It was once a house of brothers.
Less than a year ago, 29 Whalley Ave. was the home of a handful of Yale men, brought together by a bond of fraternity.
Here, amid the clutter and hole-punched walls of this simple four-story building, the men had gathered last winter around a television to play a game of Mario Kart. Earlier that day, the brothers had gone out into the nearby woods to chop down their own Christmas tree. It was all part of an annual tradition — one that involved glass after glass of hot chocolate and cider, not to mention the dozens of beer cans that would eventually end up as shiny tree ornaments hung on the branches of their newly felled evergreen.
While some of the brothers played and others drank, a few were preparing for the evening’s festivities: setting up speakers, pulling out beer pong tables and clearing the floor space for the soon-to-come flood of Christmas revelers. It was for the brothers’ annual holiday party, “Jingle Jams,” hailed by frat-bound Yalies for its Christmas carols, heavy woolen sweaters and general yuletide cheer.
But, since this summer, all that has changed.
At the end of last spring semester, as finals period concluded, the seven brothers still living in the house were told to pack up their belongings and arrange for alternate housing; they were being evicted, and the only guarantee they received was that the house would not be theirs when they returned next fall.
This was the house of Zeta Psi.
‘AN URGENT MESSAGE FOR ETA BROTHERS’
On March 11, at 2:06 p.m., the entire Yale chapter, known as Eta, along with some alums, received an e-mail. Clark Mercer ’02, a former president of Zeta at Yale and an active member on the Connecticut “ZP Nutmeg” board, was writing to inform active members that rumors about the house’s debts and potential closure were, in fact, true.
“This email is blunt, though I hope it will get everyone’s attention and will lead to a positive outcome,” Mercer wrote in the e-mail, which was forwarded to the News. “The board of directors of ZP Nutmeg is coming close to making a decision to shut down operations at 29 Whalley, and at the same time Zeta Psi International is on the verge of suspending the chapter.”
The chapter was roughly $10,000 in debt to the national board at the time, according to both Mercer’s e-mail and the current president, or Phi, of Zeta, Alex Barnes ’11. Barnes said the debt had accumulated over a period of three to four years — a result of brothers not paying their semesterly dues to the fraternity.
When recalling the problems circling the house last year, Barnes had difficulty pinning down the exact numbers, but he estimated that roughly half of the brotherhood at Yale — which numbers between 45 and 55 in active members — was not paying dues. He added that the dues were flexible from semester to semester, but that they normally amounted to roughly $200 or $400, depending on the semester’s needs and the consensus of the group. This was all in addition to the rent that the seven brothers living in the house spring semester paid, a fee of roughly $2,500 per person.
Mercer’s e-mail goes on to say that all lines of credit open to the fraternity had been exhausted, with more than $80,000 poured into replacing unhinged doors, mending holes in walls and repairing the house’s roof.
“You cannot tell any of that work was done as doors are missing, there are fresh round of holes, the bathrooms are falling apart, and the property outside the house is littered with trash and old furniture,” Mercer wrote. “Most brothers use the house as a place to party and don’t take any ownership in maintaining it and have no qualms about damaging it.”
This all came on the heels of another scandal two years ago: the episode in the fall of 2008 when Zeta pledges were photographed posing in front of the Yale Women’s Center holding a sign that read “WE LOVE YALE SLUTS.”
Barnes, along with three other brothers interviewed, said they were not sure what hit the last nerve, but somewhere along the way the combination of debts and problems caused “national” — or the Zeta Psi Grand Chapter — to send a representative to review the Yale chapter, Barnes said. It was this review, which brought to light the need for a second round of significant repairs, that put the chapter in hot water with its parent organization.
“We actually had the option of keeping the house this year,” Barnes added. “But they said there were going to be a lot of changes.”
Dues and rent were to be raised, a hefty security deposit was to be demanded of each brother — and there were to be no more parties, Barnes said.
So, sometime in the second half of spring semester, Barnes said the brothers decided that living in the house for the next year was not an option.
“The only thing we had to do was make sure all of our stuff was out,” he said.
THE ‘NEW ZETA’
The seven Zeta brothers have since found housing elsewhere for the year. Though they were not all able to find a house together, five of live in the same house at 400 Crown St. This house, though much smaller — with space for just five brothers, rather than Whalley’s 13 beds — has come to be known among the brothers and their friends as the unofficial new Zeta house.
“It’s not going to be a party house,” said Barnes, one of the residents of the new house,. “But it’s a place where anyone in Zeta can come to hang out if they want to.”
“I wouldn’t call it a new fraternity house,” he added.
Among the primary concerns regarding the new house is the lack of ownership over the property, Barnes said. This means that any damage to the Crown Street house would have to be paid for out of the pockets of the brothers, a contrast to the Whalley Avenue property, which is still owned by Zeta Psi International, which does not charge the brothers for the occasional spray-painted wall or missing door.
