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Synergy Pre-History

written by Lee Altenberg for the 2nd Edition of Living in Syn, September, 1988
edited by Daniel Steinbock - November, 2006

Cooperatives: Stanford's Founding Vision

Synergy House seems to have the remarkable ability to act as an antenna for the waves of cultural change that have occurred in America. Its history reflects interweaving threads of cultural movements, always apart from, but interacting with, the world "down on campus."

The Beginning

The story of the house begins in 1891 with one Carl Lane Clemans, riding on a train from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he had just graduated, to Palo Alto, California. He was on his way to become one of the first students (a grad student in Physics) at the new Leland Stanford, Junior, University, and he already had plans for his first day: to organize a Stanford chapter of the Sigma Nu? Fraternity.

As soon as Clemans arrived on campus, he began recruiting. Among his recruits were the Crothers brothers from San Jose. Clemans was the quarterback in the first Big Game against UC Berkeley and George Crothers went on to become a strong ally and Trustee of the University.

The Beta Chi? Chapter of Sigma Nu was the third fraternity to be chartered at Stanford, and the first one to build its own chapter house on campus. The original house was down by the athletic field, but by 1910 the Row? had taken shape, so Sigma Nu built its second house "on top of the hill", at 664 San Juan, up Delores St., intentionally as secluded as possible from the rest of the Row.

The First Co-op

But starting the Sigma Nu chapter was only one of Clemans and the Crothers' ambitious projects to begin that first Fall quarter of 1891. The other was born on the day Stanford University opened, when they heard Leland Stanford speak at the Opening Exercises on October 1, 1891.

Leland Stanford, the great "Robber Baron", builder of the Central Pacific Railroad, had developed a peculiar notion about the direction American industry should take. He believed the time had come when the capitalist (such as himself) could be dispensed with in the industrial system, and that the workers could organize, operate and own their industries themselves, as cooperatives?. This was no idle thought of Stanford's. As U.S. Senator he introduced a bill to foster the creation of worker owned cooperatives to be "a leading feature lying at the foundation of the University."

Clemans and Crothers heard Senator Stanford tell them at the Opening Exercises that, "We have also provided that the benefits resulting from cooperation shall be freely taught. Co-operative societies bring forth the best capacities, the best influences of the individual for the benefit of the whole, while the good influences of the many aid the individual." Inspired, one must surmise, with Stanford's cooperative vision, Clemans, Crothers and others founded the Leland Stanford Junior University Cooperative Association on December 7, 1891, to serve as the first campus bookstore, with Clemans as president and Crothers on the Board of Directors.

The Cooperative Association's student share-holding system was found to be problematic, so in 1897 the cooperative was reorganized under a faculty board of directors to become today's Stanford Bookstore, which continued to operate as a cooperative until the 1990s.

Leland's Forgotten Vision

A group of low income students took over the barracks that had housed the University’s construction workers and ran it, in the description of one writer, as a “self-managed democratic co-operative” known simply as “The Camp”. Although the buildings were inhabited long after their intended lifetime, Jane Stanford allowed The Camp to continue until 1902 because she felt it embodied Leland Stanford’s social ideals.

Leland Stanford died two years after the University opened, and it seems that his vision of a University that supported worker cooperatives largely died with him. David Starr Jordan continued as University President while Jane Stanford took on the governance of the University as the sole Trustee; but neither shared Leland's interest in cooperatives. What evidence do we find that “thorough instruction in the principles of cooperation” was provided for, as mandated in the founding Grant of Endowment? The course catalog for the first year lists Economics 16, “Co-operation: Its History and Influence”, but no such course was found in subsequent catalogs.

The two interests of Clemans and Crothers their first quarter at Stanford -- the Sigma Nu house, and cooperatives -- were to finally come together 70 years later, when the Beta Chi chapter house became Synergy House. But there is a story to tell in between.

The War Years and the First Co-op House

December 7, 1941 was a significant date. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the founding of the Stanford University Cooperative Association. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The U.S. entered World War II. All the fraternities shut down as the men went off to the armed services. "For the duration" of the war, their houses were given the names of U.S. Presidents. Sigma Nu became Chester T. Arthur House, and the Cooksey House, where Synergy resides today, became Abraham Lincoln House.

A Lincoln resident in 1943, who visited Synergy in Fall of 2006, recalled those idyllic days as a student too young for the draft on a peaceful campus full of pretty girls; "where one could leave one's books or one's bicycle lying about and return hours later to find them undisturbed. As soon as the fraternity brothers came back after the war, bicycles were stolen, fights broke out -- it was a changed place."

Meanwhile, President Roosevelt sent all Americans on the West Coast of Japanese descent to internment camps, and so the Japanese House on campus became vacant. A bunch of students kept the house from being empty by organizing the first student housing cooperative which rented it from the Japanese Student Association. Walter Thompson Co-op? was named after a "kindly political science professor" who have been active in the cooperative movement. The co-op was very successful, but a few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Dean of Housing announced that Walter Thompson Co-op would be terminated.

