|© U-M Bentley Historical Library
From Church to Fraternity
SigEp buys Memorial Christian Church
by Grace Shackman
This fall, the former Memorial Christian Church, on the corner of Tappan and Hill, starts a new life as the chapter house for Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. A clever redesign by Hobbs and Black Architects has turned offices and schoolrooms into bedrooms, the basement social hall into a dining room, and the sanctuary into a library and lounge. The congregation, meanwhile, is holding services in temporary quarters on Platt Rd. while members decide what to do next.
This is the church's second move; the first move was of the building itself. It originally stood on South University, where the Law Quad is now.
In 1888 the Christian Women's Mission Society of Michigan offered to pay for a church building for the Disciples of Christ in Ann Arbor, using a bequest from Sarah Howley Scott of Detroit. (The "Memorial" in the name recognized her.) Finished in 1891, the church was designed by Detroit architects Malcomson and Higginbotham in the then-fashionable shingle style, with a fieldstone base and red slate siding. Forty-one people made up the first congregation, of whom thirty-five were students.
An interest in social issues defined the church from the beginning. During World War I, the congregation set up a workshop to make garments, blankets, and knitted goods for refugees overseas. According to a history written for the building's centennial in 1991, "[t]here were sewing machines and cutting tables installed and women and girls from every church in town and many who were from outside the churches worked at the church and took garments home to make."
In 1922 the church was notified that its lot was needed to make room for the first building of the Law Quad. After what the history calls "friendly condemnation proceedings in order to determine just value," the congregation bought the Prescott home on the corner of Tappan and Hill. They considered a new building but decided instead to move the 1891 church. "Each stone was marked and moved to the present
site," the history recalls. Lumber, doors, chimes, cut nails, and even mortar were also reused. They "flipped" the floor plan, rebuilding in mirror image so the tower wouldn't obscure the entrance facing Hill, and added a full basement to expand the Sunday school--by then, the church had 150 members.
The new location was still close enough to campus to serve students. Russell Fuller first attended during World War II, when the navy sent him to the U-M to study engineering. He was installed as minister in 1956 and in 1968 led the construction of an addition on the north side to expand the Sunday school. By then the church had 202 members, and "there were lots of kids, [so] we needed more room," he recalls. (Though he retired as minister in 1995, Fuller is still an active member of the congregation.)
Fuller strongly opposed the Vietnam War and made the church available for prayer vigils and other anti-war activities. His wife, Barbara Fuller, was a founder and first staff member of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. The church also helped organize the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which brings together local congregations to aid homeless families.
But after peaking in the 1970s, "membership has gradually fallen off," says Rosalie Karunas, who has been a church member since joining as a student in the early 1960s. There currently are about eighty people on the church rolls, but only about thirty-five regularly attend services, and only one of those is a student.
Fuller attributes the drop in membership to a "culture change. It's a busier world. It's harder for people to give time." Three years ago, the congregation requested a financial assessment from the national Disciples of Christ. It "concluded that the church was mismatched to the neighborhood and recommended we relocate," says Karunas.
Although the congregation accepted the need, the decision to leave their church was hard. "It's a real beauty for a small congregation," says Fuller. "I love the building.
I love its creaks, I love all its goodness. The sanctuary is not large but has a quiet beauty I think people sensed the minute they walked in."
The move was happier for SigEp, which is celebrating its hundredth anniversary on campus in its new chapter house. Established here in 1912, the fraternity has gone through some hard times in recent years. Sanctioned after a hazing incident, the chapter was disbanded in 1994. Its house at State and Hill was sold to the university, but before the transaction was finalized, squatters got into the building and it burned down. The site is now occupied by Weill Hall, home of the Ford School of Public Policy.
Since the national fraternity "re-colonized" the chapter in 1997, the SigEps have rented four different buildings. But "it's difficult to grow and improve chapter operations and performance when trying to find a new place every few years, plus we wanted to build equity," says Jerry Mangona, president of the fraternity's local alumni group.
When the church came on the market, Mangona petitioned the fraternity headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, to send staff architect Jonathan Kucera to do a study. Once Kucera established that the conversion was feasible, the local alumni volunteer board hired Hobbs and Black to plan the conversion. It was a perfect choice, Mangona explains, both because the architects' own offices are in a former church (the 1882 First Unitarian Church at the corner of Huron and State), and because owner Bill Hobbs "is a well-known and well-respected alumnus from our fraternity."
This job was actually easier than his own project, Hobbs says. "Our building was about ready to fall down, it was in such poor repair. The frat is in much better condition because it was used until the sale." Both conversions kept much of the original detailing, such as decorative grills and trusses, while adapting the interior to new uses--offices in the case of Hobbs and Black and bedrooms for the fraternity.
Project architect Steve Dykstra found space to tuck in forty-four bedrooms: in the 1968 education wing, behind the former sanctuary where the baptismal font once stood, in the space above and below the lounge, and in the basement. The original office off the sanctuary will be a resident manager's apartment. The sanctuary itself became a library and a lounge that will be used for chapter meetings and special events. Fraternity parties will be relegated to the basement dining hall.
Fuller and Karunas both admit to missing the old church but are realistic about the need to move. "We are happy that it is not torn down, but restored," says Karunas.
[Originally published in October, 2012.]