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The sorority in the skyscraper

When a “residence and clubhouse” for young professional women offered affordable housing—and community

In 1921, the New York chapter of the Panhellenic Conference, the national network of college sororities, turned its attention to an urgent local problem: the lack of affordable housing for graduates moving to the city in search of jobs. The chapter’s 3,000 members voted to take direct action to alleviate the situation by creating a unique shared living experiment, a sorority “residence and clubhouse” in the heart of the city. Given how urgent the need was, the group decided that “there was more to be lost by building too small than too large,” and proposed a 14-story building with bedrooms for 400 women, each available on a temporary or long-term basis. Two stories of public rooms would allow the residents to continue the kinds of activities—performances, club meetings, and social gatherings—that defined the sorority experience.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, female students went from being oddities to regular fixtures on American college campuses. By the time women won the vote in 1920, their numbers had tripled to reach a quarter million, making up 40 percent of all enrolled undergraduates. The spirit of modernity and progress that helped revive the fight for women’s suffrage was reverberating on campus, and for those women who had the social and economic privilege to go to college in this period, it was a heady and optimistic time. There was a powerful sense of sisterly solidarity that came from being one of a pack, not a quirky outlier. Whether they went to a women’s college or belonged to a sorority on a co-ed campus, these modern students were able to enlist each other’s support in their steady assault on the barricades of male power.

Unlike previous generations of women pursuing higher education, the vast majority of whom went on to become teachers, most of these modern students had their sights set on business. They wanted to be part of booming, urban, white-collar America, and businesses—which relied on armies of smart young women to take notes, file papers, transmit messages, and keep everything running smoothly—wanted them. But like all young and hungry new arrivals in the city, the girls needed somewhere to live. In New York, where so many jobs were located, women faced an acute shortage of accommodation that was affordable, respectable, and available. Then as now, it was a challenge to make an entry-level paycheck stretch to cover rent, even with roommates, and the process required connections, resources, and lots of luck. Even worse, the city in the early 1920s was just emerging from the straitened conditions of World War I, which had pretty much put an end to new housing construction. Landlords and hoteliers preferred to rent to men, who were assumed to be more reliable long-term tenants and had access to better-paying jobs. Charitable organizations around the city ran homes for working-class women and new immigrants, but middle-class women who didn’t have family connections or family money were stuck.

Since the 1850s, female-only secret societies had cropped up on college campuses, mimicking the all-male groups that existed in various forms since the Revolution, but which flourished in the late 19th century into powerful intercollegiate networks that could carry their members smoothly into positions of social and political power. The Greek-letter sororities that developed after the formation of Kappa Alpha Theta in 1870 had a rather different mission, being more concerned with their own survival, and with proving the viability of women’s education. The early sororities used the language of sisterhood explicitly, and developed complex secret rituals and rules to underscore their members’ deep bonds to one another. But that bond was also strengthened by the pressure of male disapproval, in the years when women were, at best, a grudgingly accepted minority on co-ed campuses. Kappa Alpha Theta was founded at what became DePauw University in Indiana by a group of just four women—by 1920, nearly a third of all female undergraduates, or almost 78,000 women, belonged to a sorority.

The first national gathering of American sororities took place in 1902, and eventually developed into the umbrella organization known today as the Panhellenic Conference. One of the group’s main concerns was how to continue to support members after graduation, especially amid a rapidly changing working world with new opportunities for educated women. (One can’t help but wonder whether these connections also operated, in some way, as “whisper networks” helping young women navigate the dangers of professional life, in an era long before the concept of sexual harassment had been named.)

The Panhellenic women were determined to maintain control of their vision. They formed a corporation to sell shares in the proposed building, and divided the stock between the association’s 18 member sororities, expecting them each to retain a majority stake. That way, everyone who had a voting interest in the building would also be on board with the project’s larger aims and goals. It was a worthy plan in principle, but given how poorly funded sororities were compared to fraternities, and how few extremely wealthy alumnae there were to offer financial support, it would take almost the entire decade before the tower was finally built.

