HANOVER, N.H. — It’s a quiet September morning on the Dartmouth College campus. The students are trickling back from summer break, but classes haven’t yet begun.
There’s no evidence of activity at 9 East Wheelock St., not far from the school’s central quad. The stately two-story brick building with green shutters was once Alpha Delta, the fraternity that inspired the movie “Animal House.” Today, there is no band playing on the broad front porch, no one hanging out in the first-floor Gentleman’s Bar, no one in the infamous party basement, and not a toga in sight.
But on the second floor, once home to the brothers of Alpha Delta, men and women are tapping out e-mails, taking conference calls, and huddling for meetings.
Alpha Delta has gone corporate. The fraternity was de-recognized by Dartmouth in 2015, after it branded the skin of new members and for other disciplinary violations. The house sat empty for several years, as lawsuits and zoning squabbles played out. But this spring, startups began to move in. There are now five — all with some kind of tie to Dartmouth — each paying $200 a month for an office that was once a double dorm room.
John Pepper, who as an undergraduate served as the fraternity’s social chair and lived on the third floor, greets me at the front door: “Welcome to the AD Innovation Center.”
When I inhale deeply at the threshold — it’s a beautiful fall morning, and I’ve left the city — Pepper quickly asks: “You don’t smell anything, do you? It took us months to get rid of the smell. Most of the old furniture is gone.”
In Boston, Pepper is known as the founder of the Boloco chain of healthy burrito shops, but he lives in Norwich, Vt., just across the Connecticut River from the Dartmouth campus. He chairs both the corporate entity that owns the Alpha Delta house and Norwich’s selectboard.
The Alpha Delta house dates to 1920, and the fraternity goes back even further, to the 1840s.
In the years after the 1978 release of “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which made the phrase “double secret probation” a catch phrase and launched John Belushi’s film career, the fraternity tried to distance itself from the movie. But dig just a little and you discover that the writer who spun tales of his frat days in National Lampoon magazine, Chris Miller, was an Alpha Delta brother. He was also one of the writers of the movie and in 2006 published a memoir titled “The Real Animal House: The Awesomely Depraved Saga of the Fraternity That Inspired the Movie.”
The movie, says Scott Snyder, another Alpha Delta alumnus, is “an embellishment that took all the craziest things that Chris experienced and imagined, and condensed them into one narrative.”
“There are many fraternities you could go to and have that kind of experience,” he adds, “if that’s what you were interested in.”
Snyder is now an architect in Vermont who helped oversee the recent renovation and serves on the board.
“If you’d seen the house four or five years ago,” Snyder says, “it was totally abused, and in really bad disrepair. First, we had to make it safe and code-compliant.” Pepper estimates they spent $75,000 to do that.
The renovation didn’t eliminate all traces of Greek life: There’s still some spray-painted AD graffiti on a basement brick wall, and some rooms still feature murals created by past residents, including a screaming eagle spreading its wings in front of a Stonehenge-like structure.
But on the fireplace mantles in various offices, beer bottles and textbooks have been replaced by business tomes like “Crossing the Chasm” and “The High Growth Handbook.”
All of the current tenants have some kind of link to Dartmouth: Their founders include alumni, professors, and college employees who are developing startups in their off-hours.
For Bill Hudenko, a psychology professor and researcher, part of the appeal is that the AD Innovation Center is a five-minute walk from his office on campus. But he also appreciates getting informal advice and support from other entrepreneurs. One of his board members, Kevin McCurdy, runs a startup that’s just across the hall. Hudenko’s startup, Trusst, has built a secure app that lets people communicate with mental health professionals for a monthly fee, without having to schedule or show up for in-office visits.
Vidigami is a startup that helps schools collect and share the photos they take throughout the year.
Resolve aims to help consumers negotiate when they receive exorbitant medical bills.
Worthee, the company that Pepper and McCurdy run, produced a mobile app designed to help low-wage workers better manage their careers.
CampersApp, run by a husband-and-wife team who have day jobs at Dartmouth’s business school, enables campgrounds and RV parks to communicate with their guests through a mobile app and fill some of their campsites with last-minute discounted bookings.
“It’s cool being with a bunch of other startups,” says Heather Gere, the CEO of CampersApp. Travis Gere, the startup’s chief technology officer, adds, “Brainstorming solutions and having a sounding board is something we don’t have when the two of us are working together from home.”
One dynamic that the denizens of the AD Innovation Center have adjusted to is fraternity alums dropping by to give their families a tour. It can get busy during homecoming week or winter carnival.
A more vexing problem that Pepper says he continues to deal with is break-ins.
“We have surveillance video of 20 students breaking in on different occasions, looking for some memorabilia they can go hang in their room and say, ‘This is from Alpha Delta,’ ” he says. “The last one is from three weeks ago.”
(He says the break-ins haven’t affected the office tenants — and that aside from reprints of historic photographs, there isn’t much memorabilia left to take.)
Pepper posits that turning the former frat house into an incubator has helped strengthen the fledgling startup scene in Hanover — though he is not sure how long it will be used as office space.
Snyder says they’ve considered opening a “small boutique hotel” on the as-yet-unrenovated third floor. Pepper wants to host more Dartmouth student and alumni events in the building, and says he recently received an inquiry from a presidential candidate’s campaign looking for space for offices and events.
Could the Alpha Delta fraternity ever be resuscitated? Dartmouth made it clear in 2017 that once banned, fraternities can’t be unbanned.
“Their official word is never,” Pepper says. But, “There’s no such thing as never.”
In April, an Alpha Delta alumnus rented the house to celebrate the renewal of his wedding vows. “They had a seven-piece band, and there was dancing,” Pepper says. It was a one-night revival, a trip back in time.
And the guests wore togas.