The History of Archaeology in Action, Part 2: James Breasted was a Fiji…?

Recently I was in Chicago for some research on Caroline Ransom Williams.  There is so much more to come about her later.  But, if you’ve been following this blog at all, you know I like to fangirl it up and visit locations in the history of archaeology.  Remember when I went to see Petrie’s tomb?  Yeah, that kind of stuff.

Earlier this week, I was in Chicago for the 3rd or 4th time to research in the archives at the Oriental Institute in the University of Chicago.  I was running slightly early, so I decided to finally go see James Henry Breasted’s old house, which is near campus.  It is at 5615 S. University Street, near the University of Chicago and just down the street from the Oriental Institute.

Breasted house 1

Breasted house, present day.  Author’s photo

Breasted and his wife, Frances, had never owned a house and in 1910 Frances inherited some money from her Uncle Benjamin.  This money allowed Frances and James to design and build a house near the university, which they did in 1912.  According to Breasted’s son, Charles, it was designed to look like the villa of the poet Ariosto in Ferrara, Italy (Pioneer, 217).  With the help of family friend and architect Howard van Doren Shaw, the house was reproduced with all the “archaic embellishments”, including, on either side of the door, “a great wrought-iron ring, to hold torches at night” and “an inscription in third-rate Latin by the poet himself” (Pioneer, 217).  Translated, the inscription read: “Tis small but fit for me, gives none offense / Not mean, yet builded at my own expense” (Pioneer, 218).

Breasted house 2

Detail of the doorway, with the wrought-iron rings. Author’s photo

Charles Breasted noted that “If the total effect of all this was rather distinguished, it was also somewhat unexpected and perhaps a little precious–and to my unsolicited way of thinking at the time, very disappointing” (Pioneer, 218).  The saying no longer exists at the house, and seemed slightly untrue from the beginning.  Charles recalled that his mother struggled every day to make ends meet, financially, socially, and in terms of the family (218).  The house was too much for Frances to handle, and the family of 5 moved out just a few years after the house was built.  Breasted lost his dream home and his dream study, but gained some peace of mind back, if very little.

I don’t know much about the house until it was purchased by the fraternity Phi Gamma Delta (also called Fiji) sometime in the 1930s.  Here’s an image from the University of Chicago’s Tumblr, from a pep rally outside the house in 1957.

fiji 1

Pep Rally outside the house in 1957. Photo from Univ. Chicago Tumblr

The fraternity kept the house until, I believe, they got shut down in 2014 or early 2015 after a series of parties, fights, and general nastiness and are without a house for about a year, from what I can gather.  On a site called, many people had bad things to say about the guys who made up the Fiji house.  They were called “dbags,” “roided up gorillas,” and one person made a comment that their “house is dirty.”  (They were also infamous for making the “Hyde Park List.” Hyde Park is the neighborhood in Chicago where the University is located.  Follow the link to see what that is about.  Trigger warning for sexual violence.)

The house is, now, derelict and run down.  As you can see in the image at the top of the post, the bottom floor’s windows are boarded up.  I can’t say much better for the backyard.  The carriage house, designed to look like a mastaba, was no longer standing and there was trash, furniture, and mattresses strewn about. What did the dudebros in Fiji think when they passed this sign every day?

Breasted house 3

“This house designed by and for JAMES HENRY BREASTED Egyptologist and Founder of the ORIENTAL INSTITUTE and is designed after the Villa of Ariosto in Ferrara 1912” Author’s photo

I asked someone at the university what was going to be done with the house.  No one really knows, but a few options were: tear it down (PLEASE DON’T!!); renovate and restore it for a residence; or renovate and restore it for a university building.  Obviously, I hope it is renovated and restored.  The fraternity did their best to destroy it, and the university needs to bring it back.  But this is not a judgement post–I just regret the lack of historical places in many of our large, quickly modernizing cities.  We need to have a few more areas like Hyde Park that have retained the historical ambiance of their neighborhoods rather than tearing everything down to build new homes with open floor plans and granite countertops (thanks DIY network!).

If you’re around Hyde Park, go see the house.  It is in a beautiful neighborhood surrounded by gorgeous houses.  It is a beautiful house itself.


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2 Responses to The History of Archaeology in Action, Part 2: James Breasted was a Fiji…?

  1. harngroup says:

    Reblogged this on HARN Weblog.

  2. Pingback: The Flying Archaeologist and The Human Adventure | Adventures in History and Archaeology

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