By the middle of the decade, enough money had been raised to justify searching for a site—but by then, the project’s chosen architect, Donn Barber, had died. In 1926, the faltering project found a savior in a wealthy, widowed philanthropist named Emily Eaton Hepburn, who saw in it the perfect opportunity “to prove that women could do big business.” This, she believed, was how women would be able to “enter into the nation’s life in an important way.”

Born in 1865 in Vermont, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, Emily Eaton attended St. Lawrence College in Canton, New York, one of the few co-educational colleges open at the time, and graduated in 1886. She moved to New York City with her husband, Alonzo Barton Hepburn, almost 20 years her senior and a successful banker, who would eventually become president and chairman of Chase Bank in New York. The couple had four children, but motherhood hardly absorbed Emily’s energies. She took postgraduate science classes at Barnard College and threw herself into the suffrage fight. Working closely with Carrie Chapman Catt, who succeeded Susan B. Anthony as president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, Hepburn traveled around the state to organize local suffrage chapters, hosted meetings in her east side apartment, and marched in the parades that, since 1910, had been a regular feature of life in the city.

After women won the vote in 1920, Hepburn ran a women’s political club and worked with the local committee of the Republican Party—but she saw the sororities as a continuation of the spirit and energy of the suffrage campaign, and the younger generation of women graduates as the spiritual heirs of her own generation of activists. After her husband died in 1922, Hepburn devoted herself to her new role as real estate developer, becoming the majority stockholder and president of the Panhellenic project.

Where should such a development be located? It needed to be affordable, but couldn’t be too far out from where most young women worked, nor in too unsavory a neighborhood, if they were to feel safe living there. Hepburn looked to an area on the far east side of Manhattan, which another group of women had recently made unexpectedly fashionable. Sutton Place, in the 50s east of First Avenue, was a two-block stretch technically part of Avenue A. It was home to run-down tenements when the interior designer Elsie de Wolfe and her partner, the theatrical agent Elisabeth “Bessie” Marbury, moved in together to a renovated rowhouse. They enticed their socialite friends, the newly widowed Anne K. Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan’s daughter Anne, to move into their own houses in the unlikely enclave, shocking New York society and sparking lurid rumors of interconnected passageways and lesbian orgies. But the cachet of such surnames was undeniable, and Sutton Place quickly became one of the most fashionable corners of the city.

A few blocks south, parallel to 49th street, a small private street, Mitchell Place, branched off First Avenue. It faced onto slaughterhouses and slums, there was nowhere to shop, and it was out of the way, but it offered spectacular views. Two new apartment buildings going up on nearby Beekman Place, capitalizing on the cachet of Sutton Place, made Emily Hepburn fear she might lose the spot. She bought it herself in 1926 and turned it over to the Panhellenic Association two years later, having persuaded her neighbor, the president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, to give the group a mortgage. With the site secured, Hepburn needed an architect. She engaged John Mead Howells, the nephew of William Rutherford Mead, of McKim, Mead & White, the firm that shaped the look of Gilded Age Manhattan.

Whether they went to a women’s college or belonged to a sorority on a co-ed campus, these modern students were able to enlist each other’s support in their steady assault on the barricades of male power.

Howells’s design was more ambitious than the Panhellenic’s original plan: a 26-story residential tower on a three-story base containing meeting rooms, lounges, and a dining room, along with stores facing First Avenue, and a “ballroom-auditorium” that could be rented out. There were 380 bedrooms, most with private bathrooms and many with their own balconies. The tower looked deliberately bold and imposing, striped up and down with deeply recessed windows evoking a fraternity blazer more than a debutante’s frilled gown. The decorations were limited to a few dramatic Art Deco carvings, by the leading architectural sculptor Rene Chambellan, on the lower levels—and a frieze of Greek-letter tiles as a reminder of the building’s sorority roots. Up on the 26th floor, the tower’s crowning glory was a glass-walled solarium with balconies around the edge, where the residents could invite guests and take in a spectacular view. The New Yorker called it “a glorious building on a glorious site,” and the New York Times, an “outstanding example of American skyscraper architecture.”