Late last summer, Sims McGrath arrived in New Haven to move into his new room in the rundown house on 29 Whalley Ave. Just last April, he had been a senior at the University of Washington, interviewing for jobs at his fraternity’s offices in New York City. Originally, he was set on a consulting position, but somewhere along the way, near the end of May, there was a quick change in plans.
“It wasn’t in the cards all along,” McGrath said of his current post as the full-time national representative of Zeta Psi International at Yale. “But they had to make a decision at the end of the school year to close down the chapter and they needed someone there.”
Reflecting on the unusual job process, McGrath said he was primarily hired for two personal qualities: his previous experience with construction work and his familiarity with the new, year-long rush process that Zeta Psi at Yale will have to use this as it adapts to the unusual year ahead.
This is because, as McGrath described, he was being hired to develop a new Zeta — one with a new house and a new reputation. In order to save costs on the renovation of the house, McGrath was brought on with the intention that he would do much of the heavy lifting himself, McGrath explained.
But perhaps the more challenging aspect of his job is the second clause: The rebranding of Zeta at Yale.
McGrath, who said he has no affiliation with Yale and knows few people on the campus, is also in charge of this year’s rush season at Zeta, which means he will be directing efforts to recruit new members. The other Yale brothers are no longer involved with recruitment efforts, Barnes and McGrath confirmed.
But McGrath said he hoped he would not be alone in the recruitment process. Though he has yet to have a “strategic meeting” with the national board regarding the plans, McGrath said he would like to bring some of Zeta’s illustrious alumni — which include former Vermont governor Howard Dean ’71 and former U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson ’55 — to speak at panels that will inform interested students about the history and values of the Zeta Psi fraternity, “to show what the type of gentleman we breed,” as McGrath says.
The national board, McGrath added, is making a concerted effort to veer Yale’s chapter away from former recruitment techniques in an attempt to shift the demographics of the fraternity.
“It’s to my understanding that a number of our guys are members of the football team or basketball team,” McGrath said. “But we’d like to recruit a very diverse group of guys — a physically diverse group of guys […] but also a diverse group of personalities.”
He added that he hopes the house will no longer be stereotyped as an athletes’ haven, but rather that it will become a more intellectual hub on campus that will be known as a place “where there are a lot of ideas.”
Both McGrath and Barnes said there has been little effort on either end to communicate the new vision for the house — with Barnes adding that new recruitment plans remained unconfirmed. McGrath said he has shaken the hands of only three of the Yale brothers and that he has had only had a conversation with one of them. Barnes said he has not spoken with McGrath since mid-to-late summer.
But McGrath said he is not concerned about conflicts arising with the new vision for Zeta.
“I wouldn’t want to push them out of the picture,” McGrath said. “If they can’t accept the new direction of the fraternity — it’s certainly going to be very hard to work with them.”
The house has since been closed off to Yale’s brothers. They are no longer allowed access to the house, nor are they allowed to discuss the fraternity or its matters, except for Barnes, the president, Barnes and five brothers interviewed explained.
THE HOUSE TODAY
Even though the brothers of the Eta chapter of Zeta Psi are no longer allowed to live in the house on Whalley Avenue, as of last week, McGrath is not its only tenant.
Thomas Hayden, 26, is not a Zeta brother. Originally from Memphis, Tenn., Hayden arrived in New Haven on Sept. 3, ready to begin a 1,200-hour joint internship between the Yale Children’s Hospital and Connecticut Hospice. Hayden — who aspires to complete his graduate degree at Florida State University next spring — is a psychology major and music minor from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
He is also one of the three people who currently live at the former Zeta house.
As he was looking for accommodations using the Yale off-campus housing website, Hayden came across an entry, under the name “Whalley Boarding House,” that caught his eye. Posted on July 28, the property offered four bedrooms, available individually any time between Aug. 20, 2010 and May 31, 2011. The space featured hardwood floors, carpeting, a full kitchen and all utilities — wireless Internet, heating, hot water and electricity — included in the monthly $600 bill, according to the online listing and Hayden himself.
Despite the brief mention that “all rooms being rented are currently undergoing renovation,” other factors such as the low rent and the convenient location of the house prompted Hayden to immediately contact the landlord, who promised “fresh carpet and paint” before his move-in.
“I thought it was a pretty good deal,” Hayden said. “And it’s fairly close to the Yale Children’s Hospital. I jumped on it as soon as I had the chance.”
As it turned out, the person listed as landlord was McGrath, who had just finished carpeting Hayden’s room in the house the week before Hayden arrived. McGrath never asked his new tenant to sign a residential lease agreement, Hayden said, and though he has yet to write his first check, he has been told all checks should be addressed to McGrath, not Zeta Psi International or any other body.
