ONARCHITECTURE- Belmont Hall: Beta House revisited in Preston fight

This month, Belmont Hall at 603 Dale Avenue was both condemned and recommend for special historic protection by the City.

In April, in the wake of a landmark demolition and after reviewing more than a hundred potentially historic and architecturally significant properties, the Charlottesville Board of Architectural Review recommended to City Council that 12 receive special protection from demolition and development. Now, it appears that one of those properties may be lost before City Council has had a chance to rubber stamp the list. 

The International Order of Good Templars building, a.k.a. Belmont Hall, located at 603 Dale Avenue (behind the Preston Avenue Shell Station near the railroad bridge), ranks number 7 on the list, which was whittled down to 10 by the Charlottesville Planning Commission on June 10. The large, four-chimney building has been boarded up for some time, but originally it was a fraternal meeting hall, most likely modeled on the Freemasons and committed to temperance or total abstinence from alcohol. 

According to UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone, the organization was founded in the 1850s and admitted men, women, and all races equally, but was torn apart after the Civil War by efforts to permit separate white and black lodges in the south. 

"The building dates from the last quarter of the 19th century," adds architectural historian Aaron Wunsch, who recommended the building for protection after noticing it last November. Wunsch was impressed by what he calls "the last architectural reminder that workers at the nearby silk mill had a social life beyond the factory."

Council's move would come on the heels of the loss of the Compton House (a.k.a Beta House), demolished December 27 by VMDO Architects and the Jefferson Scholars Foundation to make way for a new $21 million headquarters. Preservationists and several City Councilors decried the destruction of the former residence and frat house designed by Eugene Bradbury, and their dismay set in motion an effort to save other historic structures. 

Council is expected to approve the list sometime this summer, but the owner of 603 Dale Avenue, developer and builder Paul Beyer, has already applied for a demolition permit– and he appears ready to do battle with the City if he isn't allowed to take it down.

Technically, as the zoning now stands, Beyer has the right to demolish his building. However, as the City indicated after the Beta House fight, it wants to give these new designations teeth. Unlike past must-save lists, which were made with permission of the owner, the City has said it wants to enforce these designations in an effort to prevent another Beta House scenario.

For Beyer, that sounds like robbery.

"I have significant funds invested in the properties," says Beyer, who also wants to demo nearby 615 Dale Avenue. "An historic designation would strip them of much, if not all, of their value."

In a recent letter to the Planning Commission, Beyer points out that that area of Preston is zoned mixed use/industrial, which means he could build a multi-story building on the site. Historic designation in that area of Preston, he says, could literally take millions out of the hands of developers.

"More importantly," he writes, "it would condemn a section of the city (that the City is trying to re-develop) to continued nuisances and substandard living conditions."

Beyer notes that his building was actually condemned by the City (and, indeed, City housing inspector Patricia Carrington says the house was deemed unsafe by the City on June 2 and boarded up) before it was recommended for special protection, and has become a magnet for vagrants. Beyer says the last time he visited the property, he saw a man– who apparently feared he was law enforcement– leaping from a second story window.

"It is a nightmare situation," says Beyer. "I'm told by the City Inspectors that the Police are called frequently to the site by the concerned neighbors who live next door. It is probably a nightmare situation for them, too."

Indeed, efforts to preserve older buildings, however noble in principle, can often lead to preserving an eye-sore. Developer Keith Woodard's properties on our own exalted Downtown Mall, the row of decrepit buildings on the corner of First and Main, have been boarded up for years, as efforts on Woodard's part to develop the properties have been thwarted, in large part, by city preservation efforts. 

As the city moves forward with these latest designations, it appears that Beyer isn't the only upset property owner. In a staff report to the Planning Commission, City preservation planner Mary Joy Scala says that a majority of the property owners on the list are "opposed to the designation."

In fact, one property owner who would seem to have everything to gain from a historic designation actually called it a "taking" of property rights. 

"Now, we have the freedom to judge for ourselves what's best for the club," Ed Gillaspie, president of the Fry's Springs Beach Club,  a not-for-profit club along Old Lynchburg Road that was originally built as a hotel resort in 1890, told the Hook in April. The designation changes that. "We'll have to give up our ability to control the property to a governmental entity," Gillaspie said. "That bothers me. I see that as a taking away of our rights." 

For preservationists, however, it's a way of saving our history as properties pass from owner to owner.

"What's needed is an automatic demolition review for buildings over a given age... perhaps 50 years," says Wunsch. "Until that happens, this story... and that of the Beta House... is bound to keep repeating itself."


1 comment

If the city is going to enforce an histioric designation status, essentially prohibiting progress, they need to back it up. Put their money where their mouth is, if you will. This can come to fruition by several methods, two that come to mind are either buying the property for themselves, the city of Charlottesville, or, potentially a better solution, one which other cities offer, is to offer serious grants/funding for the property owners to restore, refurbish, and renovate, rather than tear down. What people fail to recognize is that restoration is an extremely costly effort, with unpredictable results. Further, if the city/community has already let a building slip into decay, they've essentially lost all rights to a credible opinion. So if the city wants to come out looking like they actually care, they need to do more.