When it finally opened in 1929, the Panhellenic Tower represented both a desirable haven in the frenetic city and a commitment to the idea that women’s education and professional opportunities would continue to expand. It was much bigger than the handful of other clubhouses and buildings run by individual women’s colleges like Smith and Bryn Mawr, though it was never quite as legendary as the Barbizon, on East 63rd Street, which opened as a “Club Residence for Professional Women” in 1927. The Barbizon was the creme de la creme of women-only buildings for decades, with famous residents including Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, Joan Didion, and Sylvia Plath, who made the place notorious as “The Amazon” in her 1952 novel The Bell Jar. Meanwhile in Harlem, in 1926, the Emma Ransom House opened to offer affordable but respectable accommodations to young women of color. Adjoining the YWCA on 137th Street, the hotel housed just over 2,000 women in its first year of operations—the majority of whom were domestic workers, reflecting the stark segregation in work opportunities in the city at the time.

The intercollegiate focus of the Panhellenic Tower made it stand out, as well as the fact that it was managed and owned by women. In this bridge between college life and the traditional picture of independent adulthood, the Panhellenic resident would have been surrounded by women similar to herself, but from all over the country, including her own sorority sisters and fellow alumnae. She could relax with them in the roof garden that opened off the fourth-floor clubhouse, or attend a social event or club meeting in one of the dedicated lower-level rooms. There might be a dance or concert in the ballroom, which was also open to the public, or dinner at the residents’ restaurant, which was staffed entirely by women. The opportunity to “bask” under the glass of the solarium, even in winter, was touted as a health benefit in an early advertising brochure, reflecting a holistic interest in its residents’ lives that regular apartment buildings did not offer. It promised a “restful atmosphere” in the library, space for “a quiet tete-a-tete” in a pastel-colored salon, “entrancing views” of the city skyline from a balconied bedroom, and the opportunity to welcome “men callers” on the terraces around the solarium.

At first, the building was a resounding success. Emily Eaton Hepburn went on to a new building project, an apartment building at 2 Beekman Place, where she moved into the penthouse and eventually became known as “the Grand Old Lady of Beekman Hill.” The building next door would be the fashionable home of the title character in the hit 1958 movie Auntie Mame, which starred Rosalind Russell as a glamorous, freethinking society fixture of this earlier era.

But when the Depression hit, the Panhellenic Tower struggled to live up to Emily Eaton Hepburn’s capitalist feminist vision. Jobs for young women did not disappear, but wages slipped, students were forced to leave college, and it became harder and harder to carve out a glamorous, independent life in the city. Restricting its clientele only to sorority women was not sustainable, and by 1934, the hotel management reluctantly retired the Panhellenic name, rebranding as the Beekman Tower and opening its doors to men. The solarium, once a space dedicated to women’s health, became a cocktail lounge, taking advantage of the repeal of Prohibition the year before. But Hepburn remained chairman of the board, which was still made up of sorority representatives, and the building continued to do what it could to provide facilities for sorority women.

In the ensuing decades, the elements that made the tower unusual gradually disappeared. Emily Eaton Hepburn died in 1956, and the building was sold a few years later, eventually becoming an apartment hotel that drew most of its clientele from the nearby United Nations. Its public spaces disappeared to create more apartments; shared public space and a sense of community were no longer what short-term renters were looking for. The top-floor lounge, with its remarkable views, remained a popular, if increasingly shabby, place to drink. In 2017, however, the women-led design firm Public Agenda was hired to revamp the rooftop space, which opened last year as Ophelia. The plush new space still offers those killer views, but it also goes out of its way to display its history, including photographs and artifacts that reflect the sorority lineage and the Art Deco origins of the building.

Women-only places to live in New York are now a rarity, although they do still exist—the Webster, which opened in 1923 in Midtown, is still in operation today. But with the rise of the Wing and its innumerable imitators, exclusively female spaces to work and socialize are becoming more and more common, and their popularity seems to reflect a hunger for something that we didn’t quite know we were missing. In a more inclusive, modern way, these spaces are reviving the sorority spirit that the Panhellenic Tower fostered, a spirit that reached beyond campus boundaries to offer women the support of their sisters as they made their way in a world dominated by men.

Joanna Scutts is a writer and curator, and the author of The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women to Live Alone and Like It (Liveright, 2017).