Story: Katie Cooper | Photography: Nancy Nolan |
A team of designers and a local architecture firm breathe new life into the treasured Chi Omega sorority house at the University of Arkansas
On college campuses across the country, sorority houses are experiencing high-style makeovers. When the Chi Omega sorority decided to renovate their beloved home on the University of Arkansas campus, Gail Rowland and Tracy Rawlings of R&R Interior Design along with WER Architects/Planners earned the honored task of bringing the historic home into the modern era. Here’s the story on how they made the home work for generations of Chi Os to come.
A Lesson in History
As the founding chapter for Chi Omega and the first Greek sorority house on campus, this history-packed home was in need of more space for its growing number of members. The group also wanted to address a need for spaces that could host guests and Chi O sisters from around the nation. To begin the renovation process, the Chi Omega Psi Chapter Building Committee was established. Alumnae Suzanne Hawkins and Bonnie Sokora Griffin, who is an architect, co-chaired a team comprised of various chapter leaders and alums to interview and hire all necessary parties for the project.
Working on any historic home can present challenges, but one that is on the National Register of Historic Places can present an extra hurdle. “We worked very closely with the Historic Preservation Program,” John Greer of WER Architects/Planners says. “Ultimately, they decide if our plans are in keeping with the character of the house.” Since the original build in 1926, the home underwent additions in 1941 and 1958. Greer and team proposed removing these additions in order to maximize the home’s footprint and still maintain its original integrity.
Not only did this redesign accommodate the need for more square footage, other highlights include the revitalization of outdoor areas and the “attic room” (a coveted sleeping quarters comprised of several bunks beds), bigger bedrooms, updated electrical and internet capabilities, and an advanced security system. Most importantly, the home can now accommodate the chapter’s more than 400 members comfortably thanks to an expanded dining room and kitchen, renovated living spaces, and an updated chapter room. As Griffin describes, “We see our girls in literally every room studying, relaxing, and bonding.” Along with hosting various Greek and university functions, the new house also serves several hundred people on what is known as Chicken Finger Friday—a longstanding tradition at the chapter house.
Making it Home
For interior spaces, designers Rowland and Rawlings began with a light and airy color palette. “Everything used to be red and gold—cardinal and straw—the official Chi Omega colors. The board was ready to put that aside and have a fresh start,” Rowland says. As guests walk through the large, column-lined front porch and original door into the foyer, a grasscloth wallcovering lines the walls, while an antique cupboard is accented with a contemporary lamp, modern artwork, and Chippendale chairs. “It was important to us to put old items with new for juxtaposition. It makes for a greater design impact,” Rowland says of the eclectic mix. The downstairs, which is the space most-seen by visitors and alumnae, is filled with blues and creams. “For the upstairs, we didn’t stick to a specific palette. We wanted to make it a little more hip and modern for the girls,” Rowland notes.
Along with the historical challenges faced during construction, the designers had a hurdle of their own. “We had to use commercial materials like you would in any other commercial project—like a dentist’s or doctor’s office.” Rowland says. “They wanted it to look residential. They wanted a big Southern home—warm and welcoming. We found commercial furnishings in neutral hues, but dressed it up with beautiful residential silk pillows.”
The design team also blended new furniture and accessories with pieces original to the residence, including the chandeliers, an oriental rug, and a comfy sectional. Perhaps the most nostalgic repurpose comes in the form of the original dining room chairs. “We reupholstered all of the dining chairs to transform them into desk chairs for the built-ins in each girl’s room. We had the exact number to fill every desk,” Rawlings says. In what the duo refers to as a “meant-to-be” moment, each girl has a little piece of the old house in her individual room.
A Special Showcase
The grace and prestige of the Chi Omega sorority take center stage in the Founder’s Library. “Being the founding chapter of Chi Omega (affectionately referred to as ‘The Mother Ship’) posed unique opportunities,” Griffin says. “One request we received from many people was to showcase our relics and tell everyone our story.” With this in mind, the designers created a colorful space that showcases the history of the house with memorabilia-filled bookshelves and portraits of its founding members. “They wanted this room to be the showstopper,” Rowland says.
A Lasting Legacy
As sorority girls themselves, Rowland and Rawlings note their passion for this project. “We felt such a connection with them because we’ve been there and we lived it.” And as Griffin describes, this especially hit home for her, too. “I am a Chi Omega, and I am very proud to be one! Being an architect and a Chi O, it was a natural fit for me to work on this project,” she says. “I know that many people years ago paved the way for me and others like me to have a house to live in. It is gratifying to know I’ve played a part in seeing that future generations will have the same (even better!) opportunities that I had,” Griffin says. The finished 38,000-square-foot home is sure to provide countless memories within its walls.
Architect WER Architects/Planners
Contractor Baldwin & Shell Construction Company
Interior design Tracy Rawlings and Gail Rowland, R&R Interior Design
Accessories and mirrors French Metro Antiques and R&R Interior Design
Art French Metro Antiques, R&R Interior Design, and Scott Frame and Art
Carpet, fabrics, lighting, outdoor furnishings, rugs, tile, wallpaper, and window coverings R&R Interior Design
Furniture French Metro Antiques, Long Ago Antiques and Refinishing, and R&R Interior Design
Paint Benjamin Moore
Upholstery Belton’s Custom Upholstery and Sprouse Upholstery
Wallpaper—installation Perpetual Vision Wallpaper Installation