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.