Beta House blues? Council blocks $21 million bond issue

Contrary to a front page headline in the Daily Progress yesterday that read, "Council Blocks Sale of Beta House" (they have since corrected the headline online, although Google did capture the original) Council did not block the sale of the property on which the Robert Compton House, a.k.a Beta House sits; the Jefferson Scholars Foundation bought the property in February for $3 million. Council did, however, block the Foundation's access to the $21 million in bond financing already approved by the County's Industrial Development Authority.

As this week's On Architecture column explains, preservationists are concerned that the Foundation plans to demolish the Compton House to make way for its new $21 million headquarters. According to UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone, Foundation president James Wright has known about these concerns for some time; indeed, Bluestone says he let Wright know of the importance of the house, designed by famed local architect Eugene Bradbury, shortly after he learned of the sale in February.

However, at last Monday's City Council meeting, Wright showed little concern for the building, saying, "We are not, as a foundation, in the business of historic preservation," according to an archived video of the meeting. Wright, who appears agitated by Council's decision to block the low-interest financing, said the Foundation had not yet decided what to do with the building, or even if preserving it would be a priority. Bob Moje of VMDO architects, who will be designing the new headquarters, also spoke, saying without an investigation into the "viability" of the house, it was too early to say if it should be saved.

"They said they didn't know what they were going to do," Mayor David Brown told the Hook. "And we said, well, come back when you do know."

Initially, Brown had thought there was little the city or county could do to stop the demolition of the Compton House, considering it's not been designated historic or located in an historic district. However, as the Mayor and his fellow councilors learned, because the property is located in the city, federal law requires that the city endorse the bond financing by the county before it can be approved.

"It's definitely a significant historic structure," says Brown. "And we want to know what they plan to do before we approve the bond issue."

9 comments

Don't tear it down. Where else can you find a place to do drugs, host a crazy party, hide from the law...

The house is of course in horrible shape but historical architectural should always be preserved and renovated when possible. All one has to do is travel to cities where the old buildings were destroyed for the same reason and then replaced with glass and metal industrial soul-less pieces of crap to realize how that behavior impacts the soul of a place. Go north on Rt 29 and tell me you like what you see.

The city is not obligated to float bonds for any private entity, whether for-profit or non-profit, nor is it obligated to issue interest-free bonds even if it decides to issue the bond. After all, somebody has to pay the service on the bonds and the city pays to have them brokered. The fact that it has issued bonds for other entities such as SNL (economic development) in the past and chooses not to do so in this instance is not actionable in court. If it were, then any business could get interest-free loans from the city.
The idea that any and every building has to be preserved in the city because of its age and the fact that the architect is known is ridiculous. Eventually, most buildings will get to be over 50 years old. To say that Charlottesville must be exactly the same 100 years from now will doom this town to certain death. If the city had thought this is a significant structure it would have placed it under the historic designation. Coming around after the fact of purchase is not fair. Let the Scholar program get a loan like everyone else and stop looking for a free handout form the city. That program is not of benefit to the tax payer and should not be supported by her.

The Mayor is a courageous man and should be applauded. He is also right, and justified in seeking a justification for tearing down the property ahead of giving approval to UVa's Jeff Scholars to simply do as they would with the property. The house is an architectural treasure and UVa should not be allowed to tear down any city property it buys just because it has an endless supply of donor $$ with which to build castles.

And Joe G - get a clue - it will cost big $$s to go any route other than the tax advantaged bond issue the City must approve.

Tear it down!

I second, tear it down. Its a nasty old party pad. The floor supports are bound to be rotted and eaten away by all the spilled beer and drunken termites with the munchies.

Mayor brown doesn't know who he's messing with.

If the bond is not approved, they could simply get the money elsewhere, like from a bank or donors.

Or they could sue the bejesus out of the city, for capriciously blocking based on mayor Brown's opinion that the property is of historical significance.

Mayor Brown is exposing the taxpayer to a huge liability. Personally, I think he is already getting too expensive. Time for the entire artsy fartsy city council to be replaced with people who repect the tax base, and fundamentals like adequate funding for police, fire, schools, and Emergency Medical Services.

It's on too valuable a piece of property to be a frat house again, and it's not one of Bradbury's better works. I'd feel differently if it was still privately owned by a doctor and (presumably) maintained, but nobody's going to restore it, and if it was converted to office use any interior charm it had would be destroyed. Sorry guys, this one's not worth saving. Tear it down!

Tear it down! Build the YMCA at Mcintire!