Sometime during my sophomore year, my best friend turned twenty-one. I was still twenty, but no matter. Full of youthful confidence, I marched with him through Collegetown plotting how I’d pass for a grad student. I was determined, you see, to get into the Chapter House.
Five minutes later, I was back in my dorm. It’d be another year before the Chapter House opened its antique wooden doors to me.
It was worth the wait. The Chapter House became my sanctuary and social club, my concert hall and dance floor, my watering hole, and—of course—my infinite popcorn dispensary. Now that it may be gone for good, I’m not sure where I’m supposed to go to mourn.
In the early morning hours of April 14, a fire tore through two buildings on the 400 block of Stewart Avenue, including the one that housed the Chappie. Firefighters arrived to find a massive conflagration threatening not just the well-known bar, but numerous apartments. Thankfully, no one was killed or injured—but the homes and belongings of forty-four Cornell students and two staff members were destroyed. Both buildings were declared a total loss, and the one adjacent to the Chapter House was subsequently razed. Local authorities are continuing to investigate the cause of the fire, and as of mid-June, the building’s owners hadn’t revealed their plans for the property. If they choose not to rebuild, a link connecting generations of Cornellians will be severed.
Housed in a historic structure built around the turn of the last century, the Chappie had its roots in an establishment called Jim’s Place. It opened in the mid-Twenties, offering dinner for 50 cents, and began serving alcohol a decade later. In the Fifties and Sixties, according to the Daily Sun archives, it became a popular hangout for fraternity members. By 1965, the watering hole had changed its name to the Chapter House—and three years later, the Sun declared it one of the “traditional locations for freshman boozing.” Over the years, it became a Collegetown icon. “Even to old alumni, it seems as if the Chapter House was always there,” Bill Howard ’74 told the Sun after the blaze. “You’d never imagine something like a fire could actually bring down the Chapter House.”
I’m sure the outpouring of grief over the Chappie is a little bewildering to those who weren’t attached to it. I remember feeling that way when the Palms closed in 2012, prompting over-the-top lamentations. Now I understand the emotion. The Chapter House wasn’t just where I got a good drink. In its commitment to alternative music and alternative beer, in the mugs that dangled from its ceiling, in its wooden tables marked by generations of initials, it cultivated a
That it was even called a “Collegetown bar” reflects a weakness of language. The term conjures up cheap beer and grating music, bathroom hurlers and bratty students. The Chappie was different. Over the years, it became first and foremost a pub for grad students, but it was capacious enough to bring together undergrads and locals. Arguments about Nietzsche unfolded over the soundtrack of reggae. It was, I’d argue, the only Collegetown bar where you could reasonably expect to be smarter when you left than when you’d arrived.