The Pool at the End of the Tunnel

by Myrel Iturrey | 10/4/12 10:00pm

There's perhaps nothing that stands in starker contrast to the Egyptian climate than that of Hanover. But in the midst of a bustling college campus, Sphinx Senior Society has fortified its own Egyptian-revivalist oasis. Nestled in a plot of land between Alpha Delta fraternity and the Fayerweather residence cluster, the building's high, plain walls with outward-flaring cornices provide a sealed sanctuary for one of Dartmouth's two original secret societies.

"The Tomb," as it is referred to in dozens of member correspondences retrieved in Rauner Special Collections, was constructed in 1903 by William Butterfield. Not unlike the underground sanctuaries excavated in the Valley of the Kings, the Sphinx's infrastructure remains shrouded in mystery. However, since archaeological excavation is not an option, the rumors about the building remain rampant. Tour guides enjoy pointing out that the building is said to have the heftiest water bill on campus. Another myth perpetuates the existence of an underground tunnel, linking the building's basement to AD. A newspaper article by the Lawrence Biemiller mentions the curious case of the motorcycle on the Sphinx's roof, and an even more curious anecdote of a student who "scaled its walls only to be assaulted at the top by someone wielding a stick."

Unsurprisingly, my interviews with alumni and current members alike were fruitless. A member of the "Krewe" of 1986 and another of the "Krewe" of 2013, as they refer to themselves, were unwilling to legitimize any of these stories. In fact, they were quite adept at skirting by my questions with evasive responses such as, "I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of X."

But luckily for us, documents cannot be evasive. The archives file brimmed with traditional Sphinx music sheets, browned photos of its stoic and mustached past members and charming trinkets from the society's many social gatherings dating back to 1894. It appears guests to the annual initiation banquet of 1897 had a choice between entrees of turkey, chicken and tongue.

But perhaps more revealing than these were the dozens of meeting memorandums from the society's secretary to the College president, wax paper building plans and alumni directories. In August of 1922, meeting minutes indicated a proposal to evenly split the purchase of the land separating the Sphinx and AD between the two organizations, as "the undesirability of another house between the Sphinx house and the Alpha Delta Phi house is obvious." A deed confirming such a purchase is dated 1931.

Could this purchase have heralded the construction of the infamous underground tunnel connecting the two? After all, with the help of an engineer and an architect, the feat could have been completed without so much as obstructing the surface. When asked about the tunnel itself, a Sphinx member responded, "There very well may be."

We do know for certain, however, that Krewe meetings were and continue to be held at regular hours on Monday nights in the Tomb. A memoir from Charles Blakemore, Krewe of 1952, illustrated the informal nature of such meetings.

"We spent more time bating each other than getting anything serious discussed," he wrote.

To be sure, however, the inside of the Tomb is not merely an empty room with a tapped keg. In 1922, a letter addressed to William H. McCarter suggested the installment of "a piano, billiard tables, card tables, books, magazines, etc." though there is no confirmation of these additions in later correspondences. So, is there any room for a swimming pool?

Reports indicate that the Sphinx was closed during World War II. When it was reopened in 1946, all machinery was in working condition. However, "Cleopatra's Swimming Pool took a little extra effort," claimed a Sphinx pamphlet in the archives. Plumbers, carpenters and architects involved in the repairs were "duly sworn to secrecy."

For most students at the College, the Sphinx all but fades into the landscape. Its impressive facade and unworn steps are juxtaposed against the revelries that can be both seen and heard coming from the AD porch on any given weekend. In its quiet, unobtrusive, windowless presence, secrecy prevails. Yet, perhaps it's better that way that we continue to wonder about the architectural gem we know little about, and of the secret society who calls it home. Perhaps, down the line, we may discover the archives file itself was machinated for the likes of nosey reporters like me. After all, documents can't be evasive, but they can certainly lie.