Washington "Frat" Park Reflects U of I Greek History
Since its inception, Greek life at the University of Illinois has played an integral part in campus history and the development of campus areas. The fact that U of I had the largest Greek system in the country, with over 80 fraternities and sororities currently represented, indicated the prominent and important role Greeks play in the University community.
One such area in Champaign was Washington Park, better known as Frat Park. The development of this area reflected the changes of the campus because it was formed in part by the exponential growth of fraternities and sororities at U of I in the first few decades of the twentieth century.
According to maps found as early as 1893, only the area directly surrounding the Quad and main campus buildings could be considered "urban." Streets did not extend past Fourth Street because beyond that point were only rural homes and farmland and the "future" Washington Park area was the Champaign County Fair Grounds.
In 1891, the University officially lifted the ban on fraternities and Kappa Sigma was the first formally recognized fraternity on campus. Soon after, many other fraternities and sororities also became formally recognized.
At first, these new chapters held their meetings and rituals in rented space on upper floors of local area buildings. As membership grew, these chapters realized a need for individual chapter houses.
Starting in 1905, the first wave of fraternity and sorority house construction started. By 1910, Green Street was emerging as "Fraternity Row" and Wright Street as "Sorority Row." most of these early chapter houses that were built were large frame, Queen Anne-style structures. As Green Street developed, additional space near campus was needed to build more buildings.
Rob Toalson, general manager of the Champaign Park District (CPD), said that Champaign resident G.W. Davidson donated two and a half acres to the CPD, and Washington Park was dedicated in 1905.
There were some construction of small family homes on the park a few years later and the construction of the first large, unique brick fraternity houses of Sigma Alpha Epsilon (1907), Kappa Sigma (1910), Beta Theta Pi (1911) and Triangle (1910). In doing this, they began to shift the growth of fraternity houses away from Green Street.
By 1917, the first wave of fraternity and sorority construction ended due to World War I. With a lack of men on campus, many fraternities were forced to close or have their houses taken over financially by the student army corps. A total of 64 houses had their total expenses taken over by the military.
After World War I however, the Greek system grew at a fantastic rate. During the 1920s, the largest surge of fraternity and sorority construction occurred. At this time, the "Frat Park" subdivision came into existence and numerous chapters built their houses between Flint and Fifth streets, as far south as Gregory Drive.
Second Street, which had run along the west side of Washington Park, was removed and relocated further west to give the park a more "park-like" atmosphere. The fraternities on Second Street were built with the east and west sides of their houses suitable to be the "front" of the house to accommodate the moving of Second Street.
This era was the height of the Greek system's popularity. By 1931, there were a total of 103 separate fraternities and 36 sororities established at U of I, making this campus in fact "the fraternity capital of the world."
Though some construction continued into the 1930's, the fraternity movement leveled off as a result of the Depression. Many of the locally established chapters and newly organized national fraternities and sororities during the 1920s had trouble surviving this financially challenging time.
Likewise, World War II forced the closing of numerous chapters, especially fraternities. Many houses were again taken over by the military or turned into housing for women students; all of the fraternities surrounding Washington Park, except for Sigma Alpha Epsilon, were used as military barracks. During the WWII years, the student ratio of women to men on campus was 4 to 1.
With the ending of the war and the advent of the GI Bill, fraternities regained their popularity. By 1946, the student ratio of men to women was 5 to 1. With a severe shortage of housing, fraternities were so crowded that many purchased or rented annexes or chapters built additions to their existing structures.
For at least 20 years, the Greek system achieved a level of stability. However, this changed in the late 1960s with the Vietnam War and the anti-establishment movement that continued through the mid-1970s. During this time, Greek system membership began slipping.
With a lack of funds to keep up and repair chapter houses, many were sold to real estate developers or the University, who then transformed them into parking lots, University buildings, dormitories, apartments and stores.
The 1980s and '90s enjoyed a resurgence in Greek system membership as a result of a societal acceptance of more traditional and conservative values. This activity came at a critical time, when the majority of Greek houses were over 70 years old and in need of major structural repairs.
One example of change can be seen from 1960 to 1998. In 1960, there were 25 different structures surrounding the park, including 11 fraternities, four student dormitories and nine student residential houses. The last two buildings demolished were Chi Psi fraternity in 1994 and the condemned "Party Mecca" house in 1996. Chi Psi was replaced by an apartment complex. The "Party Mecca" house, which stood on the corner of Third and Armory streets, was a residential house famous for their parties. By 1998, there were only 14 structures, including nine fraternities, one sorority, one student dormitory, one student residential house and two large apartment complexes.
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Frat Park was a busy place through every season. There was always some kind of activity going on, whether it be friends playing a game of touch football, walking dogs or having a snowball fight.
Frat Park has been a host to many Greek philanthropy events, including the annual Greek Olympics, Alpha Gamma Delta "Water Wars," various other sporting events and even clean-ups of the park itself. Some activities, including an annual sorority softball game, had to be moved away from Frat Park in recent years due to a ban on alcohol on park district property.
Some houses had silly activities that took place on the park. "When it is warm out, we usually have a fun time launching water balloons at the fraternities across the park, " said an unidentified member of Phi Sigma Sigma. "We also see our share of streakers, loud music, eating food from various venders and having a fun time. The grand finale was the performance of the swing band, the Mighty Blue Kings, who got the crowd of over 500 up and swing dancing past midnight.
As it approached nearly 100 years since its dedication, Washington Park has reflected all of the historical changes in the Greek system at U of I. The students found that Frat Park was not reserved for frats alone, but for, according to Toalson, "the recreation and enjoyment of all U of I students."