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U. of C. Frat Guts Home Of America's First Egyptologist

By Sam Cholke | October 12, 2016 5:12am
 Phi Gamma Delta is investing $2 million to renovate the former home of America's first Egyptologist, James Henry Breasted.
Phi Gamma Delta is investing $2 million to renovate the former home of America's first Egyptologist, James Henry Breasted.
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DNAinfo/Sam Cholke

HYDE PARK — A fraternity at the University of Chicago has gutted the home of America’s first Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute.

Phi Gamma Delta is working on a $2 million renovation of the former home of James Henry Breasted, the archeologist and explorer who collected many of the artifacts in the Oriental Institute and helped identify the tomb of King Tut.

Rob Tamillow, corporation president of the fraternity, said the house at 5615 S. University Ave. reflects more the taste of its architect, Howard Van Doren Shaw, than its famous resident.

“It doesn’t have much Egyptology,” Tamillow said.

There are two stylized serpents on either side of the front door, but Tamillow said Breasted’s interest in the motifs of ancient civilizations never translated into the interior.

He said Breasted’s former library with its heavy stone fireplace and large bookcases behind sliding redwood doors will be maintained, but much of the house was badly damaged over the past 100 years.

“It was in pretty much total disrepair after 100 years,” Tamillow said. “It takes a beating when it has 25 guys in there — and many of them are large guys.”

He said the house has needed major work to its plumbing and electrical systems for 20 years and all of those systems will be replaced during the $2 million renovation.

“It was do or die, we had to do it,” Tamillow said.

The exterior work is already completed and the fraternity is trying to finish raising $1 million to trigger a $1 million matching grant from an anonymous donor to finish the project.

Work is expected to be completed in the winter and ready for the fraternity to move back in.

He said the members are excited that the house will have insulation for the first time in 100 years and winters will no longer be “unbearably cold” in the house.

“It was never the right temperature except in certain times in the spring and fall,” Tamillow said.

The exact year the house was designed and built is not listed in the city’s survey of historic buildings, but it is believed to have been built in the 1910s.


One of the only details that marked the home as Breasted's was a stylized serpent next to the door.


James Henry Breasted was America's first Egyptologist and lived in Hyde Park. [Courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library]


Phi Gamma Delta will maintain the former library of James Henry Breasted.

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