It was Taco Tuesday when I arrived at the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house to meet with President Micah Perry and learn about the house’s recent renovations.
Upon entering, I was taken through the dining room where fraternity brothers shuffled past each other, exchanging jokes and greetings while helping themselves to large servings of refried beans, spanish rice, and guacamole in a dimly lit, dingy, dark-papered room that seemed out of place for an El Cerritos-type affair — or what ATO members would call “dinner.”
After exchanging introductions, Perry, a junior, took me through the kitchen toward the back of the house to a staircase. Opposite the staircase was a wall with dark green wallpaper. Perry told me that central to the house’s renovation plans was getting rid of this wallpaper and the matching green carpet throughout the house.
“The whole house used to look like this,” Perry said. “A lot of it was peeling off, the carpet was getting torn up.”
Being in ATO was like traveling back in time. Both the interior and exterior of the house point to a past grandeur from a long forgotten era — the 19th century, in fact — when the house was built and inhabited by former Hillsdale College President John Windsor.
“It was, essentially, the Broadlawn before Broadlawn,” Perry said.
But staring at that outdated, dark green wallpaper, I couldn’t help but think that the house’s former glory days were over.
Those across campus agree. A Kappa will say, “Yeah, the outside of the house is nice but have you been inside? It’s not that great.” Members of ATO will even admit that the house used to be in shambles.
Recent renovations to the house are fighting this narrative. Over winter break, ATO’s alumni board paid to replace the archaic green wallpaper on the second floor as well as the carpeting. They have plans to recarpet as well as repaint the entire interior of the house.
Leaning against the second-floor staircase railing, sophomore and co-house manager Michael Fleischer told me that the alumni spent close to $50,000 on renovations for the house this past winter.
“The alumni are really, really good to us,” Fleischer said. “We have a very large pool of funds right now. Because I’ve been house manager, I’ve been really pushing for them to do a lot of stuff. So they’ve been really generous with helping us unify the house.”
Perry also emphasized how thankful the fraternity is to the alumni board.
“Within ATO, we talk about forming friendships and bonds for life, and their coming back and helping us out really shows that we take that seriously,” he said.
What struck me talking to both Perry and Fleischer is how important they viewed preserving the house and its historicity.
“We want this house to be here for many years to come,” Fleischer said.
And the house’s past history still lives on in ATO lore. One room on the second floor is called “Congressman,” referring to a time when former Hillsdale College President Joseph Mauck hosted a U.S. congressman who allegedly had to spend the night in that room after drinking too much. Additionally, Mauck’s private room for parties on the third floor of the house was turned into the fraternity’s chapter room.
The alumni board plans to fund new lighting throughout the house as its next project, but their main focus is renovating the kitchen and dining room areas, according to ATO PR chair and co-house manager Andrew Szewc.
“Now that we have Wayne Babcock — former owner of Saucy Dog’s and Olivia’s restaurants — as our full-time cook Monday through Friday, we’re looking to give him some more leeway, some room, like a deep fryer, stuff like that,” Szewc said.
Szwec told me this sitting on an old lawn chair in the basement of the ATO house, illumined by twinkly Christmas lights. I had been taken to their basement, which they had cleared out and DIY’d this summer. Before it had looked like “something out of the conjuring,” according to Fleischer.
“The basement was in pieces,” Szwec said. “Zach and I threw out tons of trash and just cleaned it up.”
The space now serves as a laundry room, study area, and hang-out spot. Bookshelves filled with used textbooks and detergent sit opposite the main attraction: two lawn chairs and a coffee table, with a Bud Light poster presiding over all. Sitting there in the quazi-dark with Szwec, I felt at home.
“This isn’t the best and brightest, but it is our new, clean hang-out spot,” Szwec said.
After I left the ATO house that night, I couldn’t help but think that the basement was a testament to the resilience of ATO and its members’ push for renovating the house. The renovations, just like the newly cleaned-out basement, are the product of a team effort. It has unified ATO members and the house as a whole, giving them pride in their shared space as they recall and preserve the history and memory of the past.
As Szwec said, “We’re proud to show people around the house now.”