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At USC's Phi Sigma Kappa, new design makes frat more fraternal

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When architect Ana Henton first toured what had been the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity house on USC’s Greek Row last spring, she wasn’t prepared for the end-of-semester squalor she saw. Leased to another fraternity, the house was in an extreme state of disrepair.

“There were bongs and beer bottles everywhere, graffiti from other frat houses defacing their walls, mattresses in the courtyard, and a stripper pole in the main meeting room,” said Henton, principal at Mass Architecture and Design in Los Angeles, who even found party detritus hidden inside the walls.

Over the summer, Henton and her colleagues teamed with Phi Sigma Kappa alum Frank Acevedo and current members of the fraternity, which lost its charter at USC in 2003 but was welcomed back in late 2011. The group set out to transform the midcentury building on West 28th Street into a modern, welcoming house for about 35 students.

Acevedo, who has rehabilitated properties throughout Los Angeles and serves as the president of the Central Area Planning Commission, oversaw the $903,000 project. Although most of the budget went to overhauling mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems and reframing walls damaged by dry rot and water, students were most interested in the visible design of their home.

Acevedo invited the brothers to submit their ideas, and he and Henton ended up with a 95-page document of architectural suggestions. Some of the less feasible and more expensive ideas such as a courtyard pool had to be scrapped. The team ultimately decided to keep the bones of the structure and incorporate more contemporary design flourishes.

“Our intention was to bring out some of the original midcentury properties, but we wanted to be conscious of the materials and do it in an eco-friendly way,” said Acevedo, who added that plans for the work-in-progress include solar panels and a reflective white roof to save energy.

Although fraternity culture often centers on closely guarded secrets, the reborn chapter wanted its house to reflect a new sensibility.

“We wanted it to be more welcoming,” junior Elias Bashoura said. “We wanted a new model from what had previously been seen on the Row.”

Though USC officials would not comment on why the fraternity lost its chapter status nearly a decade ago, the watchword among new members, at least, is “transparency.” Embodying that aim, the new entry features two-story-tall windows, bringing more light into the building.

Durability was another important consideration. Mass Architecture replaced wood staircases and railings with metal. It equipped room with built-in metal lofts that can accommodate queen beds. It tore off damaged closet doors and installed washable denim curtains. Whenever possible, the firm painted signage, such as the fraternity’s crest, directly onto the walls to discourage theft or vandalism.

Concrete floors have replaced worn carpets. Bathroom vanities and sinks came from Ikea, so they could be replaced easily.

What normally would have been a nine-month renovation was aggressively consolidated into the two-month summer break. Phi Sigma Kappa moved into the house at the beginning of the semester in August. Among the amenities the brothers found: a salad bar so they could load up on low-carb meals.

The fraternity’s housing corporation had owned the property free and clear, Acevedo said, and the debt incurred for the renovation will be managed by alumni. Bashoura added that some of the fees earned from the leasing of the property will help to pay for the new Dwell-worthy residence, which members hope will inspire other fraternities.

“We want them to understand they’re active participants,” said Acevedo, who said the house can serve as a model for salvaging an older property. The brothers, meanwhile, expect the renovation to help with recruitment.

“The house is a reflection of how we carry ourselves,” Bashoura said. “It says this is a place that treats people well and love each other as brothers.”

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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