Purple letters: Fraternity jumps the paintbrush with new 'sign'

A UVA fraternity’s do-it-yourself facelift has left some scratching their heads and at least one official reaching for a whistle– and the white paint. The bold new design consisting of a golden façade and the Greek letters Phi and Epsilon painted in purple on the front of the Zeta Beta Tau house at 515 Rugby Road is ruffling the feathers of those who would prefer to maintain the status quo in the historically preserved and predominantly student-occupied neighborhood just north of the UVA campus.

"When artwork contains text that references the use of the building, or when the artwork itself clearly references the use of the building, then it is considered a sign rather than a mural," says Mary Joy Scala, Charlottesville's preservation and design planner. "In this case, the letters Phi Epsilon denote the chapter of the fraternity. Therefore it is a sign, and in a residential zone a sign is generally limited to 12 square feet, so it is not permitted."

Two years ago, in a well-documented case, a photography shop called Richmond Camera won approval to keep a student-painted mural on the side of its building on Meade Avenue. Scala notes that if the fraternity design had been deemed a mural it might have similarly gained approval from the Board of Architectural Review, the panel that governs exteriors in the City's historic districts.

Built in 1958 and designed by the famed UVA architect Frederick D. Nichols, the Zeta Beta Tau house has long stood out among its red-bricked and white-columned neighbors thanks to a forward-looking design that eschewed the revivalist styles of most fraternities and instead went for something a little more modern. The final result, however, seems to owe more to motels than modern art.   

“It’s not the most impressive fraternity house,” says UVA architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson. “But it does have the curving serpentine wall in the front. It reminded me of a hotel– it’s so different than any other fraternity house.”

Nichols was most famous for wresting control of Rotunda renovations out of the hands of early 20th Century architect Stanford White and completing a renovation using Thomas Jefferson’s own design in time for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976. Placing a T.J.-inspired serpentine wall in front of Zeta Beta Tau ensured that the structure was not entirely devoid of traditional references.

According to the chapter president, Zeta Beta Tau brother Matt Butler undertook the painting project over a few days in the middle of July. It appears that no pre-approval was sought from UVA or Charlottesville’s office of planning and preservation. 

Chapter president Matt Caplan notes that his fraternity’s history includes a series of mergers that have made the existing house the "Phi Epsilon chapter" of Zeta Beta Tau, a national fraternity whose roots at UVA date back to 1915.

“It’s a point of pride that we share an identity with Phi Epsilon,” says Caplan, who adds that a long string of interior renovations had been completed recently. “Now we’re focusing on the exterior and trying to make the house more attractive.”

Unfortunately, Scala and the city preservation office are squarely at odds with the fraternity's plans for aesthetic amelioration. Scala's message is clear and firm: the design must go.


Silliness. Next they'll be telling us not to paint Beta Bridge. That house has always had its own flair, and this paint job is actually an improvement.

oh yeah, that dump is a historical building.like the apartment buildings on 17th st or JPA--very historical. A monument. And do you really compare Nichols and Standford White-Nichols an average prof arch and White, the Stern of his era?
My charlottesville is a very small place

Didn't Thomas Jefferson live there?

it looks like a Hotel you might see in California or something like that

RE: "When artwork contains text that references the use of the building, or when the artwork itself clearly references the use of the building, then it is considered a sign rather than a mural,"

1) The 'text' appears to be incomplete/partial and 2) does not 'clearly' reference the use of the building.

And it looks better than before.

Keep it.

Mallwalker is right, you dont have to be a supreme court justice top see there is is a real case for 'mural". Boys hire yourself a lawyer or get a brother lawyer: this case has legs.Or just draw a tiny picrture of TJ with an arrow- TJ is then saying the letters and that folks IS a mural. Case closed

I was been passing this fraternity house since the 70's when I first arrived in Charlottesville, and I applaud them for adding a spark of creativity and artistic flair myself. It appears to be well done, and certainly mural-like in my view--here's hoping the Preservation and Design folks can see clear to making an exception for innovation in this case.

Well played, Red.

Guessing that if they had simply followed protocol it would be anon issue.

It looks like these guys have an unfailing, true interest in their fraternity. It looks better than it used to - at least they've taken some initiative. And I agree w/ the comments above re: mural vs sign. Esp. when you look at some of the other 'art' that the city not only tolerates, but encourages as 'art in place'.

Repaint it with transparent phosphorescent paint and then use a black light to make it glow at night. Mary Jo Scala sounds like she's in bed by 8:30 so you should be all right.

I think they're really just a group of hardy men painting the letters for each other and all, regardless of those who love and who hate and the rest

I think the painted letters are ever best!

Good for them. With so many silly rules like this in Charlottesville, I sometimes feel like going to West Virginia!

Not a fan of UVa frats, but this one should be commended for improving the appearance of their house. Those letters are cool.
The city is being anal-retentive , per usual. What if someone put up some elaborate board displaying their house numbers with artistic flair? Would they call that a "sign"that is illegal?
Btw, I have moved from the city, though not to West Va, in large part because of the bozos in City Hall and the way they are running things.

