A desirable lot located on the northeast corner of the intersection of College and South Williams Streets, just one block west of the main campus green, was donated by Sig Sister Julia M. Spear in July of 1895 as the building site upon which now stands our beloved ‘Sig Home on the Hill.’ This grand edifice endures as a shining and corporeal testament to our Vermont Brothers’ devotion to our Chapter ‘in the valley passing fair,’ and to the Society that we hold so dear.
In drafting the original architectural plans for the structure, Marcus T. Reynolds, W’1900, an eminent member of the Alpha of Massachusetts and a celebrated architect, decreed that the Vermont chapter house would not only be an edifice worthy of the Society, but stand as a lasting ornament to the college and to the city of Burlington.
Construction began with the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone on the evening of June 24th, 1902, and overseen by a committee of Brothers chaired by Charles L. Woodbury, V’1884. The house was completed in less than one year in April 1903 at a total cost of $18,000, or approximately $500,000 in today’s dollars (using the 2009 Consumer Price Index) which was a surprisingly inexpensive undertaking given the superior quality of building materials and evident workmanship.
The house fronts College Street on a lot that is nearly square at 130 by 127 feet and is dramatically set back 60 feet from the street. Its dimensions are roughly 66 by 44 feet, not including the front portico and rear projections of the butler’s pantry and piazza. It is three stories in height, set on a marble faced foundation and surmounted by a Dutch gambrel roof. It was the first such ‘fraternity house’ ever to be constructed specifically for a fraternity’s exclusive use at the University and in the state of Vermont.
Although immediately and eagerly occupied at completion, the new chapter house was officially dedicated on the evening of June 23rd, 1903. Many illustrious Vermont Graduates such as the Hon. George Grenville Benedict, the last surviving member of class of 1845, Benjamin Lincoln Benedict, V’1852 and the Rev. Matthew Henry Buckham, V’1848, then President of the University, attended this gala event.
The building itself incorporates many elements of popular turn-of-the-century building styles, with strong Neoclassical and Georgian influences. The unique roofline is in the Dutch gambrel style with a metal roof covering in burnt orange. The extensive brickwork is laid in Flemish Bond with decorative alternating black glazed headers. The front portico, foundation walls, corner stone quoins, window caps and sills are finished in white Proctor marble, a grade of the stone particularly noted for its quality and snowy white color, and discovered in abundance near Rutland, Vermont in the late 1830’s.
The most prominent exterior feature of the building, however, is its imposing neoclassical front portico with gabled roof, supported by four massive two-story fluted Corinthian columns. This classical entablature follows the Corinthian order; however, departs stylistically in many respects by including several key elements of Georgian architecture, most notably the fanlight windows set in the center of the cornice and just above the main paneled doorway. Interestingly, the words ‘Sigma Phi’ that now prominently adorn the architrave were not added until some indeterminate time after the structure was fully completed and occupied. We know this from numerous photographs of the newly completed house that bear this out.
The remainder of the exterior structure can be classified as Georgian Revival. Although popular in American building in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this particular building style, with its characteristic end-wall, capped chimneys, evenly spaced pedimented dormers and windows, corner marble quoins and dentil moldings in white offset against a façade of red brickwork, at once distinguishes itself as exceptional among other buildings on campus and around Burlington, which are of Romanesque Revival architecture. One need only see Williams Hall, Billings Library and Old Mill on Main Campus, and the commercial buildings around downtown Burlington as comparisons.
The interior of the structure is laid out in a traditional Georgian manner, two rooms deep, with symmetrical, nearly square rooms at either end of the building, with a connecting central hallway. The ground floor has an enclosed vestibule with an anteroom door that opens in to the central hallway. Both paneled entry doors are capped by overhead fanlight windows and have sidelight windows bordered with carved pilasters, all hallmarks of the Georgian style. The three main ground floor rooms are grand in scale as well as height, as befitting reception rooms for the Alpha, each being connected by large pocket doors to the east (Eaton Room) and open doorways to the west (Buckham Room) and connected by a central rectangular room called the Library, which is now primarily used as the main reception room for the members of the Active Chapter.
The few remaining pieces of original furniture that may be seen in the Library (sofas & settees) and in the Buckham (side table) are of Mission design, made by George Richardson of Auburn, NY and comprised of chestnut stained natural to resemble Flemish Oak. The large round reading table is of Empire design and of maple. Sadly, the other original furnishings of the first floor were long ago substituted with more modern, sturdier replacements as required over the years.
Placed about on the first floor, one will find various commemorative bronze plaques dedicated to our Brothers who have fallen in wars or passed on and are now forever part of our venerable history. In the Eaton Room, one will also find a wall installation celebrating all of the Society’s chapter houses.
The stairwell of hand carved oak is quite exceptional and departs from the Georgian style in that it is not centrally located, but placed slightly off-center in the front of the building and lands just beneath the front portico. This novel idea was adopted in the attempt to maximize interior space and avoid what would otherwise be deeply shadowed front facing rooms, and was suggested, says the architect “by the fact that the large portico would have darkened this portion of the house and obscured any view from such rooms as might have been placed there.” The staircase was originally an open balustrade on all three levels; however, due to recent changes in fire codes, the second and third floors are now enclosed, noticeably darkening the upper hallways. As an aside, one may hear a very peculiar low creaking noise as one ascends or descends the stair riser between the first and second floors. Any Vermont Sig worth his salt will tell you this particular sound is unmistakable and instantly recognizable, faithfully forewarning our Brothers of one another’s comings and goings.
The second and third floor plans generally mimic the first floor and each living suite of rooms is dedicated – with the inevitable bronze plaque – to esteemed Vermont Grads, including the third floor ‘loft’ occupying the interior space of the front portico’s gabled roof.
As mentioned, much of the original turn-of-the-century woodwork throughout the house has been preserved and is of select Red Birch (the prized heartwood of Paper or White Birch) including the paneling, trim and mantels and originally finished natural, but darkened with the patina of age. The stairwell, its carved banister and hand turned balusters are of white oak, as are most of the floors, although many have been replaced several times out of necessity over the years. One will also note the extremely worn, pitted but still functional front entry, suite and bedroom doors in a heavy whitewood with many retaining their original hardware.
The basement level departs from the floor plans of those above, and contains a bar room to the west, a game room which is centrally located and a large commercial grade kitchen to the east. In the rear one finds the lower pantry, connected by a steep back staircase and dumb-waiter to the pantry above, which services the Eaton Room.
In and around these basement rooms, one might find several pieces of memorabilia or arcana, placed unobtrusively here and there, which any Vermont Sig – again, worth his salt – would be more than happy to explain to the interested ‘wandering bird’ or returning Vermont Brother long bereft of his Brother’s fellowship. Indeed, this can be said for any of the unusual or unique features one might find when exploring our chapter house, as it was designed by a Williams Sig for our Chapter’s exclusive, uninterrupted use for the last 107 years, and contains a vast, rich history and SIGnificance much too long and varied to be catalogued herein.
This Historical Sketch revision has been faithfully reproduced from an original source document entitled ‘The New Chapter House of the Alpha of Vermont’ typewritten and signed by Charles E. Allen, V’1855 and dated January 1904 with an attached photo of the newly constructed house taken from College Street at the corner of S. Williams.
It has been my intention to remain faithful to the spirit of the original document in telling the story of the house’s basic design, construction and furnishing, without getting mired in historical details encompassing our illustrious Vermont Grads and their individual contributions to the chapter house and the Society. In many instances, details were simply not readily available without further in-depth research in the effort to preserve and maintain an accurate, straightforward account. FCB V’87