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From the Archives: The history and controversy of Zahm House

, , and | Monday, March 22, 2021

Diane Park | The Observer

On Monday, March 15, after a shocking email revealed to Zahm House residents their beloved home would be used as a swing hall for the foreseeable future and their community would be disbanded, Zahm residents made it clear that they would not go down without a fight. From the protest that attracted hundreds of supporters on Monday night to the red clothing worn in solidarity the next day, the Zahm community has clearly voiced their dissent against the administration.

However, many agreed with the administration’s decision to dissolve Zahm House, citing its notorious reputation for disregarding rules and promoting a toxic culture. By the time freshmen have experienced Welcome Weekend, they already know of Zahm’s infamy.

The controversy surrounding Zahm House is not a novel phenomenon. This week’s edition of From the Archives explores how Zahm has affected students’ understanding of dorm life and culture over the past twenty years. No matter how you feel about Zahm House, its community has undoubtedly made a lasting impact in Notre Dame’s history. 

When ‘Hall’ became ‘House’: Zahm community grapples with name change, denies connections to Greek life

Nov. 17, 2005 | Maddie Hanna | Researched by Evan McKenna

In the wake of last Monday’s announced dissolution of the Zahm House community, much of the ensuing conversation has revolved around the idea of “culture”: What is the culture of Zahm House? Can it be quantified? Does the community’s culture warrant the dorm’s disbandment?

For many, one topic in particular lies at the heart of the discussion of the dorm’s culture: its name. Zahm House is one of three Notre Dame residence halls — along with Sorin College and Morrissey Manor — referred to as anything other than a “hall” among its residents.

To some, the unique name is an indicator of the dorm’s tight-knit community. To others, it is a precarious connection to so-called “fraternity culture” and its contentious underbelly. 

But Zahm hasn’t always been a house. In fact, Zahm’s University-recognized title was the standard “Zahm Hall” before a fateful March 2007 student senate meeting. 

Courtesy of Sean Quinn

Whisperings of the impending name change appeared in The Observer in the years preceding the decision. On Nov. 17, 2005, Associate News Editor Maddie Hanna (‘08) covered the previous night’s student senate meeting, wherein Zahm senator Pat Knapp (‘07) introduced a resolution urging the University to recognize the dorm as “Zahm House.”

“Zahm Hall is commonly referred to but not formally recognized as Zahm House, and this inconsistency should be resolved,” the resolution read, arguing that such name changes — already adopted by Morrissey Manor and Sorin College — ultimately build community among hall residents.

Upon its introduction, the resolution was met with laughter from senators, and although the motion came to a close vote, it ultimately failed to pass. 

But student body president Dave Baron (‘06) seemed to support the resolution — an opinion that, in retrospect, might have forecasted the future of a University-recognized “Zahm House.” 

“Zahm Hall’s one of the most unique dorms on campus,” Baron said. “I think that’s great, it fosters dorm identity … I don’t have a problem [with the resolution].”

The majority of senators, however, did not feel the same way.

“I kind of get the sense that Zahm is trying to leave the impression they’re a fraternity,” said Dan Brown, Dillon Hall senator and dissenter of Knapp’s resolution. 

In a March 24, 2006 story on residential life culture at Notre Dame, Assistant News Editor Katie Perry (‘08) echoed Brown’s thoughts, stating the previous semester’s motion demonstrated “the desire some students have for an officially recognized Greek system at Notre Dame.” 

In a Letter to the Editor published just three days later, Knapp asserted the resolution and the proposed name change had nothing to do with Greek life.

“The Zahm House resolution only demonstrated Zahm’s desire to be recognized for its unique place in the Notre Dame residential culture,” Knapp wrote. “The assertion that Zahm was demonstrating the desire of some students for a Greek system is out of context and wholly inaccurate.”

A little more than one year later, the “well-known, but never passed resolution” was proposed again — and this time, it saw success.

Zahm senator Luke Derheimer (‘09) reintroduced the resolution at a March 29, 2007 student senate meeting, where the motion was met with some disapproval before ultimately passing 20-6.

Observer archives, March 29, 2007
Zahm senator Luke Derheimer, second from left, reacts as senators pass a resolution recognizing Zahm Hall as “Zahm House.”

Since then, the dorm has sported the University-recognized title of “Zahm House” — and even after the dorm’s community is disbanded, the building’s hard-fought name will remain.

Attempts to change: Zahm’s culture shift

Nov. 29, 2006 | Maddie Hanna | Researched by Maggie Clark

Father Dan Parrish — rector of Zahm in the early 2000s —  recognized the value of the unique community, but also acknowledged the flaws that plagued the residence hall. This conflict inspired him to make significant changes in order to adjust the dorm’s reputation while also maintaining its close-knit nature. 

“When I came here in the fall of 2003, Zahm was a mess, in every way,” Parrish said. “It really concerns me that when my freshman parents show up on campus, that the guard at the gate says, ‘Oh, your son’s in Zahm, I’m sorry.’” 

