free Clinic, an organic gardening plot, food, “a life size game of de-skooling,” and dome-building — summed up as “fixing it, making it, baking it, transforming it.” Each of the conference participants contributed to computer data base, and from this the “Synergy People's Yellow Pages" was published. Bill Leland, founder of the Bridge, who worked on the Synergy Yellow Pages later expanded this into the “Harbinger" file which is available on the Socrates database today.

All these “Synergy" developments were part of a burgeoning movement that came to be known as the “alternatives" movement, into which the energy unleashed by the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements flowed as these movements became exhausted. The sense of many activists was that “The Movement" was burning itself out because it was focused too narrowly on protest, on what people were against — be it racism, imperialism, sexism, etc. — rather than what they were for. “Live the revolution now" was the evolving idea — create institutions that embody your ideals and that sustain and empower you. Cooperatives were a central part of this vision, as they had been for Leland Stanford, for the Wobblies, for Lenin (though not for Stalin), and as they currently are for the Green Movement and for perestroika.

The creation of these “alternative" institutions at Stanford — namely SWOPSI, the Student Center for Innovative Research in Education, Columbae, the Bridge, Synergy, the Women's Center, and others — helped keep activism and “counterculture" healthy at Stanford long after it had evaporated from most other campuses in the U.S.. The coming of Reagan to the White House, and the cultural changes that were a part of it, eventually overcame much of the alternatives movement. The history of Synergy through the 70's and 80's can be seen as a reflection of these social changes.



spinoff houses:  Good Space, Oxford House, Leland House, Magic House, Dragon 
Synergy Foundation
Briarpatch, San Andreas Health Clinic, Common Ground/Ecology Action, 
Wheelsmith, Plowshare Books, New Ways to Work, Mid Penninsula Conservation 
Center, bike paths
Older supporters moving energy off campus.

“politicos" vs. “hearth and home" types.
 1972-3:  Synergy House.  Synergy Conference.  Building the house.
 Consensus, bread, veggie, Indian Room
 1974:  Strike, Alliance for Radical Change;  end of Syn Center; Syn Fdn.
 1975:  Garden, solar water heater.
 1976:  Divestment Movement, sit in 


Academic theme houses
 1977-8:  Erasure of Syn theme;  Abalone alliance, Norm Robinson Dean of Res 
Ed.  First co-op canceled- Androgyny. Against The Grain, Black Rose Anarchy. 
 1978-9:  Chickens , working against rape
 1979-80:  Bowling Team incident 
 1980 summer:  3 caretakers 
 1980-1:  Amy Parker and herb garden, breadbox collector Co-op Pamphlet, Bag 
Event, Wedding, Grad Student Proposal, best Draw in years
 1981 summer:  4th of July , roofer room


The new people who moved in to Synergy in the Fall of 1981 embraced the house with enthusiasm, signing right up for managerships and digging in to their house jobs. But somehow, as the house settled in, something just wasn't jelling in the group. In many ways it was a partying year, but it was individuals partying with other individuals. The Reagan era had brought in a new generation of students for whom the whole concept of community was alien. People didn't see that the community had specific needs beyond the needs of particular individuals in it. There was no sense of connectedness with those who had come before or those who would come after. The house became a collection of individuals.

The image of Synergy as being an open generous community continued, however, and as one after another drifter showed up at the house having been told they could roof there, none were refused. But after awhile, these roofers began to sort of take over the common areas — hanging out, partying, sleeping there when it rained. It was “roofer madness.” This compounded the atomization of the community, since many people felt alienated from the common areas, but no one had the self-assuredness to push for the roofers to leave. All were operating under the illusion that “Synergy was supposed to be this way.” None had enough experience with the concept of community to realize that things were dreadfully awry. People were having lots of fun as individuals, but the sense of common purpose, of Synergy as a great experiment and part of a larger community of social change, wasn't there.

The cultural changes taking place in the house were more than matched by what was going on down the hill, where conformity and a fear of difference were becoming quite dominant. The changes that were going on were palpable though subjective. They became quite concrete when the results of the spring housing draw of 1982 came in.

Synergy had 19 vacancies. Terra had 12 vacancies. Columbae had 12 vacancies. The co-ops didn't know what had hit them. It was unprecedented in the draw. And it meant that lots of people who didn't want to live in the co-ops would be assigned there. But Synergy faced the worst of it. Nineteen people, almost half the house, would be moving in who hadn't wanted to live there, people assigned as “006"s, i.e. “put me anywhere.” What would this mean?