The "obituary" written in the Stanford Daily about the house was the last appearance of the idea of co-op campus housing for another twenty years, and the last mention of Leland Stanford's dream of a co-op America for another forty years.

Sigma Nu Rebels

After the war, the Sigma Nu fraternity seemed to have changed. Several times it was put on probation for running an illegal bar in the room known later in Synergy House as the "Opium Den". At one point they had among the worst grade point averages of the fraternities. In 1959 tragedy occurred when one of the Sigma Nu brothers, on his way back from the Big Game Bonfire, passed out in the driveway 50 feet up from Delores Street, and was run over and killed by another fraternity brother. Sigma Nu was again put on probation, and by 1960 there were many vacancies in the house.

Civil Rights Fraternity

It was then that the house began its path into the heart of the Sixties. A group of Wilbur Hall freshmen, the "Future Leader of America" types, had come under the inspiration of a Professor Watson in Political Science, and came up with the idea of all living together in one house. The seventeen students approached Sigma Nu and proposed that they could either take all of them or none of them, and thus they were pledged en masse to the house. This was at the height of the civil rights movement and it was not lost on these new pledges that the national constitition of Sigma Nu prohibited membership from "Negroes and Orientals". No one could be a brother who had been "a slave or a descendent of slaves."

In 1960, Stanford's ATO chapter had pledged four Jewish men and the National promptly revoked its charter. The young upstarts at Sigma Nu tried for two years to "work within the system" to change their fraternity's national policy. At the Sigma Nu national convention in 1962, both Stanford's and Brown University's chapters tried to pass an ammendment that would eliminate the racist exclusion policy. They were defeated 215 to 76.

After the delegates came back home, the brothers debated what to do. At their house meeting on November 19, 1962, they voted unanimously to cut all ties with the Sigma Nu national fraternity, and the group henceforth became the independent Beta Chi Fraternity. Frat President Tom Grey (now a professor in the Law School) announced the decision and received full support from the house alumni and the University President. After this taste of self-determination, the frat would never be the same.

In 1966, the Beta Chi brothers freaked out the rest of the fraternities by voting to abolish their traditional selective rush system and to open membership to "any member of the Stanford community", including women, faculty members, grad students, administrators and others. There were no co-ed dorms at this time and women were not even allowed to live off campus. In honor of this new "open door" policy, another less progressive frat stole Beta Chi's front door.

The Cooperative Renaissance

The first women joined as eating associates in 1967, but it wasn't until 1969 that the first women moved in. That year, Beta Chi had the distinction of being the first campus residence to have a drug bust. Beta Chi made campus history again by voting in the Spring of 1969 to become the Beta Chi Community for the Performing Arts, Stanford's first theme house. Beta Chi performed several plays, formed "Outrageous Productions" to run a film series on campus, and published its own artsy fartsy newspaper, "The Farmer". Sigourney Weaver was one typical member of this community, living in a tree-house with her boyfriend, playing flute duets and wearing homemade elf outfits. Beta Chi became well known for its Halloween Parties which had bowls full of genuine LSD punch.

In 1970, the cooperative movement finally came home to Stanford with the creation of Jordan House? and Columbae House cooperatives. Many fraternities had closed in the late 1960s because students became repelled by their racist traditions and whole ambience, so a lot of houses were open for innovation. Into this vacuum stepped the co-ops. By this time, Leland Stanford's vision of a university for cooperatives had been completely erased from Stanford history, so the idea of cooperatives came from other universities where student housing co-ops had flourished for decades (UC Berkeley, in particular).

Columbae House was created by students interested in nonviolence and social change. In the next two years, three other co-op theme houses were created: Ecology House?, Synergy House ("exploring alternatives") and Hammarskjold? ("international understanding"). These four co-ops established the concept of theme housing at Stanford out of which the "academic theme houses" later developed.

Synergy House Is Born

Meanwhile, back up on the hill, Beta Chi had apparently been getting more disorganized, with drug problems developing, financial mismanagement, a crazy man living in the basement, and classic late '60s chaos. As one Beta Chi alum described it, by 1972 it was hard to walk down the second floor hallway at night "without stepping in dog shit." So the Sigma Nu alumni who held title to the house got fed up with it, and sold it to the University for $11,000.

Project Synergy came out of a student-initiated course in alternative lifestyles, and many of the members lived at Columbae. When the Beta Chi house came open, they came up with the idea of creating Synergy House. In the Summer of 1972, the Project Synergy students began working on the house to get it ready for the Autumn when everyone would move in. The sleeping porch was divided up into bedrooms, and much renovation was done. In the Fall, Synergy House opened. The organizers described their vision thus:

"Our attempt is to create here and now at the Stanford community a society we envision where cooperative relationships and collective actions are encouraged, where all the aspects of our lives can be integrated... [Synergy House] has been organized around the theme of alternatives... Here people will live and work together to create a community integrating work, study and interpersonal relationships..."

Continue on to read the (more or less) remainder of Synergy History.

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Page last modified on December 30, 2012, at 08:34 PM