An underground secret: the hidden tunnels of Puget Sound

By Madeline Brown

Dec 9th, 2016

In the Spring of 1962, Puget Sound began construction on the present day fraternity houses on Union Avenue, located to the west of the main campus. Along with the new men’s housing, an underground dining experience connecting each of the new fraternity buildings was introduced.

The construction of the fraternity houses in the 1960s led to a unique architectural attribute of the underground kitchen. “The units are occupied by five fraternities: Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Nu, Sigma Chi, Phi Delta Theta and Kappa Sigma. The dedication was sponsored by the Interfraternity Council,” wrote the Tacoma News Tribune.

Each house was built with a passage to a tunnel that led to the underground kitchen where meals were prepared for each fraternity. “‘The kitchen can boast of its complete modern equipped area which can effectively and efficiently serve over 200 men, residing in the five new houses,’ Dean Smith said. ‘After meals are prepared, they are taken to the ground floor dining room of each individual house in specially designed food carts,’” Smith told the News Tribune. The construction project cost the university around $1 million including the furnishings of all of the fraternities.

“An underground network of tunnels directly connects the central kitchen with each house. Constructing the kitchen underground enabled the university to pave the level area located in the center of the building project to provide parking facilities for more than 70 cars, thus helping to alleviate the problem of parking space,” the Tacoma News Tribune said.

The News Tribune also noted that over two thousand people attended the unveiling of the contemporary housing and dining system.

“When Union Avenue houses were constructed by the university, the tunnels were built to provide access to two underground kitchens. For many years Union Avenue house occupants picked up their food from those kitchens and dined in the basement of their houses. The tunnels also served and continue to serve as a utility corridor for Union Avenue housing mechanical and electrical infrastructure,”  John Hickey, Executive Director of Community Engagement

and Associate Vice President for Business Services said.

Janis Kuiken is a Puget Sound alumni who received her Bachelor’s Degree 1989 and her Master’s Degree in 1991. Kuiken recalls her experiences in the Greek Tunnels: “So basically I was a little sister at a Fraternity called Sigma Chi Fraternity and I would go over and have breakfast with the guys, like if there was a function on Friday night I would go over Saturday morning and have breakfast with the guys down in the tunnel and sometimes the little sisters-we would come over and help the guys clean up after the parties. And then occasionally- my memory isn’t super sharp on this- but I remember walking over to the SAE house in the tunnels underneath and I knew a couple guys in the house and I would sometimes have breakfast or lunch over there [with them].”

Kuiken was a transfer student from University of California, Davis (UC Davis) and arrived at Puget Sound her Junior year. Already a member of Pi Beta Phi at UC Davis, Kuiken was able to transfer into the Pi Beta Phi sorority at Puget Sound easily. She was moved straight into the Pi Beta Phi dorm, as sororities did not have their own housing at the time. “I went in multiple times, I honestly can’t remember how many times I went over there, I was friends with some of the guys in the house and I went to some of their dances and stuff,” Kuiken said.

Kuiken’s memories of the tunnels were fond ones. “We went down this little hallway [through Sigma Chi]  to get to the tunnel and it’s just a tunnel- there’s no windows or anything, obviously, so it was pretty closed in. But the food was good and we just all sat- there was one big long table for the fraternity [to eat at] and we just all sat together at the table and it was kind of nice, kind of a family feel,” Kuiken explained.

It is said that the Tunnels caused a feeling of divide on campus between members of Greek Life and the rest of the students, as only fraternity members and those invited by them were allowed to enter and dine in the Tunnels.

The rumored impressions of separation within the campus was not personally felt by Kuiken, however. “I don’t remember that being a feeling for all of us back then, but that might also be because I was in the Greek system. The other thing is, I did transfer there my junior year, so it’s not like I was there all four years like other people were… but I don’t remember it feeling like that. You could eat anywhere you wanted, it’s not like the Greek people only ate over there. Because otherwise they’d just be eating by themselves all the time, they wouldn’t be eating with any girls unless they invited us over,” Kuiken shared.

“Basement kitchen operations discontinued around 1999 for Union Avenue occupants when those houses were comprehensively renovated,” Hickey said. The kitchen services in the tunnels were no longer needed, as the University expanded Wheelock and its dining services to compensate for whole student population on campus as opposed to the students not participating in Greek life. “Union Avenue kitchen facilities and services were more limited than what was provided at Wheelock,” Hickey added.

The tunnels were completely closed off for access in 2011. The main cause for the closure was safety: “Tunnel conditions had deteriorated over time and they became unsafe to occupy.  The tunnels are too expensive to restore to safe, useful condition,” Hickey explained.

When asked if she thought that the tunnels should be reopened for use, Kuiken replied: “I think my answer to that would probably be no, because I can’t imagine that they would be structurally sound all these years later… But I guess if they’re safe then I would say sure, that would be fine, but if not I would say no, they probably shouldn’t reopen them.”