About the Name
For the first month or so after getting the house started in the summer of 1981, the founding members called the house "New Prana", since ICC was replacing Prana House with HoC. But nobody really liked the name "New Prana" very much. John Handy, a founding member, came up with the "House of Commons" name. The name is a quadruple pun: the house has quite a bit of commons areas compared to other ICC houses. (And it had a larger 3rd floor commons before the 1998 remodeling.) And besides the reference to our democratic philosophy (England being the birthplace of democracy), we suspect that HoC's founders implied a relationship to the lower class. (Peasants were often vegetarian, though from necessity, not choice.) Finally, the austere name is a contrast to ICC's other vegetarian co-op, Royal House.
The Predecessor: Prana House
The very first property ICC bought was HoC's predecessor: Holloway House (16 members), at 2510 Rio Grande, in 1971. ICC named the house after Sterling Holloway, a businessperson who had been very helpful to ICC. True to our progressive history, Holloway was also one of the first co-ed co-ops. Holloway House was later renamed Prana House, and served as a hippie-oriented vegetarian co-op. "Prana" is the all-pervading vital energy of the universe, according to Hinduism. It is the Indian version of ch'i. It's also the name of a type of yoga which concentrates on intensive breathing. Here's a typical excerpt from the Prana house manual: "7. Spirituality: We have a quiet hour between 5:30 and 6:30 pm to allow for undisturbed meditation. Those who are interested in chanting will find kindred spirits." The Prana house manual and a group photograph are available in the HoC Library. Rents were $155-180 in the mid-70s.
ICC sold Prana in 1981 to the sorority next door in order to buy the 2610 Rio Grande property. Prana burned down right after the sale, and it's suspected that the sorority burned it so they could have a parking lot, which is what it is now. The small stained glass window on our south wall next to the fireplace came from Prana.
2610 Rio Grande
The 2610 Rio Grande building was built in 1929. It had been empty for about a year or so when ICC bought it in 1981 to replace Prana. Before that, it was The Crow's Nest, an ROTC house. (And before that it was an all-male boarding house, with an older woman living onsite preparing all the meals. Back then the kitchen was in what is now room #3.)
Most of the founding members came from other ICC coops, primarily New Guild, with only some coming from Prana. Others were first-time co-opers, including at least one freshman (Cedar Stevens, then Christi Stevens). Several members moved in that summer to start fixing up the house, and didn't pay rent for the summer and part of fall, since the building was condemned. Sewage leaked from the second floor bathrooms into the dining room. The entire back parking lot was covered 12 feet deep with trash, a mixture of bottles, cans, leaves, food, and other debris. Founding members Cedar Stevens and Stuart Gourd say that the largest maggots they've ever seen in their lives inhabited the pile, along with three-inch roaches. New members shoveled the debris into huge dumpsters, and were gagging the whole time.
The Early Days
When the house opened, the area across the street was an undeveloped park with trees as tall as HoC, and was habitat for many homeless people. In 1982, the trees were cut down and the Rio Nueces apartment complex was built. Cedar says that something beyond the fact that it was a new building always bothered her, and so one day she walked across the street and looked back at HoC, and realized that the architectural style was similar (the curved arches and multi-tiered roof). "They built it to make fun of us," she says.
The house used to have many fewer rooms, but over the years they were divided to make more rooms (more coopers and more money).
Transfer of Ownership in 1988
In 1988, ICC nearly went bankrupt from some bad investments in apartment buildings - when the bottom dropped out of the market, occupancy rates plunged. ICC wasn't bringing in enough money from rent to make the mortgage payments, and couldn't even sell the apartments at a loss because there was a housing glut and nobody was buying. So NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation) created a subsidiary, NASCO Properties (NP), specifically to buy House of Commons from ICC in 1988 to save ICC from bankruptcy. The money from the sale allowed ICC to pay off some debt and stay afloat. NP leased HoC back to ICC with a 99-year lease. ICC pays NP only $2,000 a month rent for HoC. ICC has the first option of buying the house if NP ever decides to sell it, and the purchase price would be limited to something ridiculously low (something like $240,000, if I remember right). (By the way, ICC did finally manage to sell its three apartment buildings, all at a substantial loss.)
Spring 1998: Saving the Pool
In the spring of 1998, some staff members and ICC board members pressed to have ICC close the pool at HoC permanently, claiming that it was expensive to operate (which isn't true). They also claimed that the pool wasn't environmentally friendly, but many suspected that they made those claims not because they were really concerned about the environmental issues, but only because they were trying to "eco-bait" us. HoC members led a public-information campaign to inform the other houses what was going on and what the true costs of the pool were, and collected signatures from a majority of ICC members. A referendum was held, and ICC members voted to keep the pool. In the meantime, a former HoC member and then-boarder took the initiative to learn pool maintenance skills on his own, and started taking care of the pool himself, saving ICC money that was being wasted on a pool company.
Summer 1998: Remodeling
ICC emptied the house in the summer of 1998 to do a quarter-million-dollar remodeling job. The house was painted inside and out, carpet removed from the commons and some rooms exposing the existing hardwood floors (which were then refinished), the kitchen was totally re-arranged, and fire exits were physically relocated.
But there was also some bad news. Due to mismanagement by ICC coupled with incompetence on the part of the architect, the house wasn't ready to open by the fall semester, requiring HoCers to find temporary housing for most of September. In addition, ICC didn't ensure that our wishes were followed about many things. (For example, the remodelers were supposed to use lowodor, VOC-free paint, but didn't.) Further, several things were in worse condition after the remodeling, and several very obvious (and inexpensive) needed improvements weren't performed at all - despite the $300,000 ICC spent on the job.