Synergy had again applied to be open in the summer and this had been approved. A member of the house had applied to be summer R.A. but Res Ed gave the job to someone who had never been in a co-op instead. At the beginning of the summer lots of people came to him asking if they could roof and he said, “Sure, that's fine by me.” But a few weeks later he announced that Dean Robinson had told him to give him a list of all the roofers so he could evict them. This caused absolute havoc. The R.A. at first refused to take responsibility for the situation, but was finally persuaded to give the roofers one week to find other places to live before he submitted their names, and they all managed to find lodging elsewhere. But the main fallout was that it had caused bad relations between Res Ed and Synergy. Res Ed has denied every request by Synergy to stay open in the summer ever since.

So on the eve of Synergy's tenth anniversary, things were not well. But the anniversary presented an opportunity to bring Synergy's alumni back to reflect on this place called Synergy, an opportunity to infuse some self- confidence and inspiration into this beleaguered community. And so a group of alumni organized a reunion for the Halloween Party and invited everyone who had ever lived in Synergy to come.

In the fall, the nineteen “006"s moved in. They were quite amenable to the house operating as a co-op, but they weren't going to take any of this vegetarianism. They demanded, rather unanimously, that the house serve them red meat at least 3 times a week. The vegetarians and the other supporters of Synergy's vegetarian policy knew there was no choice — serve meat or lose the house. And thus the policy of serving meat was introduced into Synergy, and the house has never since been able to again become a vegetarian environment.

The willingness of the vegetarian contingent to compromise on this issue seems to have earned them the respect of the new 006's, because they became very good co-opers, and the house was as clean as it had been in a long time. Nevertheless, most of them were wait listed to get out of Synergy. Some of them objected to letting alumni stay at the house during the reunion, you know, since they might steal things and so forth! The old Synergists began to get an idea of the stereotypes and stigmatization they were up against on the rest of the campus.

The Reunion was a very joyful gathering, a Halloween Party with time warped as well as people's vision. It helped create an alumni network that was to be important in the future survival of Synergy.

Fall Quarter the house did a mini outreach to replace the 15 or so 006's who left, and managed to fill the house with people who were psyched to be there. The Co-op Council was pulled together again and began working on a strategy to fill the co-ops. Res Ed had taken Synergy's 1981 proposal to integrate grad students and saw it as a way to solve the co-op draw problem, and so they decided to put grad students in all the co-ops.

Come Spring quarter the Co-op Council had organized “Co-op Week" for outreach. Several thousand copies of the Co-op Pamphlet were distributed. Each co-op had different events planned. The movie “The Mondragon Experiment,” on the cooperative industrial system in Basque Spain, was shown in different co-ops all week. And the work paid off. By the second round of the Draw, the co-ops had all filled. 1983 summer: Bulldozed Herb Garden, Chicken Coop


1983 began a renaissance within Synergy. The previous spring's outreach had brought in a lot of people who were very enthusiastic about the house, in particular a big cohort from Branner. Also, the first crop of graduate students moved in, and they added a whole new richness to the community. The devastation of the back yard also made people realize how precious a place it had been, and eager to plant and build it back. “You don't miss your water till your well runs dry" they say.

A meeting was called with the administrators of Row Facilities to demand action on the back yard. They promised to remove the “red rocks,” and the massive piles of earth, and to provide $300 that year for materials for a new chicken coop and another $300 in a later year for materials for a new greenhouse. The red rocks were quickly removed, but the earth piles never were. The piles remained all year. Finally in the spring, instead of removing them they spread them over the back yard, which is why you will find chunks of asphalt wherever you dig outside of the vegetable garden.

One colorful event that year was the benefit dance for Nicaragua with Tao Chemical. The money collected was to go to the Sandinista Defense Committee, which consists of local groups throughout Nicaragua working on a diversity of tasks, including literacy and community self-defense against the contras. The latter task was enough to give some students the opportunity to accuse Synergy of funding arms for the Sandinistas. A cartoon in the Daily showed a donations table at Synergy with an armory of missiles and guns underneath it and a gullible student handing over a dollar bill. Even a Hoover Fellow appeared in a Daily interview saying that Synergy would definitely be contributing to Sandinista weaponry (it is notable that the Hoover response on Synergy was speedier than the Hoover response on Reagan's arms sales to Iran).

