Fraternity house seeks national recognition

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COLUMBIA - The Sigma Alpha Epsilon house reached the next step in its bid to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. The Columbia Historic Preservation Commission recommended the house be sent to the state level for register consideration at its meeting on July 1.

The Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will decide if the SAE house will be added to the National Register of Historic Places at its next meeting on August 15.

If the council decides it is appropriate for house to be added to the National Register, it will be the first fraternity in the city to receive this distinction. The house could be the 52nd property in Boone County to be added to the list.

Deb Sheals, a historic preservation consultant who routinely does work for the city, was hired by SAE to determine the property's historical significance and file the register application.

Sheals said now that the initial assessment has been completed and passed the commission's recommendation, the house has a good chance to make it on the register.

"This is a very stringent process that's very heavily front-loaded. We first had to submit it to the state historic preservation staff for a preliminary determination if they thought it was eligible. We've written two versions of the nomination, which is a pretty long document, to make the case," Sheals said. "We've done most of the heavy lifting already. If we've got this far, chances are very, very good that we're going to get through."

Other notable properties listed on the register include the Tiger Hotel, Missouri Theater and Wabash Station in downtown Columbia.

Mizzou SAE chapter president Zach Amos said being added to the national register would give the fraternity some help in renovating the house.

"Being on the national registry, it would be a lot bigger in that potentially we would get more federal money to make sure the place is preserved," Amos said.

People would also be able to receive tax credit for donations made to the fraternity. SAE is planning more than $3 million in renovations on the house. Amos said they had raised nearly a third of that total so far and will continue additional fundraising.

Much of the renovations involve the residential part of the house and will leave the historic architecture preserved. The exterior of the house will be refurbished to more closely resemble the house's historic look.

The last Boone County property to be added to the list was Frederick Apartments in April 2013. Those apartments are named for their designer, architect Frederick Wallace, who also designed the renovations on the SAE house when the fraternity purchased the property in 1929.

The neo-classical architecture Wallace used is one of the areas of significance for consideration on the National Register. The most iconic aspect of the neo-classical style is the large pillars in the front of the house.

Sheals said although the SAE house isn't the only building with this architectural style in the area, it is the most suited for recognition on the register.

"We found 20 or so fraternities and sororities that have some examples of neo-classical styling, but this is one of the best I've seen," Sheals said.

History of the SAE House

The house is being recognized not only for its architectural significance, but also for the social history of the property. The house, located at 24 East Steward Road, is more than 100 years old and has served a variety of purposes.

The house was built in 1908 by Col. John B. Welch to be used as the university military academy. The school closed with the colonel's death in 1915 and went unused for five years.

In 1920, the building became Welch Hall when MU started to use it as a women's dormitory. In 1926, Welch's widow sold the house to Judge John Stewart, an influential developer in the early 20th century, and he converted the house into the Oak Hill Hotel.

SAE purchased the property in 1929 and it has served as a fraternity house since. The house has been home to the SAE fraternity for nearly 85 years except from 2008 to spring 2013 when the fraternity was banned from MU's campus. Both the Acacia and Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternities leased the house from SAE during that span.

SAE alumni Mike Lawler took part in the fraternity from 1952 to 1954. He also served as the chapter adviser from 2000 to 2005. Lawler was the one who applied for the house to be recognized on Columbia's list of Most Notable Historic Properties in 2004.

Lawler said being listed on the national register was about more than money.

"It's our hope to keep the tradition alive, keep the place looking as it was and its historic significance," Lawler said.

Amos agrees the tradition and history of the SAE house is worth preserving.

"It's been a huge amount of things and I think that's what's more historic about it, I don't think it's necessarily just the things on the inside , it's the building and all the memories that are inside of it that make it historic, the things that it's used for," Amos said.

The SAE Alpha chapter returned to the MU campus in fall 2012 and resumed living in the house in May 2013. Soon after returning, SAE began raising money to renovate their historic house. The fraternity wants to restore some of the building's past features, such as restoring the side porches to their former appearance and refurbishing the exterior.

Lawler said the renovations would help to preserve the house's historical look while adding much-needed building updates.

"I've seen renditions, drawings of what it's going to look like and it just looks wonderful," Lawler said. "It's going to take us back to what it looked like when it was rebuilt in 1966, hopefully with more up-to-date, modern conveniences like the sprinkler system, air conditioning, those things that make the room more comfortable."

Lawler said despite the need for renovations, the SAE house has stood the test of time pretty well.

"They say a dog's life is seven years to one for a human and my estimation for the life of a fraternity house with 100 boys running through here is probably 10 years to one," Lawler said "We've lived here 85 years, multiply that by 10 and that gives you 850 years of wear and tear and the good old thing is still standing and looking good."

The fraternity plans to start renovations in summer 2015.