Red, Hearty Man, Arthur, Adolf, and Max might be onto something. Impressive that they were able to place these letters so high.

At least it covers up the stains!!

"White, the Stern of his era" Is that bizarre statement meant as praise?

Nichols and White have nothing on Bainbridge.

In all fairness, I haven't seen Stern's work.

Checking with the architectural review board to see what elements could be added to classify as a "mural" might be appropriate: several monkeys with the heads of Stanford White and other architectural figures? Mini-views of the Rotunda? Handprints of children? Including handprints of the current residents?

I'm Chuck.

Just leave it and add two white columns down the middle and a round roof on top and you'd have "Welcome to the Hotel Monticello"-Eagles song blaring from a sliding door.

I am in awe. A massive improvement.

Looks pretty good to me.

How about some comments from the University Architect, the Historical Planner and the rest of the staff that keeps UVA locked in the 1800's.

BTW, UVA didn't make it into the Forbes' TEN TOP American Colleges for 2012. Mrs. Dragas needs to get on that issue right away. How about a few more emails from Virginia Beach? Maybe a call to Scotty Forbes could fix this outrageous omission. I know he'd love to hear from all the email writing Darden alums.

Seems to me the building falls into the category of Mid-Century design. Sort of the blending of the old and the new. Check any house in town in the trendy neighborhoods where the lady of the house is named Muffy and you will find a mixture of antiques and modern pieces. It's all the rage you know.

The City of Charlottesville is the unwilling, being led incompetent to do the impossible. We really need to spend more time and precious tax resources on critical matters such as this. I think it's time for another City Council vote about 420. And I don't mean PM!

With the mere addition of a healthy and robust beer fountain, Frank Lloyd Wright would instantly recognized such architectural prowess as being similar to his own beloved Fallingwater with a new name of Fallingbeer.

Actually, the ARB and those other leeches of public funds should utter nothing as long as the eyesore yellow building at Barracks and Emmet is left standing. Did they measure the "ZBT" frat letters on the brick wall? It looks close to 12 square feet (including spacing between letters).

R.I.P.: Terry Kath

It sounds like a freedom of speech issue for John Whitehead. I pass it everyday and think it brightens up the neighborhood. Think of it as an art instillation instead of a sign. The frat house cleaned up their property as opposed to some of the nearby rundown houses. Go Bros!

Good thing the frat house cleaned up their property as opposed to some of the nearby rundown houses. We might be reading about charges of vandalism and trespassing instead.

I'm sure these guys just got to the point where they had to do something to discourage weary tourists from attempting to check in late at night. A small neon "NO VACANCY" sign should have been sufficient though and would have been small enough to conform to the ordinance.


What a marvelous First Amendment Free Speech issue. Go John Whitehead.

Maybe we could get Mittens to flip flop on this issue. He seems to have that skill down to a fine art.

Support Dogs Against Romney (Remember Shamus and the car roof ) and Kittens Against Mittens.

Purple and Gold???


Paint O&B and they go away!!

You can easily get mugged or verbally assaulted on the Mall and this an issue? Is in the frat area too,not like Prof Sabato is going be disturbed by BIG greek letters. As more than one has remarked...add white columns, maybe a cardboard copy of the ghastly new Pavillon parapet and call it "jefferson inspired".It won't look much worse than any other structure that UVa has built over the last 30 years..

ZBT's punishment for the letters must be more severe

Charlottesville city government bylaws are more important than the First Amendment of the United States! I mean, this is the home of Thomas Jefferson!! Hopefully the city pursues this case with the same vigor it did the case of the HIV infected, wheelchair-bound man that got run over in a crosswalk and the case of the city manager that didn't actually live in the city! You have to have standards and the city of Charlottesville is a champion of rational enforcement of the law!

Careful meanwhile, if the city pursues this with the same vigor it did the case of the city manager it could cost all of us taxpayers quite a bit of money in the end.

Someone is sure to suggest that the cash bonus for violating the law ought to be paid to each and every person living in the house rather than be shared among them. Next thing you know every frat on the street is going to be getting a big sign.

How much did extra Jones get paid for ignoring the law? I think I'll paint my house this afternoon.

Brilliant solution. Since your zoning violation depends on whom you are, this is the best way to settle it. Ignoring the well heeled citizen and suing the less connected or less moneyed citizen of the town when a violation occurs has gone on far too long in the city.

This is exactly the sort of thing I object to paying bureaucrats to do on 'my behalf'.

This is an improvement. Hello. Shut up. I may slap paint in all kinds of sign ways over my house in the coming days, just to hassle the bureaucrats. Seriously. I object to my tax dollars being spent on this kind of stupid harrassment. Seriously. No, really. Seriously.

City Hall: now say "thank you for the improvement". And then shut up. Seriously.

It's nice to see them fixing up that place finally. I think it looks great. Me and my girlfriend got busy in the bathroom at one party and the sink fell right out of the wall. Me and my boo boo was so embarassed! That house needed work - let them do it son!

I don't think those sinks are designed to hold the weight of the McCrary twins.

R.I.P.: Billy McCrary