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Old Buildings

By Jean Southworth

May 1999

Two buildings, once filled with the laughter of youth, their walls having outlasted their purposes, left abandoned with an uncertain future.

Two families, with sufficient financial resources and more importantly, clear visions of restoration and renewal.

Two sets of friends. Two weekends.

Eight days ago, Jim and I spent the night in a classroom at Kennedy Elementary School in NE Portland. We scribbled on our chalkboard walls and hung our coats on the cloakroom racks. For breakfast, we meandered down to the school cafeteria. For dinner, we met in Mrs. Parsons’ classroom where our friend, Jeff Phillips, turned forty, forty of his closest friends gathering to celebrate.

We’d already taken the walking tour of this old school, built in 1916, abandoned in 1975. The McMenamins brothers, of local hotel and restaurant distinction, purchased the crumbling structure in 1994, carefully transforming it into a hub of neighborhood activity.

The school auditorium serves as a movie theater for hotel guests. In the gym, staff set up for an evening wedding reception, buffet tables below aged basketball hoops. The girls’ bathroom is a brewery today, the pink tile floor a reminder of its past life.

Several of the other guests on our detention at Kennedy School were fellow Salem Heights School parents. Salem Heights is of a similar era and style to Kennedy School and we couldn’t help but imagine our childrens’ school transformed as a bed and breakfast. Wouldn’t Mrs. Searcy’s classroom work as a great movie theater? How about the library as a restaurant? Could you imagine sleeping in Mrs. Hannegan’s room?

In 1939, Alpha Delta Pi sorority opened its Alpha Omega chapter at Oregon State University in Corvallis. Today, OSU’s Greek system is suffering, with 12 houses closing in the past five years alone. ADPi joined that unhappy statistic and closed its doors two years ago.

The sorority house sat vacant until Dave and Lori Stubbs of Corvallis decided to open a home for single mothers as well as women escaping domestic violence situations. There is a certain irony to a rambunctious sorority turning into a home for unwed mothers, but the irony is delicious and it is wonderful.

Their life savings poured into this 14,000 square foot building, the Stubbs are walking the walk of their Christian faith. With the aid of their church, they are developing programs to meet the physical and spiritual needs of these young mothers. A churchmate of the Stubbs is my friend and fellow ADPi, Carol Weaver. The Stubbs asked Carol if she’d like to host one last slumber party at the house with a few sorority friends. Carol said yes, called me, and we invited a handful of other ADPi’s. This was the start of some weekend planning which Jim termed, "sorority sacrilege."

On Saturday afternoon, Carol and I dressed in grass skirts and coconut bras over floral gowns; we’d re-created "Hawaiian Night" of rush week. As friends arrived, they were greeted with a barrage of questions like, "What’s your major" and "Where are you from" before being voted into our quasi-sorority. Initiation in the chapter room had Carol and me covered with Barney sheets, teaching our initiates to line dance. We did a few other stunts involving string, cheesecake and string beans. (Don’t ask.)

Later we took our new "members" on a walking tour of campus. Carol was friends with the Chi Omega housemother so we stopped for a quick tour of this still-successful house. Seeing the house alive with the energy of college girls made the silence of our defunct sorority especially acute and I was saddened at the contrast.

Back at the ADPi house, our old study rooms are being converted to two-room apartments for the mothers and children. Our sleeping porch is a storage space for countless cribs, strollers and other items for its new life. The house’s original furniture remains as part of the purchase package, along with countless items forgotten or simply left behind. There are boxes of Hawaiian leis, old letters, costume jewelry. There are dishes. There are photographs. Fifty eight years worth of sorority girls are gone, but their memories remain in the walls and in the air.

I slept on the floor of the beau parlor and talked long into the night.

In the morning, our friends left one by one and Carol and I packed up the car. Then Carol suggested we walk through the house and pray. We prayed for our sorority friends from the past, thankful for those who are doing well, heavyhearted for those who walk the wrong path. We prayed for the single mothers to come in June, that their paths may be altered for right. We prayed for the young children who will inhabit the house, once again filling the walls with laughter. May God be glorified in this space.

Carol and I carried out our last bag of grass skirts, closed the door and said goodbye to our home, full of hope for its future.

 

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