Fires, Friction, and Frat Boys: The Legacy of the Abandoned Sigma Chi House

By Alexi Worley

Once nestled along Norwich Road, overgrown with weeds, and wearing its boarded up windows and what remained of its pillars with an unmistakable kind of pride, sat the historic Sigma Chi fraternity house.

With a story that spans more than 50 years, the fraternity house—abandoned for more than a decade—is the definition of a legacy. A legacy that, Sigma Chi brothers say, will continue to live on even after it was finally demolished this February.

“You know a house that is lived in by 50 undergraduate men for 50 or 60 years, that’s kind of a rough life,” the owner of the house, Sigma Chi’s Gamma Chi Chapter President Barry DesRoches, said with a laugh. “It deserves to come back in its next life as like a library or something.”

The house’s demolition was a fittingly dramatic conclusion to a more than decade long period of legislative processes and debate.

“For our guys, it is sad to see a historic piece of our chapter come down after all these years,” Max Koch, a junior government and politics major and the president of Sigma Chi, said. “However, we understand that it is necessary, and we are glad that it will no longer cause any problems for the UMD community.”

Built in 1940 and added onto in 1966, the house—located at 4600 Norwich Rd.—was a place Sigma Chi brothers enjoyed for years.

Its age started to show, however, in the mid-1980s, DesRoches said. The brothers began looking into the possibility of renovations.

The Gamma Chi House Corporation began a study that the Cosgrove Company performed, which revealed it would take $650,000 for a major renovation to take place, according to the Sigma Chi College Park Alumni Chapter’s website.

“We just couldn’t work with it the way it was; the cost was enormous,” DesRoches explained. “Instead, we did a bunch of stuff to kind of maintain it while we waited to figure out what to do for the long term.”

Cue a major fundraising campaign, which raised $161,648.22 from June 1989 to February 1997. While the money the brothers raised fell far short of the desired amount, it did fund a kitchen remodel, new windows, and contributions to the Gamma Chi Educational Foundation, among other things.

The renovations were not enough however, and in 1999 the house failed its safety and fire inspections. Turmoil continued to follow when, in 2001, the fraternity lost its charter for violating university policies. The brothers abandoned the house but it remained in the organization’s possession.

The building had been in need of numerous repairs at the time of abandonment, and the continued shortage of maintenance did little to help the deteriorating house.

In 2004, an arson fire in the basement caused even further destruction.

When Sigma Chi nationals reinstated the chapter in 2009, the new brothers moved into a house on Fraternity Row, DesRoches decided it was best to let the house go.

“At that point we just knew that renovation wasn’t an option any longer, so we wanted to go ahead with a demo,” he said. “We had preserved it for as long as we could.”

However, his plans to demolish the dilapidated house were halted when Prince George’s County designated Old Town College Park, where the house was sits, as a local Historic District in 2006, according to the University of Maryland, College Park’s 2014 “Feasibility Study for the Adaptive Reuse of the Former Sigma Chi House.”

The house’s designation as a historical building meant the demolition had to be approved by the Prince George’s County Historical Preservation Commission.

“We tried to go ahead with the demo and the county said, ‘Wait, wait, wait, there is a whole other set of guidelines now,’” DesRoches said.

The impact that the loss of the house as a defining characteristic would have on the district concerned Old Town College Park residents, according to Howard Berger, historic preservation supervisor for the Prince George’s County Planning Department.

“Loss of the neighborhood’s character was such a concern,” Berger said. “We needed to be sure that whatever went up in its place was compatible with the historic district.”

However, the debate over the house’s fate came to a close when the University of Maryland College Park Foundation agreed to buy the property on the condition that the building was torn down.

It was a decision that pleased both sides of the debate.

“I am confident that whatever the university creates will be carefully reviewed so that it is able to become a part of the neighborhood,” Berger said.

DesRoches did not sell the house to the higher bidder, he said, for that exact reason.

“We went with the university because we knew it would keep people – the residents in particular – comfortable. It would preserve that legacy,” DesRoches said.

Proceeds from the sale will go to the Gamma Chi Education Foundation, where the funds will be put towards scholarships, as well as other academic purposes, DesRoches noted.

“It is exciting for the chapter because the funds from the sale will provide scholarships for our undergraduate brothers in the future,” Koch explained. “In the long run, it will be a positive change for everyone.”

DesRoches echoed Koch’s sentiments.

“You’ve got the physical structure and you’ve got the brotherhood,” DesRoches said. “While there is some sadness, sure, the Sigma Chi brotherhood at Maryland is very strong. That’s not going to change.”


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