In the early 1920s, long before the surge in the “women’s liberation” movement in the latter half of the 20th century, a small group of courageous fraternity women took on the monumental task of conceiving, financing, building and managing a large hotel in the heart of New York City.
It all started when the New York City Panhellenic Association, founded in 1920, began talking of erecting a clubhouse – a place where some could live permanently and others might have temporary accommodations.
During the 1920s, rents in New York were high, and accommodations “suitable in atmosphere and surroundings for young and inexperienced college women” were prohibitive.
A house committee was appointed to study the situation. After much investigation, the committee incorporated in 1922 as the Panhellenic House Association, Inc., in order to be in a position to raise funds by selling stock. The goal of the new corporation was to provide “a New York City home, properly supervised, with comfortable and reasonable living quarters” for members of their fraternities and “college women in general who were coming to the city in great numbers to begin their careers.”
It was the first project of its kind ever to be attempted by fraternity women.
From initial talk of a clubhouse and some living accommodations, their plans ambitiously expanded to talk of a 14-story building with roof garden, swimming pool and large auditorium.
John Mead Howells, who recently had won an award of achievement for the design of the Chicago Tribune Building, was chosen as architect.
Construction began on October 10, 1927, and the Panhellenic House opened its doors in October 1928. It was the highest building in the vicinity.
Mr. Howells again was the recipient of a coveted award – the French Architect’s Award for the outstanding building erected in 1928, the Panhellenic House.
At the entrance to this magnificent building at 3 Mitchell Place, the Greek alphabet was carved into the bricks at the left of the door. The cornerstone contains the Greek alphabet and the names of the participating fraternities, including Phi Mu.
A 1995 article in Our Town, a New York area newspaper, described the building as “a soaring Art Deco-style tower of uninterrupted verticality with a distinctive orange-brick exterior. The building’s entrances featured elaborate ornamental Art Deco stone reliefs and grills and colorful glazed tile work in the entryways.”
The control and management of the corporation was in the hands of the holders of common stock. The operation of the hotel was conducted by the board of 18 directors, one selected from each of the participating fraternities, who employed a manager to conduct the business.
Rooms rented for $7 to $24 a week. Three fourths of the 392 rooms were occupied when the Panhellenic House opened.
Financing the Panhellenic House
Financing the project turned out to be a formidable undertaking. The total investment, including land, building and furniture totaled $1,628,942.
The amount of the authorized capital stock of the Panhellenic House Association totaled 13,500 shares with a par value of $50 per share. Each of the 18 participating NPC fraternities was allotted 112 shares of the common stock.
It was at the 1923 National Convention that Phi Mus first heard official word of the plans. Bertha Helmken (Foster), Psi, an alumna living in Brooklyn, explained how this dream could be accomplished through the united effort of all fraternity women.
Phi Mus entered into the venture by approving Bertha Helmken’s motion “that each chapter delegate and alumnae delegate be instructed to present to chapter and association the Panhellenic House proposition with a view of securing subscriptions of at least one share of common stock at $50.”
The full quota of common stock and 60 shares of preferred stock soon were purchased by individuals, collegiate and alumnae chapters and associations, and the national Fraternity. Although smaller in membership than some, Phi Mu was among the first of the NPC groups to raise the quota set.
The majority of the fraternities subscribed to the full number of shares, but a few did not. Mrs. A. Barton Hepburn, Kappa Kappa Gamma, purchased common stock amounting to $100,000 to make up the difference and donated it to the corporation. The 3,000 shares of preferred stock was then made available to the public and was sold by a sales force of 200 fraternity women.
Panhellenic House Is Sold
The Panhellenic House proved popular, but it was not forever immune from the financial problems besetting others in the Depression years.
In an effort to reverse the financial adversities, the board of directors agreed in July 1934 to open the hotel to the general public. At the same time, the name was changed to Beekman Tower.
With concessions on unpaid interest from both mortgage holders, who recognized the integrity and sincerity of the board, the Corporation was saved. It was nearly alone in its survival, however. In 1934, only five hotels in New York City survived bankruptcy; the Panhellenic House was one of them.
In the early 1960s, New York City found itself with a supply of rooms much greater than the demands of the public. The Panhellenic House board had an opportunity to sell the building, and on June 12, 1964, Beekman Tower was sold for $1,775,000.
Over the years, many of the shares purchased by Phi Mus and Phi Mu chapters were given to the national treasury for the Endowment Fund. But some 28 Phi Mu collegiate and alumnae chapters still owned shares when the property was sold. Phi Mu’s national treasury also received payment for the 112 shares formerly owned by Alpha Delta Theta Fraternity, with which it had merged in 1939.
Phi Mu Participants
Phi Mu alumnae, particularly those in the New York area, played a very active role in the organization and operation of the Panhellenic House and Beekman Tower. It is not possible to mention them all, but some who made outstanding contributions of time and talent were:
- Marian A. Parker, Psi, who served as Phi Mu’s director on the Beekman Tower board for 15 years, the longest term by a Phi Mu. She coordinated the distribution of assets to Phi Mu chapters when Beekman Tower closed.
- Bertha Helmken Foster, Psi, and Evelyn Eckenroth Benisch, who headed the drives for sale of common and preferred stock among Phi Mus and Phi Mu friends.
- Winifred H. Weekes, Psi, who was treasurer of the Panhellenic Club that functioned during the years when residence was limited to fraternity women, to promote friendship and fellowship.
- Edna M. Stone, Eta Delta, who was appointed to the finance board during the 1956-58 biennium as Panhellenic House stock coordinator. Her primary duty was to protect the interests of Phi Mu Fraternity in the Panhellenic House Association.
- Edith Fischer Holton, Psi, who was Phi Mu’s representative on the finance committee in the mid-1920s.
- Violet Young Gentry DeVeau, Delta Theta, who represented Alpha Delta Theta on the Panhellenic House board of directors before her fraternity merged with Phi Mu.
Some Phi Mus who represented the Fraternity on the Panhellenic House Association board of directors were Myrtice Adair Boyd, Alpha, who served during the 1930s; Louise Lane Moore, Psi, who was elected in 1936; Emily Devine Kelly, Beta Kappa, who served during the late 1930s; Josephine Harkavy Cierley, Psi, Phi Mu’s representative in the early 1940s; Helen Hitchcock Love, Xi Kappa, a member in the mid-1940s; and Marian A. Parker, Psi, who served from 1949 to 1964, when the property was sold.
Louise Lee, Lambda, was employed by Beekman Tower for 17 years. She began in 1935 as secretary to the manager and later became sales manager. She was in charge of Phi Mu’s 1950 post-convention house party at Beekman Tower and also was business manager for a Phi Mu regional gathering held at the Tower in 1941.
Eleanor Mahoney, Pi, was at one time employed as secretary to the manager.
Interested in learning more? Click HERE for more info and images of the hotel.
Source: Lamb, Annadell. C. The History of Phi Mu: The First 150 Years. The Grace Group, 2002. Print