The SAE’s and the Story Mansion
Some call it “the old fraternity house,” but preservationists should recognize Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s stewardship of the Story Mansion for nearly 80 years. While other fraternities sold or demolished older residences for new facilities, the SAE’s maintained the residence at 811 South Willson Avenue. How did a fraternity end up owning one of Montana’s most impressive properties?
Greek organizations formed housing corporations to rent or purchase residences for member use after World War I. By 1923, five sororities and four fraternities at Montana State College (MSC) offered housing. The sororities clustered just south of West Main Street while the fraternities were located on the 200 and 300 blocks of South Willson, South Grand and South Third Avenues. Members walked or took the trolley to the MSC campus, 10 blocks away.
Founded on the MSC campus in 1912, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity moved to 319 South Black Avenue in the fall of 1917. They rented the large Shingle-style residence from the estate of John Luce, who died suddenly of a heart attack in September 1916 while serving as Mayor.
In the spring of 1922, the SAE Corporation reported that the residence no longer suited the fraternity. “The pressing need for a new House at this time is apparent… For several years the Chapter has been paying $100 per month rent for the Luce House and have nothing to show for it. The house is not well located; it is not large enough and as a result a large number of the men cannot stay at the House, and those who do stay there do not have satisfactory living and study conditions.” The Corporation also noted the expense, saying the Luce house was, “difficult and extremely expensive to heat, having cost about $700 this past winter.”
Yearbooks of this time period confirm SAE’s growth from 28 members in 1920, to 49 members by 1921.
In the early 1920’s the SAE’s purchased property on the corner of West Cleveland Street and South 5th Avenue. Located north and east of the campus, this area had the potential to develop as a Greek Row in the 1920’s and ‘30’s. Two sororities, Chi Omega and Kappa Delta, lived in older homes on West Cleveland. Kappa Sigma fraternity constructed a Tudor-style residence at 1120 South 6th in 1929.
The Corporation Treasurer reported progress towards construction of a permanent residence in a May 1922 fundraising letter to alumni. The SAE’s held assets of $7,600 and anticipated costs of $30,000 to build and furnish the new facility, which was being designed by Bozeman architect Fred Willson.
The drawings, on file in MSU’s Special Collections, reveal a symmetrical Federal revival style structure with single story wings flanking a two and a half story central block large enough to accommodate 24 men. The final drawing set is dated June 29, 1922.
At some point in 1922 or 1923, the SAE’s abandoned the West Cleveland plans and instead acquired the Story residence. Built in 1912 for Thomas Bryon and Katherine Story, the huge residence sat on an entire city block and included a substantial carriage house. Poor investments at the end of World War I forced TB, son of Bozeman entrepreneur and millionaire Nelson Story, to reevaluate the family’s financial priorities.
The SAE’s agreed to pay $30,000 for the property and financed the purchase with Story’s Commercial National Bank. They made a down payment of $5,000 and borrowed the balance of $25,000 at 6% interest per year. Payments were set at $175 per month.
The SAE’s actually purchased the property from Katherine Story. Records indicate that on June 19, 1920, TB gave the property to his wife as a birthday present. The deed lists the price as “Love, affection and $1.” Perhaps the deed transfer also served to buffer the residence from TB’s creditors?
On August 21, 1923 the Bozeman Chronicle reported the wedding of TB and Kate’s oldest daughter, Katherine Story, at the residence on South Willson. The family moved from the house a week after this last grand event. The SAE’s moved in at the end of September, 1923.
To break even financially, SAE needed at least 25 members, each paying $45 per semester, to live in the house. Expenses like taxes of $930 and lawn mowing of $140 a year couldn’t be helped due to the scale of the property. The organization averaged 40 members during these years. SAE’s routinely occupied influential positions on campus, as student body president and editor of the student newspaper.
In February 1930, the Treasurer recognized the effects of the Depression on the Corporation’s finances. He wrote, “every effort is being made to maintain the house as nearly as possible in the same condition as when it was purchased,” and “the active chapter has taken a distinct pride in preserving, and, where practicable, in improving the interior of the house.” The treasurer beseeched alumni to pay past-due balances and noted upcoming expenses, including a new roof anticipated to cost between $800 and $1,300 dollars.
This appeal was apparently unsuccessful, as the Treasurer later reported that the organization actually defaulted on the contract in 1930. “Story was most considerate about the whole affair. We succeeded in rewriting the contract
and starting all over again. The amount of the monthly payment was slightly reduced,” wrote the Treasurer in 1935.
Participation in fraternities dipped during the early 1940’s, as male students entered the Armed Services. The fraternities agreed to a moratorium on member recruitment in the fall of 1944. In spring 1945, pressure from SAE convinced MSC President Roland Renne to overturn an administrative decision to ban recruitment for the duration of World War II. In light of fewer live-in members, the SAE’s considered ways to save money, including closing their kitchen and taking all meals at the Student Union Building.
Veterans flocked to MSC after the war, aided by funding from the GI Bill. SAE, which had only 19 members in January of 1945, grew to 119 members by 1949. The growth stabilized the fraternity’s cash-flow. In 1954, the organization made the last payment on the property. The Deed transferred from Katherine Story in July, and the fraternity celebrated by burning a copy of the document at Homecoming 1954.
By the 1960’s the SAE’s were the only fraternity still in a pre-World War I residence. In the late 1950’s, Lambda Chi Alpha and Pi Kappa Alpha sold large mansions on the 500 block of South Grand and moved to new facilities on South 6th and South 5th. Sigma Chi demolished an older residence at 722 South Willson for a new fraternity house in 1961. Through this change, SAE maintained the Story Mansion with annual clean up days and ongoing maintenance. To prevent damage to the Mansion’s interior, the SAE’s banished large social function to the carriage house. The SAE’s did not modify the interior room layout and took steps to protect original woodwork.
Collegiate membership in SAE hovered around 100 men, and by the 1980’s the fraternity needed more space. CTA Architects and Engineers, whose founder Ralph Cushing joined SAE in 1925, proposed an addition to the north side of the residence. The SAE’s instead chose to remodel the main floor of the carriage house as living space.
Participation in Greek organizations waned on the Bozeman campus by the late 1990’s. Despite 80 years of careful stewardship of the property, the SAE house needed new plumbing, wiring and fire suppression systems in order to continue to function as a fraternity. The cost of these improvements outpaced SAE’s ability to fill the house with members. The residence was remarkably preserved when the fraternity listed the property for sale in 2001.