Reminiscences — Brooks House on Fraternity Row:  Mystery Solved?

When we arrived on campus in 1964, Belvidere Brooks House was only three years old.  It was the 1961 replacement structure for the classic DKE fraternity house, which had burned down in 1959. Understandably, it would have been prohibitively costly to replicate the DKE house, but it seemed surprising that the new residential house was not more similar in architectural features, scale, and siting to its stately neighbors than it was.   For many, the lower stance of the replacement building and its motor lodge/gas station contemporary style, even with the Mount Vernon columns added in front, seemed out of character with the historic buildings on the row, and its setback location also did not conform to the plane of the neighboring houses. This design  seemed a bit peculiar, especially given that fraternity row is a prominent and timeless part of the historic core of the campus, along with the early landmark buildings like Griffin Hall and West College. Furthermore, the design of new construction or modifications in areas that are determined to be historic, at least in current preservation practice, usually is evaluated and approved based on its compatibility with surrounding structures.

Or, were we missing the point entirely?  Was the essentially contemporary design chosen for Brooks House actually intended to make a bold, egalitarian statement projecting the image of the New Williams at the time, breaking from its privileged past?  Frankly, we in the class of 1968, arriving a few years after the fact, did not have a clue about the place.  With the help of some information that has been helpfully provided, however, it is possible to piece together the following narrative about the design process, which suggests that compromises had to be made in order to get an affordable house built:  The initial plan had to be scrapped because it greatly exceeded the fraternity’s budget; the Town’s Zoning Board nixed a plan to allow the fraternity to supplement its income by using the house in the summer as a guest house; and the final design met budget requirements only after the planned façade had been altered and the interior had been changed.

At the time the appearance of the new house under construction was described as “a synthesis of traditional with modern architecture”, the white wooden columns on the front porch providing the traditional element, and it was suggested that the building “should fit in very well with the adjacent architecture.”   In any event, those of us in the class of 1968 who were affiliated with Brooks House developed our own esprit de corps by becoming loyal “Brooks Brothers,” as proclaimed on our house tee shirt, and we came to enthusiastically celebrate its nonconformist style, and ours.  Indeed, we even made an ice sculpture of gas pumps in the front as our contribution to Winter Carnival, playing off the service station architecture of the building.