Saturday, February 19, 2022

The 1903 Pi Upsilon Fraternity House - 627 West 115th Street


The relocation of Columbia University's campus from Midtown to Morningside Heights left fraternity houses far to the south.  Among the first to begin construction of a new, geographically convenient house was the Lambda Chapter of the Psi Upsilon Society.  In July 1900, the architectural firm of Little & O'Connor filed plans for a 25-foot-wide "brick club house" to cost $40,000 to erect.  The site was the undeveloped block of West 115th Street, between Riverside Drive and Broadway.

Two years into construction, the New-York Tribune reported on the fraternity's "enterprising departure," saying it was erecting "an imposing building to be utilized as a lodgeroom and clubhouse."

Construction was ongoing when this photograph was taken in 1902.  In the left and right tympana of the second floor are the dates 1833 (the year of Psi Upsilon's founding) and 1842 (the year the Lambda Chapter was organized).  The middle plaque displays the fraternity's Greek letters).  New-York Tribune, June 23, 1901 (copyright expired)

Just inside the entrance was a spacious reception hall which led to the grand staircase.  Behind the staircase were coatrooms and "a large bicycle room," which had its own entrance.  Sharing the cellar with the separate boiler room was the chapter room, which the New-York Tribune said, "it is presumed, will be luxuriously Oriental in its decorations."

On the second floor were the large reading room, the dining room and the butler's pantry.  The third floor held "a billiard room large enough for two tables, [and] a meeting room, with a quaint and large brick alcove fireplace."  The walls of the meeting room were half-timbered and its ceiling beamed to give a "peculiarly homelike and comfortable aspect," as worded by the New-York Tribune.  The top two floors held a dozen bedrooms and "ample rooms and baths for the servants."  The article noted, "The owl, the emblem of the fraternity, is used freely in the interior decorations, and is shown in bronze in heroic size on the front of the building."

The undeveloped neighborhood is evident in this photo taken around 1905.  Behind the Chinese Chippendale railing above the dormers was a roof garden.  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The residents of the house were both students and alumni.  In both cases they were affluent and accustomed to the best, including cuisine.  In the post-World War I years, the chef was the French-trained Charles Wilberoth, who had an apartment on the first floor near the kitchens.  Wilberoth had previously worked for European nobility.

On the night of October 17, 1920, three men rang the service entrance bell.  Wilberoth opened the door and one of the men spoke to him in French.  Once inside, they attacked.  The armed thugs "slugged" the 60-year-old "and then robbed him of a $300 diamond and a gold watch and chain valued at $150," according to the New-York Tribune.  The value of the jewelry they escaped with would top $5,800 today, but it could have been much worse.

The New-York Tribune reported, "The robbers, according to the chef, overlooked a $500 watch which was presented to him by the late Czar Nicholas of Russia and many other jewels which Wilberoth says were given to him by notables."

Among the alumni residents here in 1930 was Stephens Kerkoff, a pilot and salesman for Curtiss-Wright airplane firm.  At 10:00 on the night of October 6, he took off from the Curtiss-Wright airport, acting as co-pilot for Navy Lieutenant J. P. Whitney who, according to The New York Times, "was doing a bit of commercial flying while on leave."  The men were flying 2,000 pounds of advertising pamphlets for the Kool Motor Oil Company to a convention of oil dealers in Oklahoma City.  The New York Times explained, "The job was received at the last minute and the owners did not have time to reach their regular pilots."

The intended flight path was south to Richmond, then west to St. Louis and then Oklahoma City.  One week later, on October 13, The New York Times reported, "Officials at the Curtiss-Wright airport at Valley Stream today revealed that they were making a search for a missing Bellanca cabin monoplane."  The airplane had made it to Richmond, "but has not been heard from since.  It never reached Oklahoma City," said the article.

Happily, the following day the airplane's owner received a telegram  from Tulsa, Oklahoma from Kerkoff.  The Standard Union said, "He said that the ship had been delayed by unfavorable flying conditions and that he did not arrive in Tulsa until yesterday."  Why the two pilots had waited a full week to notify the owners was not included in the message.

In 1940 the building was converted to apartments and furnished rooms.  In October 1944, poet and writer Allen Ginsberg took an apartment here while attending Columbia University.  While here he contributed to the Columbia Review and the humor magazine Jester.  

In 1943, his first year at Columbia, he had became close friends with undergraduate student Lucien Carr.  In his journal Ginsberg described Carr as his first love and "sweet vision."

Carr introduced Ginsberg to future Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and John Clellon Holmes.  The "Beats" would define a generation in American literature.  Ironically, two months before Ginsberg moved into 627 West 115th Street, Lucien Carr had murdered his former St. Louis Boy Scout leader (and stalker), David Kammerer in Riverside Park, just steps away from the building.

The 1960's saw the structure returned to a fraternity house, home to the Alpha Chapter of Tau Epsilon Phi.

Barnard Bulletin, February 14, 1963

A renovation completed in 1977 resulted in a Columbia University residence hall with just three apartments per floor.  Outwardly, the Colonial Revival structure is little changed.

photograph by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

1 comment:

  1. In 1944 my mother was housemother for Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity, 627 W. 115th Street. I mention this because article says the 1960s saw the structure returned to a fraternity house. It was a Tau Epsilon Phi and a fraternity in 1944 and I left there in 1950. It was a wonderful place to live as a ten year old and the Columbia students who lived there and the secretaries who worked for someone, I don't know who, were very sweet to me as were the parents of the students who held dinners on occasion. The rooms usually had bunk beds in them. My mother and I lived on the top floor, which was a penthouse. I love having these pictures since it was a perfect place to grow up with the park on one end and Columbia at the other.