Kim Hamilton, a new member, contributed her family's portable chicken co-op to Synergy, and the house soon got eight new chickens: Chicken McNuggets, Admiral Nelson, Slob, and others. And there was a healthy crew that got the vegetable garden growing again. In general the community developed a lot of vitality. But this gave a deceptively optimistic picture of Synergy's strength within the campus culture, and so little outreach was done that spring. This resulted in another disasterous draw, with 12 vacancies in the first round, which would have been 24 vacancies if 12 spots hadn't been reserved for grad students. The consequences of this failure to do outreach would be felt for the next several years.


At the beginning of the 1984-5 academic year, Res Ed informed Synergy and Terra that a committee, the Committee on Services to Students, Subcommittee on Residences — COSS-R — would be reviewing the co-op draw problems with the possibility of “reducing the number of co-ops by one or more" so as to better fit the demand. Synergy's R.A., Jack Chin, who had been R.A. at Terra the last two years, got the Co-op Council organized again to deal with the threat. The Co-op Council concluded that institutionalizing outreach in the co-ops would solve the vacancy problem; outreach had always worked when it was done thoroughly; the problem was the lack of institutional memory in the houses. But the main question that Res Ed and COSS-R asked of the Co-op Council was, “if we were to terminate one co-op, which one should it be?" The Co-op Council refused to make such a “Sophie's choice.”

This limbo of Synergy's future caused a lot of anxiety in the house. Some people started questioning investments in house projects, such as the garden, “since Synergy might not be here next year.” On the night before COSS-R was to meet to consider the issue, a dedicated core of about 5 members stayed up all night working on 2 Macintoshes to prepare a report on why Synergy should be supported, and how outreach could be institutionalized. Synergy alumni had been contacted and letters of support were flowing in to Res Ed.

COSS-R met, and the following week issued its recommendation to Dean Robinson: Terra should be terminated. Terra naturally was up in arms. They became hostile to Synergy because they thought Synergy and all the other co- ops were “extreme" and were contaminating Terra's image, so they rallied around the identity of being “the mainstream co-op.” Jack Chin, realizing that the choice could just as easily have been to terminate Synergy, and seeing that the house was getting a false sense of security, made a counter proposal: that Synergy and Terra be put on probation, to be terminated only if they failed to fill 90% of their undergrad spaces. This is the proposal that Dean Robinson chose. Some people were upset with Jack, feeling he had sold out the house, but the house mounted an effective outreach campaign, and squeaked by with 3 vacancies. Terra made it, too.

 1983-4:  New Chickens & coop, 12 Grad students, Synergy revival, Tao 
Chemical, Disastrous draw 
 1984-5:  COSS-R review, Terra decision, Synergy counter, strife, good draw, 
 Divestment Movement, sit-ins.
 1985 summer:  Repaint house, tear down sun deck 
 1985-6:  Divestment sit-ins, Nudist Colony, white flour orgy, bees
 1986 Summer:  New Chicken coop and chickens, seal 3rd floor windows 
 1986-7:  Disaster Draw and Synergy Decision, campaign, reversal and 
 1987 summer:  Re-roof, tear down solar collector, remove French Doors
 1987-8:  15th Reunion, Maid service, Garden course, Environment course, 
Alternative Careers Summer 
 1988 summer:  Destroy secluded woods 

 1980's:  Synergy main source for Recycling Management.



Living in Syn, A Handbook for Synergy Residents, 1978
The Project Synergy Library, 1971-1975, in the Columbae library
The Stanford Daily
The University Archives
SWOPSI Archives
Interviews with Synergy alumni


Here is a quote from the first volume of the Synergy Journal, 1977, which I think should definitely go into Living in Syn: TO ALL WOULD-BE “SYNERGY SAVIORS”:

It is by attraction, and not by direction or commandment that the liberative artist is sought out as a teacher in the way of liberation. It is easy enough to become a martyr by throwing open challenges and judgements at the ways of the world. But the high art of a true Bodhisatva is possible only for him or her who has gone beyond all need for self-justification, for so long as there is something to prove, some ax to grind, there is no dance.