Alpha Drive Construction

The Lost Community of ASU

On the Southeast corner of University Drive and Rural Road lies an empty thirteen-acre plot of land surrounded by construction fences, sporting arenas, bustling traffic, and freshman dorms.

Until 2012, the Alpha Drive fraternity community occupied this district of campus, with thirteen houses (ten of which were occupied) providing a unique gathering place for men affiliated with the university’s fraternity community. For better or for worse, Alpha Drive represented something much bigger than just a simple series of homes--it reflected the university’s commitment to signature architecture and fraternity life. Looking carefully at the history of the lost fraternity houses also reveals much about the changing university and even the changing place of the university in Tempe.

In the 1950s, the university began to explore the possibility of building a housing community for male students involved in fraternities--then comprising about 18 percent of male undergraduates. As enrollments increasing dramatically in the post-war University population boom, fraternity membership also grew at Arizona State University (then formally known as Arizona Teachers College.) Fraternity life also had outgrown the Adelphi complex. The much smaller Adelphi complex had represented the University’s first attempts at housing five of the most prominent Greek organizations. Housing demand was not the only factor that played into the decision to build fraternity housing. School officials also wanted to maintain a form of control and supervision over the sometimes unruly and rowdy fraternities that primarily hosted functions at private off-campus locations. Thus, in 1962, Arizona State University greenlit and financed plans of several very prominent local architects to put to construction.

When completed in 1963, Alpha Drive dwarfed the nearby dorms in both size and architectural style. Imagined by several different groups of prominent Arizona-based mid-century architectural firms, and created under the guidance of nine different contractors--all of whom were given a limited selection of materials in order to keep costs to a minimum--the buildings of Alpha Drive nonetheless displayed a common architectural and stylistic language. They showcased the distinctive sleek geometries, contrasting materials, minimal ornament, and functional forms that characterized mid-century architecture. This modern style emerged across the American west in the 1950s and served as a defining characteristic for many buildings in Tempe.

The Phi Sigma Kappa house, for example, displays an excellent instance of the mid-century modernist style found along Alpha Drive. Aside from the general designs of the structure, the homes’ entrance featured the fraternity’s letters cemented onto a porch-like concrete overhang commonly referred to as a “porte-cochere”, which was a functional reinterpretation of a feature in many of the extravagant modernist homes in the 18th and 19th century. Features such as the porte-cochere existed in order to create a much more dramatic entrance to the building, which exemplifies the architectural direction that the creators of the Phi Sigma Kappa houses’ designs decided to embark upon.

This very same building was designed by prominent local architect Kemper Goodwin. Goodwin (and his son Michael) designed many signature buildings across the region as part of the larger mid-century architectural movement. As an Arizona native, born in Tempe, Goodwin’s family solidified itself prominently in the history of the University (the first football stadium was named after Goodwin’s father Garfield who had been Mayor of Tempe.) The Goodwin’s work additionally would include municipal buildings in Tempe, as well as West, Memorial, and Wilson Halls (among other notable buildings) on the Tempe campus. Kemper along with his son Michael, additionally created the Tempe Municipal Building in 1970, with its unconventional inverted pyramid design.

Kemper Goodwin’s work on the Phi Sigma Kappa house, as well as the work of his fellow architects, lent Arizona State a modernist sensibility during the building boom of the 1950s and 1960s, which more than doubled the size of the campus. Alpha Drive reflected the aspirations of the University as it sought to grow from a regional teacher’s college into national University. Through its innovative use of design in designing Alpha Drive, ASU had begun to reimagine itself using the idiom of the distinctive mid-century architectural style that emerged following World War II. Likewise, it represented an expansion of the University’s physical plant that included construction across campus, as well as the creation of a new sports stadium nearby, straddling Hayden Butte. Even so, the buildings never achieved wide use, even as ASU expanded. However, Alpha Rows' low-density feel--two stories, with thirteen buildings on a broad open space involving a little over 13 acres--was appropriate to the relatively sparsely populated spaces of Tempe and ASU of the 1950s, but as the city and university continued to expand the Alpha Drive community became an ever-more attractive option for a different use that would meet the demands of the campus.

For more than forty years, Alpha Drive served as a hub for fraternity functions, but development and maintenance pressures, as well as skepticism about the role of fraternities at ASU and on college campuses in general, worked against these historic buildings. Alpha Drive gradually fell into disuse and its last building was demolished by 2012. Even so, Alpha Drive reveals the history of the campus and community, and its architecture and ambitions--even as the site of the fraternities is re-purposed toward another grand vision for ASU’s growth in the 21st century.

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E. Alpha Dr. Tempe, AZ, 85281