Fraternity to Church
Reimagining the Deke Shant
From the October, 2018 issue
Half the brick wall out front is gone, along with the wrought-iron gate. The stonework screening the wheelchair lift is unfinished, exposing a cement block core, and the landscape beds are covered with chipboard. But there's a friendly, goateed greeter at the door, coffee and pastries are set out in the first-floor social room, and children are racing up the stairs to the second-floor sanctuary. The Deke Shant--the narrow, steep-roofed structure that has loomed enigmatically over E. William St. since 1878--is now officially a church.
"We're just delighted," says Carmine Lapham. A cheerful, white-haired woman, she explains that her daughter Lorraine is married to Bart Bryant, co-pastor of Redeemer Ann Arbor. "The city made them do a lot more than they expected," Lapham adds, "but they persisted." The first service a week earlier, she says, drew more than 100 people. She was especially impressed because "it was so small when they started."
Co-pastor Jim Mong moved from Grand Rapids to launch the church three years ago. "I'm from southwest Detroit and grew up loving Ann Arbor," he says. He and others presented the idea of a student ministry to Redeemer Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Ada, where he was an associate pastor. The congregation agreed to support his family financially while he launched it. Other congregations also contributed, including some associated with Acts 29, a "church-planting network" that is sometimes described as "Neo-Calvinist." Mong calls it "a vibrant Reformed community."
Redeemer started out meeting in homes, with students who'd grown up in an Acts 29 congregation in Trenton as some of its first congregants. "Two years ago we started meeting in the evening" at the Michigan League, Mong says. "Then a year ago we started meeting at the Lord of Light" Lutheran Church.
But Mong says the church blending Presbyterian and Baptist traditions was always looking for a home of its own. Lorraine Bryant was the first to notice that the Shant was available. "It's a beautiful building," Mong
says, "and the location a block from the U is amazing. God opened the door!"
Bart Bryant emails that it "wouldn't be prudent" to discuss finances, but city records indicate that Redeemer paid the fraternity's foundation $780,000--and that was just the start. "Usability-wise it was pretty funky," says contractor Geoff Perkins.
The Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity was founded at Yale in 1844. Distinguished Dekes include five Republican presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and U-M grad Gerald Ford. There's a photo of the DKE flag flying at the North Pole with its discoverer, brother Robert Peary.
The U-M "Omicron" chapter was chartered in 1855. Members built the "Hall of Omicron" twenty-three years later.
There is no record of how it came to be known as the Shant. "I don't know, and I don't know anybody who knows," says Doug Lanpher, executive director of the international DKE fraternity and president of its foundation. "Short for 'shanty' is the best guess I've heard."
"It was designed by William LeBaron Jenny," says architect Gary Cooper, who oversaw the renovation. Before becoming famous as "the father of the skyscraper," Jenny was the first U-M professor of architecture from 1876 to 1880. "He designed this building based on another building in Chicago based on a French church," Cooper says.
Beyond that, "there's very little known about the building," Cooper says. "There's no record. Nobody outside the chapter was allowed in until 1972."
So just what the brothers did there remains obscure. Old pamphlets say DKE hazing rituals involved "horseplay and rough-house," and according to a 1990 Observer article, "For a time, there was a rope snare in the Shant's huge main room that would catch the unaware pledge and fetch him up like a bird to the second floor, where he would find himself in the presence of the then-presiding brother." That seems to be a variant of a story told in the 1971 Ann Arbor News--it reported that a renovation that year had preserved "trap doors used to drop unsuspecting pledges from a rope ladder."
Perkins says his crews found "no evidence of a rope ladder," but surmises "it was probably eliminated when DKE started using the first floor for their offices. We have been involved in other secret passages in other fraternities but [found] no evidence in this building."
Undertaken after several years of abandonment and vandalism, the 1971 renovation cost $100,000 and belatedly brought the building into the twentieth century--adding running water, heat, and electricity. (Until then, the windowless first floor had been illuminated only by gaslight and candlelight.) Despite another round of fundraising in 1980, however, the Shant remained a drag on the Omicron chapter's finances, and in 1987 it transferred ownership to what's now called the DEKE Foundation.
Though U-M Dekes continued to hold an annual ceremony at the Shant and hosted an occasional alumni tailgate there, from then on it functioned primarily as the headquarters of the foundation and the international fraternity.
