Parts of this history were taken from the October 2000 issue of 'Town & Gown' in an article written by Lee Stout, University Archivist.
The Greek community can trace its roots back to the 1870's. While the university, then called a college, was founded in only 1855, the first fraternity to be chartered sprung up in 1872. The international fraternity of Delta Tau Delta chartered the group. However, because the faculty at the time felt that fraternities were generally bad and would not promote the proper atmosphere at the university, the chapter was soon closed.
The Late 1800s
Things began to change though in the late 1800's. A new president had arrived by the name of George Atherton (he is buried next to the Schwab Auditorium on campus) and he helped make major changes in student development at the university. He, along with a growing number of faculty who were themselves members of fraternities as undergraduates at different institutions, felt that a fraternity influence would provide students with new opportunities for friendship, and help alleviate the housing problem on campus.
At this time, there were a number of fraternities operating secretly on campus, with secret Greek, German, or Latin letter combinations. The reason for this is that faculty mainly supressed the wants of students to gather and socialize and most of the students lived in cramped quarters in the old 'Old Main' where they lived, ate, slept, and worked.
Phi Gamma Delta Recognized
One of the most prominent secret organizations at the time that would have a direct impact on the Greek community at Penn State was the QTV secret Latin letter society. At the time, QTV existed as a national organization, but most of the chapters had no direct affiliation. Eventually QTV broke up and their chapters affiliated with other national organizations. However, before that could happen, in 1888 President George Atherton lifted the ban on fraternities. The first fraternity officially allowed by the university was Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, because they were the first fraternity to have their national convention and chartered the fraternity. QTV locally however was being racked with internal dissent. Some of the members wanted to break away and affiliate with Beta Theta Pi, while other members wanted to affiliate with another chapter. Some of the members left and in 1888, were chartered by Beta Theta Pi. The remaining members, however, didn't merge with another fraternity until 1896, when they were chartered by Phi Kappa Sigma.
The First Fraternity House
Fraternities needed homes to live in and the school was quickly running out of room for all students. The first fraternity to purchase a home off-campus was Phi Gamma Delta. They were the first Phi Gamm chapter with a fraternity home and it was set up on the corner of present day Beaver Avenue and Allen Street. The house still stands, but has been moved back a few houses and is now an apartment.
By 1920, fraternities at Penn State grew almost fivefold to 29 nationals and 10 locals. This was due to the support of President Sparks, a Chi Phi himself, and Dean of Men Arthur Warnock. Both believed in the importance of extracurricular life in rounding out the education of the student, but also recognized fraternities tended to have problems with social behavior, house management and finances, and indifference to academics. They created the Interfraternity Council (IFC) to address those issues.
House construction boomed in three general areas. First, along West College Avenue, particularly between Barnard and Gill; second, within two blocks of South Allen Street between Foster and Fairmount; and third, on campus where four of the six houses there were built during that era. The West College houses were fairly sizable; some even had three stories while the Allen Street houses tended to be smaller. Some survive today, having made transitions from fraternities to rooming houses to apartments.
However, it was during the 1920s and '30s that those houses we most often call mansions were built. These came primarily in a new section of town surrounding Locust Lane and Garner Street, from East Beaver south to Hamilton.
In the University Archives is an advertising map of the new fraternity district, developed by Eugene H. Lederer, in the April 1926 edition of his Real Estate News. Fifteen houses were built at that point and 15 lots were sold, with additional spaces still available. The News reported, "In a few years' time this section will be one of the most beautiful in the state. We venture this statement because there will be grouped together homes of fraternities costing from $40,000 to $75,000 with spacious lawns and property landscaped." Translated to the dollar's current value, those figures would be $370,000 to $695,000.
The First National Pan-Hellenic Fraternity is Founded
On March 15, 1921, the first NPHC fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, was founded at Penn State. Omega Psi Phi operated a chapter home on Allen Street and was the lone NPHC fraternity until the late 1950's. There was rapid expansion of NPHC fraternities and sororities during the 1980's and 90's. The NPHC nationally took shape in 1989 at Indiana University at Bloomington.
These architect-designed, Classical Revival-style homes were the biggest fraternity houses yet, in fact the biggest houses in town. They symbolized the continuing success of the Greek community of that era. By 1923, there were 47 national and local chapters, housing almost 50 percent of the male student body. Fraternities dominated the campus social scene with House Party weekends and special dances. Greeks also dominated student government and leadership positions in other activities.
The Arrival of Sororities
In 1926, the first women's sorority arrived on campus in the form of Chi Omega sorority. Other sororities started to spring up on campus with Pi Beta Phi, Phi Mu, and Kappa Alpha Theta joining Chi Omega. Sororities occupied the cottages still found on campus to this day. Some of the homes have been torn down, like Stone House on the HUB lawn, which for a long time was the home for Kappa Alpha Theta. Around this time, the Panhellenic Council was formed and continues to represent the over 20 Penn State sororities.
The Depression Era
The Depression was hard on fraternities, and during World War II, the college took them over to house Army and Navy officer cadets here for special training. The chapters rebounded after the war, and eight new nationals established chapters. By 1966, the 56 Penn State chapters of national fraternities had more than 2,800 men in residence--the second-largest system in the country.
Fraternities during the late 1960's faced student uprisings on campus all over the nation. Protestors felt that fraternities were part of the 'administration-establishment' and many fraternities saw their numbers drop to record lows.
In 1968, Greek Sing was started as performance opportunity for fraternities and sororities to show off their musical talents. The event was restarted in 1983 and in 1985, it was decided that all profits from Greek Sing would go to the Gayle Beyers scholarship fund, named after a Penn State advisor who gave hours of dedication to helping the fraternity and sorority community. It is still held annually every fall.
Sororities Housed in the Residence Halls
Sororities at Penn State worked out a provision with the admistration that guaranteed them housing in the residence halls. Many sororities moved into Pollock Halls and South Halls, while some reside in East Halls. It was and still is difficult for sororities to move off-campus becuase of housing codes, security, and financial concerns.
The Founding of the IFC-Panhellenic Dance Marathon
At the time, an IFC President named Bill Lear felt that the Greek community could use some public relations help. He decided to plan and start a dance marathon that would benefit a local philanthropy. The dance marathon was a significant success. They raised almost $2,000 for the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children. Two years later a little known charity became the recipient of the dance marathon fundraiser - The Four Diamonds Fund. Bleachers lined the walls of the HUB Ballroom as a record 62 couples took the floor. The philanthropy continues to give the Greek community a great name and raise funding for an amazing philanthropy. In 2009, the Penn State IFC-Panhellenic Dance Marathon, or as it's simply called now, THON, raised over $7,838,000.
The Founding of the Multicultural Greek Council
In the Fall of 2002, a new governing organization was founded to represent the numerous diverse, multi-cultural greek organizations at Penn State that until this time had no representation. The Multicultural Greek Council, or MGC, is now the governing body for those fraternities and sororities.
The Greek Pride Initiative: A Return to Glory
April 2004 began a new way of looking at how the Greek Community is engaged with its own principles and purposes as well as with the University and the State College community. With the start of Greek Pride: A Return to Glory, the Greek Community has worked to focus on what it has done well and how it can apply these same ideas to make it the premier Greek Community in the nation. In August 2004, the Dream Statement was signed by President Graham Spanier, Vice-President for Student Affairs Vicky Triponey, Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Kevin Kerr, as well as the four Greek Council leadership and members of the University and State College communities. The Dream Statement now forms the vision of all that the Greek Community is striving to achieve.