“I had to fill out some housing contract,” Hayden said. “Nothing that says that I have to be here for a specific number of months, though.”
Hayden, whose research is focused on the field of musical therapy, plans to leave New Haven next semester, as soon as his project is finalized. When he contacted McGrath three weeks ago, he was only looking for a place to stay in the city until March.
“My internship is only six or seven months,” Hayden said. “[McGrath] said I could come and leave when I needed to.”
Indeed, McGrath said the reason those four rooms have been up for rent since July is “to cover some of the costs for the year” and ultimately to “keep the house alive” — an endeavor of particular importance to Zeta Psi International, for whom the Eta chapter is an “asset” in their national portfolio, McGrath said.
The Phi Lambda chapter of Zeta Psi, McGrath’s own at the University of Washington, had about twice as many active members as Yale’s chapter and a house that could double the size of the property on 29 Whalley Ave., McGrath said. He added that another reason he was hired to lead the renovation process of the building was because he was used to the upkeep of a large facility.
“We have been bringing in contractors throughout the summer,” McGrath said of the Eta chapter house. “Electricians, plumbers … We’ve already spent about $15,000, and we’re probably planning on spending another $5,000 to $10,000.”
The fruits of the renovation, which started early this summer, are already evident: The walls of the kitchen, living room and dining room areas on the first floor have been painted, the floors have been polished and the furniture has been re-arranged. The second floor, where three new tenants of 29 Whalley occupy three of the four available rooms, has also seen similar improvements, which are in addition to the newly carpeted floors. The basement and third floor of the house still await major cosmetic renovations, which Hayden said are currently underway.
While McGrath counts 29 Whalley both as his current residence and full-time job, another Zeta alum has been seen coming in and out of the house and staying overnight at times, Hayden said.
His name is Anthony Abbate, and he is a recent graduate from New York University, receiving his degree in 2007. McGrath said he has been living in the house intermittently ever since the Eta brothers were evicted by the end of last spring semester.
“He’s not really involved with the Yale community,” McGrath said. “[29 Whalley] is just a place for him to hang around.”
“I think he is interviewing for jobs,” he added. Abbate was not contacted for comment.
The other two tenants, a woman who moved in on the same day as Hayden and a man who moved in on Sept. 5, declined to comment.
A COMMUNITY RESPONDS
The Zeta Psi house on Whalley Avenue, with its bare backyard and its black-lit basement, once hosted a slew of costume parties every year, from ’80s-themed “Rad” to the ’90s counterpart “Phat.” Now, given that the house is undergoing renovations and three new non-Zeta tenants are occupying its second floor, McGrath was very blunt about the likelihood of the house hosting a party in the coming months: “There will be no parties at the house. Not this year.”
For more than 15 students interviewed, this has meant the end to the parties that, at least for some, anchored their social calendars.
“I really enjoyed their costume parties,” Jeanne Snow ’11 said. “Me and my friends would get really into them.”
Snow, along with her roommate Bethany Watson ’11, said they used to think up elaborate costumes for Zeta parties. Watson added that she is disappointed her repertoire of costumes for Zeta’s parties will go unused this year.
But there is still hope: Yale’s Alpha Delta Phi fraternity is willing to lend its house on 23-25 Lake Pl. for Zeta Psi to host at least some of the classic costume parties that have entertained Yalies for years, said Colin Still ’12, ADPhi’s social chair.
“We would let them have their parties here and host them here,” Still ’said.
Jordan Forney ’11, president of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity on Lake Place, also expressed his willingness to “maintain a strong relationship with [Zeta Psi]” and to “accommodate their needs” during this uncertain year.
But both Still and Forney said their fraternities have not yet begun talks with Zeta Psi and that they do not have definitive plans yet.
Meanwhile, the businesses surrounding 29 Whalley, including Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits, have noticed a decrease in the number of customers this semester.
“I haven’t seen any Yale kids for a while now,” Popeyes Manager Jmack McElveen said. “Last year, they used to come here after some parties next door, to have food.”
Barnes said he he assumes that the house will return to the Eta brothers by next fall, considering that McGrath’s job contract expires after one year. With this, Barne said he is hopeful that next fall, the fraternity and its activities will back to normal. McGrath confirmed that, as of now, the plan is for the house to be back in the Yale brothers’ hands by the beginning of next year.
“We are still definitely a fraternity,” Barnes said. “It’s still our fraternity.”
In the meantime, Barnes said seniors will suffer the most since they will be spending their last year at Yale without the traditional house.
Thinking back to her time at Yale, Watson said some of her fondest memories of college are of getting dressed in costumes for Zeta’s “unique” soirées, something she may not be able to experience again.
“I just hope I still get a chance to wear my silver leotard one last time before I graduate,” Watson said.