Sphinx: Dartmouth's Riddle on East Wheelock Street

By Lawrence Biemiller

Hanover, New Hampshire -- Its Nile is East Wheelock Street and its palms are evergreens, but its proportions and details are unquestionably those of a small Egyptian funerary temple. Palm-frond capitals top its columns, and its walls angle inward to withstand North African earthquakes. Half hidden in a scraggly copse and seemingly deserted, it overlooks Dartmouth College's tennis courts with a dispassionate monumentality that any pharaoh would recognize.

Rumors about it persist. It is said to have, or once to have had, the biggest water bill in Hanover. An alumnus claims to have seen a motorcycle on its roof, and to have had a classmate who scaled its walls -- only to be assaulted at the top by someone wielding a stick.

It is known as Sphinx, and it is home to one of Dartmouth's two secret societies. Predictably, members will not discuss the society or its temple. But Egyptian-revival buildings are rarer than sarcophagi in this country, and good ones such as this are worth investigating.

According to a 1974 New Hampshire historic-buildings survey, the temple was designed by William M. Butterfield and constructed in 1903. That was more than 50 years after Egyptian-revival architecture enjoyed a period of modest popularity among designers of cemeteries and prisons, and it was 20 years before movie-palace architects affected their own Egyptian phase, gaudier and less historically accurate than the first.

Anyone who has seen the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Temple of Dendur -- which is the real thing, of course -- will recognize the Sphinx building's ancestry. Its walls are high and plain, with cornices that flare outward. Rolled moldings at its corners imitate the papyrus stalks that ancient Egyptians used to brace the mud-brick walls of their houses.

The Sphinx temple's most compelling element is its entrance facade. Stairs lead to a shallow porch that shelters two columns, banded like bundles of reeds. Between them is the doorway itself, surmounted by a symbolic winged disk.

But the wooden door -- if it really is a door -- betrays no sign of ever having been opened, and the stairs are unworn. On the east side of the building, however, is an unassuming basement-level entrance with a five-button security lock and flagstone paths that lead a few yards away from the building in each direction. At the back of the temple is a small addition with what looks like an ordinary kitchen ventilating fan mounted on top.

More revealing than a visit to the building is a trip to the college archives. Here is a handsome green dance card embossed with a Sphinx and dated June 26, 1899; a tiny pencil is still attached for the lady's convenience. A program for the 1893 initiation banquet lists "The greeting of the goddess," "The riddle of the Sphinx," "Response from the new worshippers," and more. The meal began with mock-turtle soup and ended with claret punch.

Sphinx seems to have been founded in 1886 by 14 students. Borrowing traditions from Mardi Gras celebrants in New Orleans, the society's members organized themselves as krewes -- a new one each year -- and addressed each other as "frater." Early krewes prided themselves on including "men from the complete college spectrum," says a Sphinx pamphlet in the archives.

On Easter morning in 1932, a fire broke out in the building, which Sphinx members call "the tomb." The interior was destroyed and later rebuilt. The tomb was closed again during World War II, but in 1946, the pamphlet adds, "Miraculously all machinery functioned when reopening repairs started soon after Ground Hog Day (Cleopatra's Swimming Pool took a little extra effort)." Plumbers and carpenters working on the repairs were sworn to secrecy. A bronze memorial to members killed in the war was mounted in the Grill Room, the pamphlet says.

In other documents, obscure phrases recur, particularly "down the line" -- as in, "Most fraters have found it wonderful to get `down the line,' where one may truly relax." Clearer and more wistful is another recurring phrase: "For we have yet a little while."

Sphinx papers from the 1980's mention Monday-night meetings, Thursday lunches, and Saturday taco dinners, but the effort to include members from "the complete college spectrum" may have waned. A membership list for the '85 krewe includes four fraternity presidents, a number of athletes, and the business manager of the campus's conservative weekly, The Dartmouth Review. The list names no women, and if Sphinx has tapped black or Hispanic or Asian or American Indian or gay students, no mention is made of it in descriptions of members and their accomplishments. If the krewes undertake community-service projects, they too are secret.

One student says a friend of his refused to join Sphinx because it represented the worst of everything that was wrong with Dartmouth's fraternity system. But most students seem simply to ignore both Sphinx and the other secret society, Dragon, treating them as relics of an age Dartmouth will not know again, and might not want to.

Seen from the steps of the dormitory behind it, Sphinx all but fades among its trees. Members of the neighboring fraternity, Alpha Delta, toss a sponge football back and forth, and somewhere someone yells: "Clutch! You've got to press the clutch to start it!"

Then a fair young man in a white T-shirt and green shorts appears from behind the fraternity house and cuts across the grass, as if taking a routine shortcut. Head bowed, he veers suddenly toward the tomb. He pauses at the basement door and then disappears inside. The next person to cross the grass, a minute later, is a black woman carrying a knapsack. She passes the little temple without even glancing at it.

Copyright © 1991 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published June 19, 1991.