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This century-old MIT fraternity house is being recognized for its super fancy renovation

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532 Beacon Street has been the home of MIT’s Alpha Theta Chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity for close to one hundred years.
532 Beacon Street has been the home of MIT’s Alpha Theta Chapter of Sigma Chi fraternity for close to one hundred years. Sean Litchfield Photography

Dan Craig has been working to restore the Beacon Street home of MIT’s Sigma Chi chapter since he joined the fraternity as a freshman in 1999.

A decade and a half later, as the president of the Alumni House Corporation, his work has paid off in the form of a pristine new living space for current undergraduates, and a recent nomination to the 2015 Preservation Achievement Awards from the Boston Preservation Alliance.

But for Craig, the best part of the historic restoration of 532 Beacon Street is the future it promises.

“[We wanted] to put it in a good foundation for the next 50 plus years,’’ Craig said. “Our top level abstract goal was to create a first class living and learning laboratory and to still make it feel like home.’’

A long history to protect

According to Backbayhouses.org, 532 Beacon Street was constructed in 1900 for Francis William Kittredge and his family. He was a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and then the State Senate at the turn of the century.

But soon after, the MIT fraternity, which was founded in 1882 took over possession of the home.

“We have occupied the building since 1919,’’ Craig said. “We have a lot of history there. And how we ended up in the preservation space is this has been a home to a lot of people and we wanted to keep that home feeling.’’

Exterior of the townhouse. —Sean Litchfield Photography

Craig said the idea for the restoration project came about in 1999, soon after joining the fraternity his freshman year. At the time, he joined for the people in the house, but he also loved the building itself.

“I love the physical house,’’ Craig said. “It was and still is really beautiful. When I was a kid I was always interested in construction projects and did a lot of DIY renovation stuff. Getting to do a real antique house was really exciting.’’

They would spend the majority of the next 15 years doing fundraising, gathering approximately 200 donors from the fraternity’s pool of 600 living alumni. When the project finally came together, it happened quickly – mostly between the last day of MIT finals in 2013 and the day before fraternity rush in the fall of 2014.

The process and final product

Cambridge-based LDa Architecture & Interiors, LLP and Boston-based Sea-Dar Construction did the interior work for Sigma Chi, which included adding a fifth floor and extending the central staircase to meet it, restoring and preserving the common areas throughout the house, restoring the windows and façade back to its origins, adding an elevator for wheelchair access, and installing air conditioning.

The library. —Sean Litchfield Photography

“We were able to maintain the character of the building with a careful integration of historical, technical and life-safety goals,’’ according to LDa project manager, Peter Makrauer. “We tried to preserve the essential character of spaces in every instance.’’

And LDa principal architect Michael Waters added that what made this specific project unique was that “it is rare that a historic Back Bay row house has both this type of residential occupancy and an institutional owner with such a strong commitment to both the history and future of the property.’’

Because the Back Bay’s architectural guidelines for historic homes only apply to building exteriors, the fraternity was free to do whatever it wanted inside, but decided keeping the home’s original character was important.

“We had some old photos of the house from the late 30s and those were helpful in reproducing what it looked like,’’ Craig said. Through not all the original detail could be reconstructed, they “tried to be faithful for what was there.’’

Craig said most of the preservation work was done in the dining room, music room, library, foyer, and central stair.

Central staircase. —Sean Litchfield Photography

Greg Galer, executive director of the Boston Preservation Alliance, said there is a large collection of historic townhouses in the Back Bay, but “each have their own idiosyncrasies,’’ and 532 Beacon Street is no exception.

“Architecturally it has a cool staircase that they restored and expanded,’’ Galer said. “[It also has] original woodwork that has been tired over the years and they have brought it all back.’’

“[LDa] reproduced them in exacting detail,’’ Craig said of the features in the staircase woodwork. “The only way to tell the difference between existing and new is that some of the corners are little sharper because they haven’t been worn down.’’

Dining room. —Sean Litchfield Photography

We know what you’re thinking. What about parties?

“Parties generally fall in same rooms as before,’’ Craig said. And Sigma Chi’s neighbors will be pleased because the sound proofing is better and windows won’t be left open now that air conditioning is better.

Craig said students have taken good care of the home over the years, but his committee is watching the students and the house a little more carefully now.

“The scale of the costs of things have changed dramatically,’’ Craig said. “A lot of the furnishings are a lot more expensive and more durable, but people have to be mindful they can’t go modifying something that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.’’

Music room. —Sean Litchfield Photography

But if the restoration process was more difficult for being in a fraternity, it was also more noticeable because of it.

“The fact that it’s an MIT frat is an aspect that caught our attention,’’ Galer said in regards to the Preservation Alliance’s award nominations. “It sends an important message about preservation that preservation isn’t what you think it is. It’s about people and places who you don’t think of as preservationists. Do you love Boston? Do you think Boston is a great place to be? Then you too are a great preservationist.’’

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