The North Wall is Still Standing

In early 1988, during my sophomore year of college, I began hanging out at a coed fraternity named Phi Tau. Not long after, I joined and it became my home for the next two years. After graduation I remained at Dartmouth for six more years and continued to hang out. And after I left Hanover, I still went back at least once a year to visit. Today I am still quite close to many of the people I knew including Andrew Pulrang and Chris Kagy, both of whom are linked to often in these pages.

Phi Tau was built in the 1920’s by, we were always told, a Florida developer who had no clue about frost heaves. This explained why the house was always falling apart. And I mean that literally. They saw giant cracks between the north wall and the rest of the house. Further study showed that the north wall was not falling off and was standing up just fine. It was the rest of the house that was falling off! Worried that the porch on the south side was responsible, the porch was removed.

The porch wasn’t responsible. And the house continued to fall away from the north wall. Finally, four steel rods were put into the house along the north/south axis to hold it together.

Sometime in the early 1990’s the house had a new porch built.

Over the last year, the College built a new Phi Tau on the front lawn of the old house. Around New Year’s, everyone moved to the new house and the old house was left empty. I wish I had gone to see it. When it was empty it would be echoing with the sounds of three quarters of a century of brotherhood.

It would hear the echoes of the tense discussions which led to the brothers of Phi Sigma Kappa, Tau Chapter, voting to leave the National organization to become the local Phi Tau. It would echo with the sounds of countless people talking, laughing, singing, arguing, crying, loving, and living. It would echo with all of the memories of everyone who ever lived or hung out there. It would echo with the standard line House Managers gave at the annual board meeting as the start of their report: “The North Wall is still standing.”

On Thursday the house was torn down.

I got email from the Alumni Secretary early in the morning pointing to digital pictures that were online. They would be updated constantly during the destruction.

I took a look at the first few thinking that this would be cool to watch and was stopped dead in my tracks. How could a structure of just bricks, wood, and such affect me so strongly? I sat there at my kitchen table barely able to speak, feeling as if I were about to cry. Ann came over and took one look at the picture on my screen showing a large digger pulling at the east wall, showing large chunks missing from the roof and wall, showing the missing fire escape and back steps and doors and windows and she just hugged me. It’s just a building. The brotherhood itself lives on both in the new house but also inside every one of us who was a part of it over the years. I wasn’t sad for brotherhood. I was sad for the building and for the fact that most of my good memories from college took place in that house.

On Thursday, the North Wall stood no more. But the North Wall of the brotherhood stands still. And that’s the most important part.

Postscript: People who are not familiar with Phi Tau often have a very hard time understanding how a coed house can be a “fraternity” and have a “brotherhood.” Many (and certainly not all) of the brothers over the years viewed it like this: There are no words in our language that connotes everything “brotherhood” does in a gender-neutral way. Siblings? Comrades? Neighbors? Partners? We went through them all. And, honestly, if you use brotherhood to mean that kind of bond and your intent is not sexist, then it’s not sexist. There were (and will always be) some who didn’t see it that way and that’s their perrogative.