ITHACA, N.Y. — Normally, the Voice doesn’t spend much time talking about the details of college life. Its reader base is substantially different than the patrons who read through the Cornell Daily Sun or The Ithacan. The annals of Greek Life at Cornell generally fall into this category.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. For instance, when the nation’s first Black fraternity seeks to own and renovate its own home. The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906, has often rented homes in the course of its history, but it’s never truly had a place to call its own, deed in hand and free to do with the property as they wish.
But if current plans come to fruition, that will change. They will own and renovate a vacant fraternity house in Cornell Heights. They will have a place to call home.
The house in question is 105 Westbourne Lane, which for most of its nearly century-old life was the home of the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and built by the fraternity way back in 1927. The fraternity had run-ins with Cornell authorities over the past decade, which halted their recruitment, and no young members paying rent meant a financially untenable situation. The house was put up for sale in May 2021 and sold for $1.5 million last September.
For that substantial sum of cash, the buyer received in return a 9,000 square-foot, 15-bedroom house with exposed timber beams, slate roofing, custom finishes and more pragmatically, updated fire-alarm systems and commercial-grade kitchen facilities. Beyond the house itself, it sits on a choice property in Cornell Heights, a stone’s throw from the university. For another collegiate communal organization, the property has its appeals.
The purchase back in September 2021 was difficult to trace for a combination of reasons. As is common with multi-family/communal living purchases, the buyer was “AlphaChapter Holdings, LLC.” Sometimes these are traceable via address to a certain buyer, but unfortunately in this case, it led back to a Florida P.O. Box with no further information available.
Information about the future of the house became public earlier this month with a trip to the city of Ithaca Landmarks Preservation Commission (ILPC). The house sits in the Cornell Heights Historic District and is a contributing property, and the ownership, which remained vague but is associated with Alpha Phi Alpha, would like to perform renovations to suit the property to its needs and tastes.
Initial plans call for renovations to the main entrance, window replacement, enlarged dormers and revised roof pitch on the rear roof façade, exterior siding replacement and new signage. The entrance renovations are for ADA accessibility, while the dormer changes are because a large attic room (likely a party room) will be renovated into bedrooms. The dormer changes would give more standing room. The exterior would be repainted in Alpha Phi Alpha’s colors, black and old gold.
It should be noted that renovation plans are still in an early stage, and Alpha Phi Alpha’s president met with the ILPC to garner initial feedback on what it was more comfortable with in terms of historically sympathetic renovations. Case in point, a couple of options are being considered for the ADA-accessible front entrance, as well as an interior elevator.
“We love the house, the design team working on it as well as the owners love it, love the fact that its a Gibb building, it’s got tremendous significance, he was a prolific architect, and we’d like to feature that and highlight it,” said Frank Wilkinson, a Cornell alumnus of Alpha Phi Alpha and New York City architect representing theowners to the ILPC. Arthur Gibb was a prominent Ithaca architect and former Ithaca mayor in the early 20th century.
“We’d be very open to trying to figure out another way to ADA compliance and entry for you, but I think the proposals for remodeling the entrance are pretty much non-starters,” said ILPC Vice-Chair David Kramer. “I have not been persuaded that this is necessary,” added his colleague Katelin Olson.
“We are open and interested in bringing in whatever elements we can to acknowledge what was there and embrace that,” replied Wilkinson. “As soon as you enter the building, there’s not even a four-foot landing. A handicapped person would have to find a way to get upstairs or downstairs, or just stay right there at the entryway, if they can navigate the exterior step. We’re doing this because it’s a way of getting to a lift (limited-service elevator) that can let you appreciate the full house, not just the exterior […] those spaces should be experienced. Just so we can get to a lift and treat people with the respect and dignity that they deserve, no matter what their mobility. ”
Clearly, there’s some work to do to balance historic preservation with the owner’s needs and wants for a fully-handicap accessible building. The board stressed that their goal was to find reasonable alternatives while still trying to accommodate handicap accessibility, and felt that interior renovations could happen without the loss of historic materials from the front entrance. The board was supportive of the dormer changes and façade work, and encouraged window repair vs. replacement.
While the path forward will have more twists and turns, it seems plausible that with patience, effort and a few more dollars, Alpha Phi Alpha will finally have its own chapter house for its founding chapter, 116 years after its founding, and only the second Multicultural Greek Letter Organization to have a physical home at Cornell. Several months of renovations seems quick when compared to 116 years.