"It was fun to watch people walk by and look up," says Lanpher, who first worked there in 2009. "It is a little understood building." But "with no windows and no parking, it really wasn't suitable--and then we outgrew it."
Letting go of a building that the frat had owned for so long was an "emotional decision," Lanpher says, but "it needed quite a bit of repairs, and we decided not to spend the money on it." So the foundation sold the Shant, earmarked the proceeds for member education and leadership training, and moved to an actual office on Plymouth Rd.
The building needed even more work than the Dekes--or the church--realized. "We were working with [Redeemer] prior to their purchasing the building," Perkins says. "We looked at it, and, once closing took place, we had meetings with the city to talk about what they were going to require--and they required us to do a lot more than we originally anticipated.
"We didn't anticipate having to put in an elevator," he explains. "We didn't anticipate having to bring the bathrooms up to code. We didn't expect that [changing ownership] would trigger code requirements.
"We regularly had a crew of three carpenters," he adds. "We had an electrical contractor with usually a couple of guys, a mechanical contractor with four guys, [and] a plumber with one or two guys."
"Then you had the masons," says Randy Walker, Perkins' project manager. "The masons dug out the basement--by hand. Those five guys took a wall down and had a conveyor belt stuck out" through the hole. "Because the site is so confining, they'd get a pile and haul it away--and then get another pile and haul it away!" And because the original stone foundation wasn't deep enough, they built a new concrete-block wall inside it.
When they were done, the basement had eight-and-a-half-foot ceilings, with mechanical rooms, barrier-free bathrooms on the west wall, and what will be a nursery with maize-and-blue-painted walls in the center.
The carpenters took out a wall on the first floor and put in a new beam to take the load. And they removed what Cooper calls "a beautiful winding stair" to put in a new, bigger stairwell with steps that meet current codes.
That added still more to the cost, but proved a blessing in disguise. "The city gave us a pass on having to go through site plan approval," says Perkins. That's mandatory "when you add more than two hundred square feet to a building, and we would have been subjected to the whole plethora of stormwater detention, landscaping requirements, bike racks"--all of which the city has decided are essential since 1878. The basement expansion was bigger than that--but after deducting the space lost to the elevator shaft, stairwell, and barrier-free bathrooms, "we actually lost nine square feet."
Even so, all the extra work "added time to the whole thing," Perkins sighs. His crews worked eighteen-hour days to get the building open at the beginning of September. It's "because it's a young congregation," he explains, "and it's very much oriented around the school year."
At 10:30, a large TV in the social room flicks on, showing people trickling into the sanctuary upstairs. Everyone else follows, and soon sixty or so people are settling in on upholstered metal chairs under a small skylight. A pair of stained-glass windows, though set with DKE symbols, give the space something of the feel of a traditional church. There's a big screen here, too, currently scrolling a list of upcoming activities--the women's group meets at the church on Tuesday night, the men's breakfast is at 6:30 a.m. Thursday at Angelo's on the Side ("it's early, but it's worth it," Mong says).
Today's congregation is mostly white, but there's one African American and a number of Asians. About a third are college age, and children outnumber seniors. (The Bryants' children are grown, but Mong and his wife, Susannah, have six youngsters.) Led by a five-piece band, the group sings contemporary "praise songs" with varying degrees of confidence. Mong offers a prayer for an Acts 29 congregation in Central America, asking God to "lift up men" to guide it--women aren't allowed to lead either Orthodox Presbyterian or Acts 29 congregations. There's a Bible reading about suffering unjustly, and an analytical sermon by Bryant on suffering, sin, and salvation.
On Monday, Perkins' crews are back at work. Once the courtyard landscaping is done, they'll rebuild the brick wall and rehang the wrought-iron gate. Mong says they'll also replace the pavers bearing the names of Dekes who contributed to past building renovations. "We have Gerald Ford's two pavers that we're going to put back," he says.
Perkins says they'll also restore one more bit of Deke archaeology: "Abe the fraternity dog was buried in the courtyard," he says. They know because they found his tiny marble headstone.
They'll return it when the work is done. In case anyone is wondering, Walker adds, "We didn't find Abe."
[Originally published in October, 2018.]
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