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House of empty memories only teaches us to look to the future

By Daniel Miller

June 12, 2005 9:00 p.m.

On the way home from class every day for almost two years I
walked by the same dilapidated, old house. The sun beat on its
shuttered windows, and it just stood there stoically, slowly
crumbling away.

At night on the way to bars I walked by the house as the
darkness covered up its state of disrepair, making the whole thing
look kind of stately. Above the main doorway, I noticed the small
crest of the Kappa Sigma fraternity, which I knew was no longer at
UCLA.

Then, on the way back home from bars, I would say that I wanted
to break into the house and check it out. Sometimes you could see
light coming from a room on the first floor. I never did go
exploring, but I always vowed that I would ““ or at least I
would try to figure out who had abandoned the house, and why.

So you can imagine my shock when, after returning from winter
break, I found the large Spanish-style house on the corner of
Levering Avenue and Strathmore Drive was gone.

I am graduating from UCLA later this week, and ever since I
learned that the old Kappa Sigma fraternity house had been torn
down, I knew I wanted to write about it for my final column. When I
set out to investigate the house, I was hoping to come across some
sort of sensational story.

Perhaps some scandalous event forced the fraternity to leave
UCLA. Maybe the house was haunted. Maybe the story of the
house’s demise could teach me something ““ something
about my time at UCLA, or possibly something even bigger.

It was not very difficult to learn about the house. I checked
the Daily Bruin archives, and I found a story from Nov. 23, 1998,
that answered a lot of my questions. The reporter, Karen Thompson,
wrote that the building was designed in 1926 by architect Paul
Williams, one of the first prominent black architects in Los
Angeles.

As I read Thompson’s story, I wondered where she is now,
and what her life is like. I wonder if people will read my stories
seven years from now.

From Thompson’s article I learned the Kappa Sigma
fraternity had closed without controversy in 1997 and that a
non-profit, Opus Dei-affiliated Catholic educational organization
called the Tilden Study Center bought the property in August of
1997.

My keen reporter’s instincts led me to the Tilden Study
Center ““ I had to learn more about the specifics of the Kappa
Sigma closure.

(At this point I feel like I belong in a Hardy Boys story.)

“Kappa Sigma obviously wanted to get rid of it, but I
don’t know what happened to them,” said Hank Lopez,
director of the Tilden Study Center, in a strangely ominous
tone.

Although I still had no answers about the fraternity,
Lopez’s vagueness further piqued my interest.

He did say the center decided to tear the house down because
“people were breaking in and doing drug deals. It was
becoming a public nuisance. We killed 36 or 37 rats at the
end.”

Lopez said before the house was torn down he allowed film
students to shoot there, which once resulted in a scare for some
USC students.

“The rules were simple: Let the police know and cover up
the windows,” Lopez said. “In 2000, a group of USC film
students used it for a war film. In the upper corridor they had a
scene where Nazi soldiers carrying guns were pushing around a
prisoner of war.

“The film students didn’t tell the police or cover
the windows. A guy was walking his dog at the time, saw it, and
lost it. He called the cops, and 10 squad cars and a helicopter
with a searchlight came. They handcuffed the USC students, which
was the best part for me.”

Lopez said the lights I saw in the house at night probably came
from vagrants who were starting fires.

With fire-starting bums, a POW and Nazis in the mix, it was
essential I spoke to someone with first-hand knowledge of the house
““ Bart Kogan, the district 51 grand master for the
fraternity.

Kogan said the house was built specifically as a fraternity
house, and it slept 48. The house was actually located in the
center of UCLA’s old Greek row. In fact, there was a sorority
house directly across the street.

By 1976, fraternity row had moved to its current location along
Gayley Avenue, but the Kappa Sigma alumni were so committed to the
old house that they decided not to move.

“As the other fraternities moved to Gayley and students
became lazier, it was very difficult to rush,” Kogan said.
“We could have sold it and bought a house on the row, but the
old alumni had a connection with the building. The chapter went on
with nine guys until they had no money.”

In the end it was the unwillingness of the alumni to let go of
the past that forced the chapter to close.

“That house had so much historical value that it caused
the demise of the chapter,” said Kogan, adding, “It
took on a mind of its own.”

So there you have it: a story maybe not as arresting as we had
hoped for.

I walked by the house yesterday, and all that was left were the
foundation walls and a square of tidy linoleum flooring ““
probably the remains of the kitchen.

And eventually that rubble will be cleared too.

But the house will never be completely gone because Lopez said
he plans to put up a memorial plaque in the Tilden Study
Center’s new building, which will commemorate Williams’
architecture.

Upon some reflection, I’ve learned this: When you leave
someplace, if you were any good, they put up a plaque for you.

I guess I didn’t find that profound lesson I was looking
for in the rubble of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. I probably
wasn’t supposed to find it there anyway.

E-mail Miller at [email protected] to say goodbye. He
thanks his readers for their support and letters.

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