The 1920s: Gracious Living and Brotherhood

Omicron Oracle

July 31, 1996

In 1999, our chapter house at 125 Edgemoor Lane will be 100 years old. The house was built for Phi Delta Theta, and Lambda Chi Alpha bought it in 1920. To help celebrate the anniversary, The Omicron Oracle is asking certain alumni to recall life at 125 Edgemoor Lane over the various decades that it has housed our fraternity. This article is by former High Pi Frank Schaefer '29 and appeared in the August 1996 issue of the Oracle.

When Omicron Zeta made me O-216, Lambda Chi also introduced me to a form of gracious living that I remember with nostalgia right up to today.

When you walked in the front door at 125 Edgemoor Lane, Lambda Chi Alpha symbolically met you with open arms. A massive staircase loomed before you. It rose to a landing, divided, continued to smaller landings and then further upward. Living quarters were on the second and third floors, as they are today.

Back on the first floor, massive furniture gave an air of solidity. The layout was much the same as it is today, but the furnishings made it more homelike. The greatest difference was in the southeast corner (present chapter room) which was the dining room— the social heart of the house.

The dining room was a warm, friendly room. Five tables could accommodate 40 brothers. The center table was placed perpendicular to the mantel on the east wall. Two tables paralleled the east and west walls on the south; the other two hugged the walls on the north. Cornell oars were on racks. German drinking steins— one the basis of ISWZA— were on the mantel. The seniors sat at the center table, with the High Alpha presiding. Swinging doors behind him opened to the dumbwaiter that brought meals from the kitchen below.

A couple shared the cooking. He doubled as houseman and kept the brothers’ rooms and the common rooms tidy. They shared an apartment in the basement near the kitchen.

Breakfast continued through the morning, with eggs available as you ordered. Lunch was a regular meal, with second and third helpings possible. (I remember, hungrily, the hash.) Dinner required jackets and ties; I recall being chastised, when a sophomore, for wearing the same tie three days in a row.

Dinners were more formal Wednesdays and Sunday noon. Singing usually broke out at most dinners— favorites many people can still sing. White-coated waiters, exchanged from another fraternity, lent dignity to meals. After dinner, many of the brothers gathered in the social rooms. Demitasse coffee was served; three tables of bridge might be kibitzed. A phonograph played some of the popular records of the day. Gradually, the social rooms cleared as social obligations and study rules (quiet times) were observed.

Freshman “pledges” had obligations in the evenings. One or more of them studied in the social rooms to answer the telephones, located in the coatrooms on either side of the front door. They leapt to answer within three rings under penalty of a paddling. Other pledges learned the locations of the brothers in the dormitories, for they had the job of seeing that the brothers got up on time.

Most everybody slept in either the second-floor or third-floor dormitory in the southeast corner. There were bunk beds, piled high with blankets and comforters, for even in the winter the windows were generally kept wide open. A two-inch rope coiled by a window on each floor served as a fire escape; fortunately, they weren’t needed. Soiled clothing was generally sent home in laundry bags.

The house had its share of “men on the hill”— more, perhaps, in publications than in other activities. Pledges were encouraged to “go out” for someting, and somewhat of a shift to athletics began.

Socially, the year began with the various gatherings, where prospective pledges were eventually “bid” or rejected. One or more dates were then arranged with various sororities to help the new pledges get acquainted. Well into the year, the house sponsored several dances, with each brother receiving a number of invitations to pass on to friends. At junior week, the period after the first-term exams and during the second-term registration, a formal party would bring girls in from out-of-town. My freshman year, with snow hip deep, the house hired an ox team and sled to get to the various parties.

An account of fraternity life in the 1920s would not be complete without some mention of Prohibition and hazing. Hard liquor was never too difficult to obtain, and there were times when one or more of the brothers drank to considerable exces. Social events were chaperoned, but the chaperones were never too obtrusive, and one could generally find a way to avoid them. The gazebo (summerhouse) was a favorite retreat for the romantically included. An electric light at the head of the path to the gazebo warned when it was occupied.

Synonymous with hazing was the word “paddle,” and pledges were often requested to drop their trousers and “assume the position.” Fortunately, no serious injury seemed to result from the paddling, but there were times when sitting down was not comfortable.

The gracious living was aided by the kindly Professor Chester Hunn, the alumni advisor. The inevitable prelims and finals led eventually (and, in many ways, all too soon) to graduation. That ceremony took place in Bailey Hall, with each graduate getting perhaps two tickets. The beloved Dr. Livingstone Farrand conferred the degrees.

My diploma hands on the wall of my study in downtown Ithaca, within minutes of Omicron Zeta. At night I can see, from my east chair, the lighted Libe Tower. Omicron and Cornell havelived in my heart through the years and are a big part of my life today.