Sigma Alpha Epsilon house up for spot on national historic registry

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:10 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 14, 2014
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at 24 E. Stewart Road was nominated to the National Register of Historic Places on July 1. The Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation will consider it, as well as eight other nominations, for a place on the registry of historic buildings at its quarterly meeting Friday in Kansas City.

COLUMBIA — The white exterior of MU's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter house looks just as it did in 1929 when the fraternity purchased it. Through decades of busy football falls and calm, muggy summers, the house on the hill has remained unchanged, while hundreds upon hundreds of fraternity brothers have come and gone.

The SAE house, 24 E. Stewart Road, has been nominated for the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion, identified for the nomination by its former name, Welch Hall, will be considered alongside eight other historical buildings throughout Missouri. It is the only site in this batch of nominations from Boone County.

Scott Barger, SAE's chapter adviser, said being added to the national register comes with financial benefits, including tax breaks for donors and qualifying for federal grant money for renovation projects. Barger said the money would be nice, but the prestige of being added to the register was a big incentive.

"It's a property that we are very proud of," Barger said. "We've owned it since the late '20s, and we don't plan on selling it any time soon."

Barger, who lived in the mansion during his undergraduate years, said his favorite part of the house was how untouched much of it has remained since SAE purchased it in 1929.

"The main living area on the ground level is probably my favorite," Barger said. "It's always looked the same over the years. Whenever anyone comes back, it's the first thing they see. ... It reminds them that they are home."

Documents prepared to support the nomination of the SAE/Welch House tell the following story:

The building was constructed in 1908 as the new site for Col. J.B. Welch's military academy after a previous location burned down. The building served as the academy until Welch's death in 1915.

After that, the house on the hill sat empty for a few years until it was remodeled into an MU women's dormitory known as Welch Hall. In 1926, the colonel's wife sold the property to a real estate developer who transformed the building into a hotel and campground known as Oak Hill Hotel.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity bought the Oak Hill Hotel on April 29, 1929, and enlisted the help of SAE alumni and architect David Frederick Wallace. He redesigned the house in the neoclassical revival style, an architectural style favored by Greek organizations.

Under Wallace's direction, large side patios were added to the building, and the existing central front patio was rebuilt in the neoclassical style; the original four columns were replaced with six matching Ionic columns.

The changes went beyond cosmetic upgrades. A central coal-fired heating system was added to the house, and the living capacity grew from 40 to 60 people with the addition of a third floor in the rear of the house.

Drops in enrollment in the years of the Great Depression caused a financial strain on the fraternity, which was having trouble keeping up with the mortgage payments of its newly completed house. The mortgage eventually came into the ownership of Battenfeld Grease & Oil, which allowed SAE to make interest-only payments when money was tight. This, along with help from fraternity alumni, helped SAE regain control of its finances.

The house was possibly closed during World War II and reopened in 1945, as noted in this passage from the fraternity's centennial history:

"Without a by your leave from anyone we moved back into the house, burned off the weeds with the dramatic help of the Columbia Fire department, stoked up the old coal boilers by hand ... there were less than a dozen of us."

After the war, MU experienced a huge growth in enrollment, as did the SAE fraternity, which graduated a record number of young men in 1950.

In February 1965, a fire nearly destroyed the house. A passage from the 1965 SAE rush book described the scene fraternity brothers returned to after a Valentine's Day pajama party. The students found "smoke billowing from the giant 'House on the Hill.' Within 30 minutes flames from the third floor flooded the sky with light."

The fire destroyed the third floor and ruined most of the second floor. The building's masonry shell, as well as some first floor features and the front porch's columns, were largely unharmed.

Insurance covered the damage, allowing the fraternity to begin restoration efforts immediately. SAE reached out to the Kansas City architectural firm Marshall and Brown to head up the restoration. Special care was taken to recreate many of the original features as they were before the fire, as per the wishes of the fraternity board.

The post-fire renovations brought the house's capacity up to 90. The restored building was rededicated in September 1966.

In 2014, the house on the hill functions as an SAE chapter house, as it did more than 80 years ago. As the nominating documents note, "the house clearly evokes a sense of its time and place."

Not mentioned in the documents is one of the more colorful aspects of the house: its supposedly haunted basement, which fraternity members say was a hospital during the Civil War. Barger called it "an ongoing urban myth," saying they had never found any documentation that there had been a building on the site at that time.

City planner Rachel Bacon said Columbia's Historic Preservation Commission made an official recommendation for consideration to the Missouri Advisory Council on Historic Preservation at its July 1 meeting.

The other nominees are:

  • Remington Rand Building, St. Louis
  • Stouffer's Riverfront Inn, St. Louis
  • John B. Busch Brewery, Washington, Mo.
  • Downtown Washington Historic District, Washington, Mo.
  • McDaniel Building, Springfield
  • Midtown Neighborhood Historic District, St. Charles
  • The Kansas City Parks and Boulevards Historic District, Kansas City
  • Sarcoxie Public Square Historic District, Sarcoxie

The council will consider the nominations during its quarterly meeting on Friday in Kansas City.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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