Back in the days when the Phi Delts used to pack 300 people into a basement party room they boasted was the best on the University of Maryland's fraternity row, the bar was the heart of the operation.

From this fortress of brick and tile flowed the bourbon-and-Cokes that were the brothers' signature drink and the beer they served to the dancing, flirting masses who swarmed the epic bashes they hosted.

But there are no more crowds in the basement--and no more booze anywhere in the house--since the national organization of Phi Delta Theta banned alcohol in all its chapter houses this year.

The party room has morphed into a weight-training and study center. And the bar holds nothing but a quarter-inch of dust.

"We're thinking," said house President Adam Luecking, "about taking it out."

Haunted by rising insurance costs, sinking membership and a string of deaths and accidents, fraternities across the country are seeking to end their unofficial role as campus bartenders.

Phi Delta Theta is the first national fraternity to enforce a ban on alcohol throughout its chapter houses, but several others are poised to follow soon. Already, about 1,500 of 5,300 fraternity houses in the North-American Interfraternity Conference nationwide have gone dry, up from about 300 just a few years ago, said Executive Vice President Jon Williamson.

"You're seeing a major culture change, and the fraternities are leading the way," Williamson said.

Old habits die hard, though. Some chapters have threatened to fold or break away from nationals rather than go dry, complaining that the policies are patronizing and unfair to lawful 21-year-old students. Some national organizations that rolled out strict alcohol-free policies with great fanfare a few years ago are now backing away to appease unhappy undergraduates.

And problem drinking can extend far beyond the rules of a chapter house. Two weeks ago, a 19-year-old freshman at Old Dominion University in Norfolk died, apparently after drinking too much with fellow members of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at a restaurant and an off-campus house, officials said. (Though the national organization has banned drinking at chapter houses formed since 1997, that does not include the Norfolk chapter.)

This current of resistance raises the question of whether fraternities have become so grounded in a culture of partying that they can't exist without alcohol. But five months into their new way of life, the Maryland Phi Delts say they're surviving all right, in a house strangely cleaner and quieter.

"We obviously have fun," said Luecking, 21, a senior from Gaithersburg. "We drink, but just not here."

Phi Delt's new policy, it is important to note, doesn't require the brothers to abstain. The chapter can co-host beer parties with other fraternities as long as they keep them on the other guys' turf. The chapter is even free to keep hosting its own parties serving alcohol--as long as they move the venue to a bar or restaurant, where professional bartenders and bouncers are on hand to check IDs, and the house can limit its liability.

"Dudley's has definitely seen an increase in business from us," said Phi Delt Vice President Tom McLane, 20, a junior from Scranton, Pa., who frequents the nearby College Park tavern.

Still, the policy has stifled most of the low-key game-and-a-sixpack conviviality that once filled the 70-year-old columned brick house. The place is pretty much empty Wednesday through Saturday evenings, as brothers choose to congregate at bars and private apartments. Morale, some say, has dropped among the less devoted members.

Luecking saw it most starkly at Homecoming in October. In past years, 200 alumni or more would come to the house to hang out after the game. This year, only 25 stopped by.

"Sure, it's disappointing," Luecking said. "They want to come back and see the place, but then they want to hang out with their friends in a social environment."

National fraternity officials, though, say that change was overdue. Fraternities, they say, had drifted far from their founding principles of friendship, leadership and scholarship.

"We had fraternities out there where [grades] were below average," said Thomas Balzer, Phi Delta Theta's project coordinator for alcohol-free housing. Alcohol was the common denominator behind a string of injuries, accidents and property damage. "We were dealing with liability insurance claims that were astronomical. We asked ourselves, 'What are we supposed to be doing?' "

Other fraternities were having similar conversations. Membership in interfraternity conference chapters plummeted in the 1990s, losing 25 percent from its peak of 400,000 a decade ago. Some leaders believe the organizations had lost their relevancy for a younger, more sober generation.

