By Doug Hill
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — Phyllis Murray is the co-owner of the Montford Inn in Norman and a longtime resident of the neighborhood where Hettie’s House, 739 S. College Ave., is located.
The approximately 70-year-old structure, named after a woman who operated a boardinghouse there for decades, is slated to be razed soon to provide more automobile parking for the Delta Gamma sorority, which owns the property.
It’s a two-story, yellow building with a distinctive appearance. In the English Cottage style, there’s really not many other houses in town like it. Its original, dense cedar shingles on the sides remain intact and the structure is largely in the original form.
Murray’s relatives were significant landowners in early Norman, with several family homes built near Hettie’s boardinghouse. Some of these structures still exist. As a 6-year-old, Murray played in the neighborhood and was attracted to the folks gathered at the boardinghouse.
“I got to be good friends with her (Hettie) and she was always making cookies,” Murray said. “There was always a bustle of people around there.”
During World War II, housing was at a premium because of Norman’s Navy base and renting rooms was a lucrative business. After the war, the boardinghouse continued, with Oklahoma University students being the main occupants.
“Hettie was a delightful woman with gray hair pulled back in a bun on the back of her head and always wearing an apron,” Murray said. “I don’t even know her last name.”
She recalls walking to Amspacher’s Grocery Store to the south and along the way visiting the numerous fish ponds in people’s yards.
She graduated from OU in 1960 and Hettie’s House was still operating at that time.
Susan Atkinson is the city of Norman’s Historic Preservation Planner and is familiar with the modern saga of Hettie’s House.
Without a thorough deed search, pinpointing its exact age is an educated guess. People in her field often use Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for their research. Originally used to estimate liability, the documents have become a guide to some for American urbanization. Norman didn’t buy the maps every year.
“Hettie’s House doesn’t appear on the 1925 Sanborn maps but does on the next one purchased in 1944,” Atkinson said. “So it was built sometime during those 19 years, but it’s also unclear who constructed it.”
The records of likely firms have come up blank.
“Hettie’s House is not in a historic district and has no mandated protection,” she said.
Atkinson said that such districts are only designated when property owners request them. The Miller and Chautauqua districts are the only official historic districts in Norman.
Atkinson went to heroic lengths to save Hettie’s House when the Delta Gamma sorority first contemplated leveling it in 2002. She searched for someone who had the wherewithal and inclination to move the house to another area.
“I thought I’d found that individual, but their lot wasn’t big enough,” she said. “Also, overhead power lines, mature trees growing right up against the house and the small size of the street it’s on were all complicating factors.”
Concerned neighbors of Hettie’s House raised a hue and cry on her behalf, causing Delta Gamma to hold off on demolition. Delta Gamma continued using the house as an annex to their main building on the southeast. The sorority sank a lot of money into the place, but issues such as ineffective heating and air conditioning remained.
“We’ve used Hettie’s House, mainly for overflow right up until the 2011-2012 school year,” current OU Delta Gamma sorority House Director Peggy Singer said. “Some of our upperclassmen would usually stay there, and in the summer we’d use it for our recruitment team.”
Singer has had her position for four years and knows little of Hettie’s House history.
“It’s a charming place,” she said. “I have a friend who just recently told me he’d been a houseboy there when it was the boardinghouse while he was in college.”
Singer said the place has three upstairs bedrooms that could accommodate six girls. A spacious living room, dining area and kitchen is downstairs.
“They would use it like a home away from home,” Singer said. “It’s just the right size for a small group of girls. It’s a sweet, old building that’s seen its day, and it’s sad to see it go.”
Murray moved into what was her grandmother’s home on College Avenue in the 1990s. The structure was built around 1918 and is near Hettie’s House.
“I’m going to go home one of these days soon and it’s going to be gone,” Murray said. “For me the joyous part is that Delta Gamma opened the house up this spring and they sold off the contents and some of the architectural features.”
The original exterior and interior doors and staircase railing and balusters were purchased by a Delta Gamma dad. Instead of going to the landfill, those pieces from Hettie’s House may live on in another structure.
“I know there are a lot of people whose lives were touched by this house,” Murray said. “I’m just probably one of the few with really early memories of it.”