In order to clean this mess, Parrish implemented new protocols — a crackdown of sorts — to aid in the reputation rehabilitation. In particular, Parrish took a strong stance against two prominent dorm traditions: “visiting” and “paneling.” The former involved drunk upperclassmen waking up freshmen upon their return from the bar, while the latter referred to intoxicated upperclassmen coming home and knocking one of the six panels out of a Zahm door.

This new threat of punishment under Parrish was not appreciated by many of the dorm’s residents. Former Zahm president Joe Cussen (‘06) claimed this surge in statutes drove people away from the community they once loved.

“I just remember a lot more seniors being in Zahm Hall when I was a freshman,” Cussen remarked, implying Parrish inspired an exodus of upperclassmen out of Zahm to off-campus housing. 

Mark Seiler (‘06), another Zahm resident at the time, noted the culture shift may have improved Zahm externally, but not internally. “We should essentially be living in harmony with one another, but it wasn’t like that,” Seiler said. 

Regardless of complaints, Parrish stood by his efforts to rejuvenate the dorm’s image and behaviors. In contrast to the students’ grievances, he claimed there was “only one rule for living in Zahm and that’s respect.”

However, after Notre Dame’s recent decision to abolish the Zahm community, it now seems as if the efforts of Parrish appear to have been done in vain. For all its “visiting” and “panelling,” Zahm appeared to be the antithesis of a positive community. Nevertheless, many embraced being woken up by drunken neighbors and the destruction of doors, along with the various other traditions that made the dorm a hallowed ground. With the implementation of harsher rules and punishments, many Zahm residents feared their community was threatened. 

Zahm President Phil Drendall (‘08) assured that, because of the active presence of upperclassmen, “Zahm’s a great place to stay.” However, as the dorm environment became stricter, Drendall expressed concern about maintaining the dorm’s culture.

“I don’t know if the freshmen are getting that now,” Drendall said.  

Zahm House beyond the stereotype

March 2, 2004 | Kim Fortelka | Researched by Sarah Kikel

In response to the negative stereotype of Zahm held by Notre Dame students, staff and administration, Lyons Hall freshman Kim Fortelka (’07) encouraged the Notre Dame community to look beyond the stereotypes and “give Zahm Hall a chance.”

Observer archives, March 2, 2004

Fortelka acknowledged the commonly-discussed features of Zahm: the emptied beer cans, the enthusiastic welcome of girls into the building and the cups thrown in NDH, but made light of these characteristics.

“Zahm is disliked. They are disliked by other male dorms and especially by the administration. I must admit, many of the displays Zahm makes are crude, even offensive. But I challenge you now to look past those for a minute, and try to imagine the spirit and community that is [Zahm House].”

To exemplify Zahm’s strong community, she invoked the fanbase of Zahm’s interhall hockey team. Their large crowd faithfully attended interhall games “with cowbells, props and cheers galore.” After their recent championship game loss against Morrissey, the Zahm crowd didn’t let their defeat tamper their mood. Instead, they exited the JACC, chanting, “We’re number two! We’re number two!” as spirited as any victorious team.

“Nowhere but Zahm have I seen such dorm unity and spirit, no matter the circumstances,” Fortelka admitted. 

With Zahm’s character extending beyond athletics, Fortelka christened the dorm community as a family.

“They regard each other as brothers, and continually give each other unwavering support,” she wrote.

Fortelka was eager to substantiate Zahm’s overlooked dedication to community service, and she described the many projects in which Zahm was involved.

For the previous two years, Zahm had donated the most coats to Project Warmth. They were cooking dinners at Dismus House for former inmates. They were active volunteers with the Robinson Community Learning Center and “There are Children Here,” aiding young students with after-school programs. Not only did Zahm seek to strengthen their own dorm community, but the greater South Bend community as well.

Fortelka concluded by alluding to the administration’s hypocritical reaction towards Zahm. 

“The University wants each dorm to become a community in itself, a place for each student to regard as both their home and neighborhood. Dorm spirit is encouraged, and the University takes great pride in the spirit the students show for both their dorm and school. And yet the administration seems to have it out for Zahm,” she asserted.

Fortelka’s final words, penned seventeen years ago, become particularly evocative given last Monday’s announcement.

 “The administration and a wealth of students will continue to dislike Zahm. But it will only add fuel to the fire,” Fortelka contended. “Zahm will only cheer louder, party longer and work harder. Go ahead and dislike Zahm, just do not write them off.”

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About Uyen Le

Uyen is a senior at Notre Dame, studying English and Gender Studies. She is currently serving as the Leader of the From the Archives Project. Though she loyally follows AP Style in The Observer, on all other platforms, she is a strong proponent of the Oxford comma.

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About Evan McKenna

Evan is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 2022 with majors in English and psychology and a concentration in creative writing. He served as The Observer’s Managing Editor for the 2021-2022 term, and is currently rekindling his relationship with the Oxford comma. Reach him at [email protected] or @evanjmckenna on Twitter.

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About Maggie Clark

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