Ask any brother on campus about the history of his fraternity, and chances are that he will at least haphazardly recall a few basic facts memorized from his pledge term. Although the rare, sensationalized stories are what tend to place Michigan’s social fraternities in the spotlight, these brotherhoods still possess rich histories. After all, joining a fraternity is a lifelong commitment, so something more substantial than cheap beer and the latest football pre-party must unite these guys.
A group of brothers with a unique story that aptly captures that significant “something” are to the Omicron Chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon. In addition to their residence at 1004 Olivia Street, they are fortunate enough to own the historical 611 1/2 E. William St. in Ann Arbor – more affectionately called the Shant. Some people have noticed this unusual building before, without stopping to think twice about it, while others have never seen it at all. A select few have directly experienced the impressive site from the inside. But most have spent time speculating about its true purpose, and this building therefore remains a mystery to the majority of Ann Arbor residents.
“It’s not a secret. It could come up in conversation. Anybody in the world is free to know that DKE owns the building. But it’s just not common knowledge,” claims current DKE President Alex Bernstein. Contrary to rumors that the Michigamua organization still meets in the Shant – the group was paying up to $1,000 a month to rent meeting space as recently as 2002 – Bernstein asserts that DKE alone currently uses the building.
This building is protected by a seven-foot wall, and most closely resembles an old Gothic church. The cornerstone was laid in 1878, and the building was completed in 1879. Douglas Kelbaugh, Dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University, explained that the Shant’s designer, architect William LeBaron Jenney, taught the first courses in architecture at Michigan.
As for the derivation of the term “the Shant”, DKE Executive Director David K. Easlick Jr., said: “Nobody has any idea what that means. The idea was to make it very mysterious. But the (official) name of the building is the Hall of Omicron.”
Easlick is very knowledgeable about the fraternity’s past, and he has dedicated a lot of time to raising the money necessary to maintain this historical site amidst the modern buildings that surround it. Five U.S. presidents have been members of DKE, including University alum Gerald R. Ford (Omicron ’35). In the introduction of the book “A Century and a Half of DKE,” Ford writes, “I prize my experiences at the Deke house in Ann Arbor, and on the University of Michigan campus. The friendships I made there and later with Delta Kappa Epsilon Brothers from around the continent have served me well.” Easlick, the Executive Director of DKE, has Ford’s personal record form that he filled out as a pledge in the Shant. He also has a photograph of Ford visiting Ann Arbor in the 1980s.
Other artifacts, original furniture and educational materials from DKE’s early days at the University are on display throughout the building, which was gas-lit until the 1970s. The ground floor of the Shant has a modern office, and Easlick says, “We’re using it as the National Headquarters at the moment.” The Shant also serves as the meeting ground for DKE alumni during Homecoming weekend, and is where the fraternity’s traditional rituals continue to take place.
Members of the fraternity do not readily forget their interactions with the Shant; this building leaves a distinct impression that University graduates are likely to always remember. A brother of DKE even held his wedding reception at The Shant. Bernstein explains, “When I joined the fraternity, one of the things that I thought was the most appealing was doing the same things that guys have done since DKE came to Ann Arbor. Being able to go to this building and share that with all of my brothers, I think it is sort of unifying. It’s just cool. Very few chapters have a separate building outside of their house that they use.”
To the members of the Omicron chapter of DKE, the Shant symbolizes their fraternity’s intriguing past, and hopefully, will represent its bright future as well. Like other fraternities on campus, DKE stresses its history during a new-member education period, but what sets apart their experience is that they actually have a tangible place to visit, enabling them to genuinely appreciate these learned facts. Easlick emphasizes that pledges come over to discover more about the background of the fraternity and Bernstein highlights how his first visit to The Shant helped him comprehend the significance of his fraternity’s past “I was in awe of it. I was walking into a building built in the late 1800s. There have been guys going into that building for years, you know? It’s walking on the same floor that people in the 1800s were.”
Even though the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon might not effortlessly recall every detail about their fraternity’s history without taking some time to review the facts, it is clear that it takes more than superficial commonalities to unify a group of young men in the college environment. The shared history and feeling of brotherhood that connects DKE’s members has indubitably withstood the harsh test of time. Their careful preservation of the historical Shant is merely the physical representation of this remarkable bond.