The rise and fall of Delta Phi
By Sean Augustine-Obi
Nearly every Columbia student knows about St. A’s.
St. Anthony Hall, the fraternity-cum-literary society supposedly filled with Columbia’s 1%, serves as our own pseudo Skull and Bones.
But fewer have heard of St. A’s former counterpart, St. Elmo’s, also known as Delta Phi.
Founded in 1842, the organization was at its peak at the turn of the century. Their name—the “Elmo’s” cannibalized in typical Columbia fashion from St. Erasmus of Formia, a third-century Christian martyr known as the patron saint of sailors—fits well for a society a stone’s throw away from the Hudson.
By 1906, Delta Phi had grown enough to warrant the construction of a brownstone at 612 W. 116th Street, between Broadway and Riverside—and around the corner from its younger rival St. A’s, which had been founded in 1847.
The two fraternities chose brothers from the same pool: Columbia students from New York’s upper crust. In a speech written by the president of Penn’s Delta Phi chapter around 1917, he described Columbia’s chapter as having “maintained an unbroken line of succession since its establishment.” It drew its members “principally from the old Knickerbocker families, and its rolls contain men distinguished in the ministry, law, medicine, and engineering professions.” Among its members were sons of such prestigious families as the Fairchilds and Havemeyers, according to an 1881 directory.
Only two decades later, the once-proud fraternity was reduced to a shadow of its former self. The Depression took a toll on the organization’s finances, and Delta Phi fell deep into debt. Further, the outbreak of World War II led to a general decline in fraternity membership. Many of the men who would have filled Delta Phi’s ranks fought in the war.
By 1945, Delta Phi, thousands of dollars in arrears, foreclosed on the house and sold it to the university for the paltry sum of $100. Students now know the building as Casa Hispanica, where professors of the Latin American and Iberian Cultures department hold office hours.
The chapter survived for another half-century in a university-owned space on 113th Street. According to a 1996 feature in the Spectator, this relocation also signified a shift in Delta Phi’s culture. In the ’70s and ’80s, the chapter began accepting more artists and musicians, evolving into a literary society better known for their weekly coffeehouses than their members’ upbringings. It also adopted a progressive stance on membership, going against their national organization’s rules to become the first Columbia fraternity to accept women.
Yet the following decades proved difficult for the fraternity. The same Spectator article describes Delta Phi as “an endangered species,” partly because of their quarrels with the administration. RealityFest, Delta Phi’s annual art festival held in Ferris Booth Hall, was shut down for logistical reasons and alleged drug use. With the loss of its biggest event as a recruitment tool, chapter membership fell to the point that the fraternity failed to fill its house. The Delta chapter was deemed inactive in 2001, and Sig Ep eventually took over the brownstone.
Although the story of Delta Phi may have been lost to the annals of Columbia history, vestiges of its legacy are scattered throughout campus. Other fraternities hold c o f f e e h o u s e s meant to showcase artistic talent as Delta Phi once did. Fragments of RealityFest can be seen in Glass House Rocks and Bacchanal. And its Greek letters are still carved into the cornerstone of Casa Hispanica.