St. Paul fraternity wraps renovation

Alpha Gamma Rho will finish a $3.5 million revamp on its chapter house in Jan.

Construction workers work on the study area at the new Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house in St. Paul on Monday. The chapter house has been closed this semester for a major renovation and members are anticipating the completion of it by January.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Construction workers work on the study area at the new Alpha Gamma Rho fraternity house in St. Paul on Monday. The chapter house has been closed this semester for a major renovation and members are anticipating the completion of it by January.

Melissa Berman

The sound of saws and drills echoed, and the smell of wet paint filled the air as Alpha Gamma Rho chapter President Kirby Schmidt walked through his fraternity’s house Friday.

Schmidt has checked in on construction every two weeks since July, when a major renovation to the home began.

The nearly $3.5 million project is set for completion early next month, and about 40 fraternity members will move into the new house near the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus just before spring semester begins.

Program director for the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life Matt Levine said other University fraternity chapter houses have been renovated in recent years, but a major overhaul like Alpha Gamma Rho’s is uncommon.

“A renovation of this size has not happened at the University of Minnesota in several years,” Levine said. “For AGR to basically rip out every wall and start over — that’s very new on our campus, which is great to see.”

Though it will retain much of its exterior, the house, originally built in 1936, is changing significantly. A 1956 two-story addition will be replaced with a new three-story wing, for example.

The renovation also expanded the entryway and added an elevator to improve accessibility. Overall, the house’s size jumped from 11,000 to 13,901 square feet.

Alpha Gamma Rho, a social and professional agricultural fraternity, turned to its alumni to help fund and lead the renovation. The fraternity has received about $2.5 million in donations so far, Schmidt said, mostly from alumni.

Safety issues prompted the renovation. The house didn’t meet current fire code, Schmidt said, so fraternity members wanted to bring it into compliance with updates like a sprinkler system. The last major renovation to the house took place 50 years ago.

Some of the kitchen equipment was decades old, Schmidt said, and the dishwasher broke down last spring after thousands of cycles.

“When you think about having 40 to 50 fraternity men living in this space every year,” Schmidt said, “it’s going to be lived in and take some wear.”

Alpha Gamma Rho also wanted to stay competitive with the housing options offered by other fraternities and private housing companies.

Steve Koziolek, an Alpha Gamma Rho alumnus involved with the project, said the updated house will help attract new members.

“It’s a premier housing option,” Koziolek said. “When [students] go to campus, their parents want them living in a nice, safe house, and this allowed us to create a safe, attractive, quality housing option to offer the men of our fraternity.”

The house will have air conditioning, a computer center and more electrical outlets in every bedroom, Schmidt said.

When planning renovations, Schmidt said it was important to maintain some of the house’s historical integrity. To do this, he said the alumni members opted to keep the original brickwork and a fireplace from 1936.

“We want this to be a place where alumni can come back and still identify this as their fraternity house that they were a part of,” Schmidt said.

During construction, Schmidt said crews have found time capsules, initiation paddles dating back to the 1930s and letters written by past members. Crews also uncovered a giant mural of a phoenix hidden beneath sheetrock.

“It was so symbolic because a phoenix rises from the ashes for a new beginning, and it fit with us,” Schmidt said. “We’re ready to make our own history in this house.”

The house will have room for up to 50 people, as  it did before, but it will have bigger rooms that can accommodate up to six people.

Alpha Gamma Rho members have lived in the 17th Avenue residence hall during the renovation, but they’ll be moving soon. The project’s crew is on its home stretch, finishing the floors, installing kitchen appliances and furnishing the house. Schmidt said members have already toured the house and picked out their rooms.

“Everyone was running around like kids in a candy store,” he said. “I just loved seeing everyone’s faces light up — especially the freshmen and sophomores — because they will get to really experience this for the next three to four years of their life.”