Fraternity culture was also taking the blame for a series of alcohol-related deaths, including the 1997 overdose of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology pledge, and for rising concerns about the incidence of binge drinking on college campuses. Fraternities decided that they didn't have to be the bad guys anymore, said David J. Glassman, director of insurance and risk reduction for the national Sigma Nu.

"Fraternities and sororities have a uniquely captive audience," he said, noting that most students are free of a college's nurturing influence and social education programming once they leave the freshman dorms. "We can expose them to model behavior."

In 1997, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Nu became the first to announce they would go dry. Nine other fraternities have since set deadlines for alcohol-free housing, most of which will be phased in over the next three years.

Thirty-nine of the 57 other fraternities in the national conference are allowing their existing chapters to keep serving alcohol but have decided that all newly chartered chapters will begin life as dry houses. Sororities, which have traditionally banned alcohol from their houses, have signed on as well: A new resolution from the National Panhellenic Conference prohibits its chapters from co-hosting a party at a frat house that serves alcohol.

(Alcohol has been a less significant issue for the historically black fraternities and sororities, most of which do not provide housing for their members. The nine black Greek associations in the National Pan-Hellenic Council officially prohibit alcohol at their undergraduate functions, said President Cassandra Black.)

But not all fraternities are buying into no-alcohol policies. Phi Delta Theta had to ask its chapter at Cornell to disband after members said they did not want to live in alcohol-free housing. The president of the University of Virginia's Phi Delt house spoke out against the policy in an interview with a student newspaper shortly after the national placed its charter on suspension for unrelated infractions.

The president would not comment for The Washington Post; the chapter's alumni president said the house has long been concerned with the problem of underage drinking and hopes to "reach an accommodation with national" officers.

At the University of Oklahoma, Delta Tau Delta brothers balked when the national organization tried to extract a no-drinking pledge in exchange for a loan to the house. The brothers threatened to move out--which would have shuttered the chapter--until alumni stepped in to cover the loan.

"We have a lot of people saying, 'I'm 21. When I signed on, I understood that I'd be able to drink,' " said President Brock Ellis, 23, a nondrinker. He argued that it's safer for them to drink at home than drive to and from a bar.

Sigma Pi's national officers seriously considered adopting an alcohol-free housing policy but were blown back by the angry opposition of young members.

"The undergraduates really weren't ready for it. There was a feeling of distrust of older alums trying to put mandates on younger members," said Mark S. Briscoe, executive director. "They have to want to do it rather than be forced. We're not going to be in that chapter house 24 hours a day."

And Sigma Nu, which originally planned a sweeping alcohol ban like Phi Delt's, found itself making compromises, as have other national organizations. Now, Sigma Nu will allow its houses to keep drinking if they demonstrate strong chapter leadership and financial management. Glassman expects that one-half to two-thirds of the chapters will meet that standard.

Members, he said, felt Sigma Nu was "going out on thin ice" with an alcohol ban. "Our undergraduate members were concerned about what this would do from a competitive standpoint," as they tried to recruit new members against drinking fraternities. "We're still supportive of the concept, but in a different way," he said.

Many chapters, though, are getting with the new program.

"A couple years ago, you could walk around and go to any fraternity house and drink," said Rikin Patel, the president of Phi Gamma Delta at Maryland, which voluntarily went dry last year. "It's not going to be like that anymore. You just adapt."

At Phi Delt, the brothers are nervously anticipating their first rush as a dry house next spring, despite assurances from the national organization that average recruitment numbers go up when houses go dry. They are also enduring a lot of teasing from their neighbors on fraternity row.

But they see the upside. Maintenance is much easier.

"After a party, it would take a day to clean up, to get the beer out of the rugs," McLane said.

Matt McCarty, 20, an Upstate New Yorker in a Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt, said he feels bad "for the younger guys because it's not as party-oriented." But he noted two major changes in his life since last year:

"I get sleep," he said. "I can actually study."

In the old days, McCarty said, "I would go to sleep at 2, and I would be woken up at 3 or 5 [in the morning] because of the noise. There was always beer and girls around."

He paused, staring into middle distance. "That's the thing," he said. "There aren't many girls around here anymore."