ORONO, Maine — Maxwell McCormack remembers when new fraternity members dressed in white coats and served dinners to their brothers 60 years ago. He recalls parties with hundreds of college students dancing to live bands in the living room and chatting upstairs. He remembers hollering at brothers who had a call on the payphone and knocking them out of bed to make sure they got to class on time.
Soon, the 13,000-square-foot building that was the scene of those memorable moments in McCormack’s life will become a parking lot.
The University of Maine plans to demolish the century-old Sigma Nu fraternity house this summer after the housing corporation that owns the run-down structure hands over ownership.
The house overlooking College Avenue and the Stillwater River was built in 1916 for the brothers of Sigma Nu, which chartered a chapter on campus three years earlier at Maine’s land grant university.
Tuesday was the 103rd anniversary of the Sigma Nu chapter’s charter, according to McCormack, a UMaine graduate who joined the fraternity when he came to UMaine in 1953 and now lives in Unity. Today, McCormack is a member of the property association, primarily made up of older Sigma Nu members, which owns the building.
This week he visited the house, which now bears the Greek letters Kappa Sigma, to update fraternity members living there on the plans for the building. They’ll have to vacate in May, clearing the way for the transfer of ownership and demolition over the summer.
“This house was designed to be a fraternity house,” McCormack said. The first floor was made for hosting parties. The central living room opens up into a large formal dining room on one side and a music room on the other, meaning it could host big crowds for live bands.
“I’ve seen 600 people in this house before,” McCormack said, recalling the social life in the fraternity. The fraternity even had a chef and housekeeper.
Upstairs, brothers didn’t sleep in bedrooms — they slept in long rows of beds, including some bunks, similar to a barracks. Some stayed up on fire watch; others volunteered to serve as community alarm clocks, shaking brothers awake at designated times to make sure they got up and made it to exams on time.
“Sometimes I’d grab their mattress and roll them off,” McCormack said.
A privileged brother or two got the honor of having a private room on the first floor, which used to be living quarters for the “house mother.” The house mother role had been phased out by the time McCormack arrived. Freshmen members wearing white coats served their brothers sit-down dinners. In McCormack’s time, the fraternity routinely had around 35 members living in the house. Formality was key and cleanliness demanded.
Fraternities served as a social bastion on the campus, which had fewer than 3,000 students at the time, McCormack said. They provided more freedom than dormitories, which had strict rules around signing in and out and segregated men and women to opposite ends of campus.
“Fraternities offered a way to live on the edge — a little outside the campus,” McCormack said.
There are 18 active fraternities and eight sororities at the University of Maine, which is among the last remaining hubs for Greek life in the state. About a dozen fraternity houses remain. Most sororities have meeting rooms in campus dormitories.
The Sigma Nu house today is not as McCormack remembers it. Its best days are behind it. In 2012, the university suspended Sigma Nu for five years after repeated underage drinking violations during parties at the property. The suspension followed a party during which two teenagers were taken by ambulance to the hospital after consuming too much alcohol.
The bad news brought the property association and old membership together to try to determine the future. They took a fresh look at the wood-frame structure, which had fallen into disrepair over the years.
The association leased the building to another fraternity, Kappa Sigma, which has 16 members living in the building this year, and began weighing their old home’s future.
“We’re faced with a drastically modified, deteriorating structure placed on land that we don’t own,” McCormack said. The 99-year lease with the university for the plot of land the house stands on expires in July.
McCormack said the university offered to extend the lease by seven or eight years if the house were renovated or up to 15 years if it received a significant overhaul to bring it up to date. That cost has been estimated at $1 million, according to McCormack.
To put the $1 million renovation costs into perspective, Kappa Sigma said it could build a new fraternity house for about $1.2 million. The fraternity is looking into its options for housing next year, which could range from moving into a portion of Aroostook Hall to finding housing arrangements off campus, according to Steve Doman, the chapter’s housing manager.
There’s been no indication to this point whether the UMaine Sigma Nu chapter will reemerge after its suspension passes, so the property association could have been faced with continuing to lease the property to another fraternity.
Instead, the association decided its best option was to give the building to the University of Maine. The university, which is trying to reduce its overall building footprint, will demolish the structure about a month after taking ownership, according to Dean of Students Robert Dana.
In a statement emailed to the BDN Thursday after this story was posted online, Dana noted that “losing a fraternity and its house is a sad moment for UMaine and at this point, since fraternities and sororities are not interested in UMaine managing their properties, we were unable to consider other options for the building.”
The University of Maine System Board of Trustees approved the property acquisition and demolition project during a meeting last month. The university plans to convert the lot into sorely needed parking space but has the option of developing something else there in the future, Dana said.
McCormack said members of the property association were heartbroken over this decision but took the only path that seemed viable.
“We didn’t really have much of a choice,” he said.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.