Preservation predicament: New Alliance hopes to help

Why is this house still at risk of demolished?

Both Charlottesville City Council and its Board of Architectural Review have denied the owner of the Moon-Henderson House on 10 1/2 Street permission to demolish. So why could it still fall to the wrecking ball?

There's a law in place that gives demolition-minded owners the right to destroy– but only after a year of trying to sell.

Meanwhile, a new preservation group is touting the Moon-Henderson House as a preservation success, even as the owner expresses interest in doing the one-year wait-and-then-demolish dance.

The location is certainly ripe for redevelopment. Located a stone's throw from UVA's historic Central Grounds, the former site of Under the Roof furniture at the intersection of West Main at 10 1/2 Street is already slated to be the home of a "green" condominium building by architect Bill Atwood.

And the current owner of the house, C-Ville Weekly chairman Bill Chapman, has a history of at least one profitable demolition in the area, having parlayed a humble $160,000 house purchased in 2002 along nearby 10th Street into a $2.1 million sale to UVA's real estate foundation last year. [CORRECTION: Following the publication of this story, Chapman called to say it was a store on 10th Street, not a house, that he purchased for $160,000 in 2002. He also says the $2.1 million sale to UVA's real estate foundation invloved seven parcels, including the one the store was on, which he had purchased under an LLC with other investors.]

Chapman says he wasn't surprised by City Council's recent refusal to let him tear down house #110, located directly behind Team Tires, given how much heat Council took for allowing the Beta House on Maury Avenue to be demolished.

"Why approve a demo in light of the Beta House," says Chapman, "and why make an unpopular decision when there's a process in place to let the market decide its fate?"

The Beta House, also known as the Compton House, was an Italianate residence long occupied by the Beta Omega Pi fraternity. After its purchase last year by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, the group announced– after winning the right from the City and County to issue $18 million in tax-free bonds– that it would demolish the structure.

Despite public outcry, the Foundation went ahead with the razing to make way for its new $21 million headquarters on the Maury Avenue site. Council members said they assumed the Foundation was going to preserve the building when they approved the bond issue, but they were wrong. 

Some preservationists called the demolition of a structure designed by famed local architect Eugene Bradbury "disgusting" and a "vandalism" abetted by the public treasury, and the City's own preservation planner, Mary Joy Scala, called the destruction "a lost opportunity to demonstrate that preservation is the cornerstone of sustainability."

The new preservation group, the Piedmont Area Preservation Alliance (PAPA), aims to forestall repeats of such events. It hopes to "sustain the cultural and ecological resources of Central Virginia, and thus to safeguard an element essential to the region's well-being," according to its mission statement.

"It's preservation in its broadest sense," says Eryn Brennan, president of one sponsoring organization, Preservation Piedmont.

Other groups supporting the new umbrella organization include the City of Charlottesville, Albemarle County, and the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, along with at least a half dozen others. 

The Alliance plans to meet twice a year to establish priorities, and most notably, to notify one another of endangered places requiring immediate political or private action to save. 

Indeed, Brennan cites "demolition without review" as one of the area's biggest problems in both the County and the City, but particularly in the county. Even in the City, which requires review of properties in designated historic areas, Brennan points out that 15 houses over 100 years old have been destroyed in the Fifeville neighborhood.

While Brennan says the Alliance won't act as an advocacy group, she says it will help to enable coordinated advocacy campaigns united around core principles.

The Beta House demolition prompted the City to add new properties to its Protected Properties list– the Beta House was not on that list, which made it vulnerable– and to give preservation planners more muscle. Earlier this year, 12 buildings were chosen from a list of 100 potentially historic properties, including the Coca Cola bottling plant on Preston Avenue and the Fry's Spring Service Station.  

Of course, the Moon-Henderson House (or any protected property) is still at risk of being demolished, given the process that Chapman hopes to use.

According to city code, he can put the property up for sale at fair market value, and if he can't find a buyer within 12 months, he has the right to demolish it, despite the wishes of the BAR and City Council. And since Chapman has already put the Moon-Henderson House on the market, listing it for last year's City assessment of $162,600 (he bought it for $115,ooo in 2005), the clock is already ticking. 

Brennan says she understood the predicament Chapman faced, not thinking a historic restoration was economically feasible, but says she still thinks the property could be developed in a way that preserves the building.

"There are a lot of possibilities here," she says, suggesting an appropriate addition that could create valuable office and retail space. "The idea," she says, "is not to freeze historic structures in time, but to bring the property into the present while preserving the past." 

But Chapman insists that isn't possible. "I was hoping to renovate 10 1/2 Street into office and retail," he says, "but the cost estimate was over $300,000. Hard to make that work for a 1,400-square-foot building.

"And there's no room for an addition due to the small lot size and required setbacks," he continues, "hence the one-year sale period now under way."

While Brennan hopes the new Alliance will help owners generate creative ideas while providing strong advocacy for preserving properties like the Moon-Henderson House, until business-minded developers like Chapman can be convinced otherwise, it appears their fate will ultimately be decided by the market.


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If the people in this region wishes to preserve the house, they can donate money specifically for that purpose into the existing account the city has set up for citizen contributions. Then the house can be bought and moved to another site, perhaps having Habitat for Humanity renovate it. If there's a will, there's a way.

Is this house of any actual historical significance?

Why keep an assessment low for a year, tear it down now and replace it with tax base.

Time for Cville to abandon Enron accounting practices. If I give you a dollar and you give me a dollar, we each made a dollar, right?

This are too many busybodies in this city who abuse individual property rights, and the word "historic," at every opportunity.

Maybe this is just incomplete reporting, but there's nothing mentioned in this story about what makes the "Moon-Henderson" house special. It looks like just another ugly old house. Why in the hell can't the man who owns it tear it down and build something nicer?

I love the name of the "preservation group"- very telling of its founders. "MAMA" would have been even more apt, but PAPA still conveys the proper image of meddling and bossiness.

When people other than the owner are in control of your property, it's called "communism." How ironic in a city of Tibetophiles that symbolically and pointlessly protest China's interference with the autonomy of 3 million.
(By the way, why not protest China's interference with the autonomy of...I don't know...1.6 BILLION Chinese? Not hip enough for you? I guess China needs its own pink-robed, sandal-wearing, Bono-befriending monk to get Charlottesville on its side).

Actually Sparky is call fascism, because you own and pay for it yet the goverment controls it. In true communism, the government actually owns it.

The city is out of control with their preservation policies. Many of these properties are simply not historic, but old.

This is a case of someone who has bought a property on speculation, not an owner-occupant, so the property rights issues are overstated.

What developers want, probably including UVA, are clear parcels; not parcels with nebulus historical improvements. The first "developer" of a property is the one who gets the demolition done and increases it value to those who don't want to, or politically can't, deal with the demolition. Until a line is drawn by the the City or the buyers (UVA or student housing developers), vernacular architecture is theatened as a species. Perhaps all of it cannot be saved, but some lines must be drawn. We love our collective grandparents, why can't we love their homes as well? What was the status of Barack Obama's childhood home a year ago?

Well said G Man!! It is disheartening that so many people think that new is always better. It is even more disheartening when nothing has been proposed for the site other than the desire to clear the site. In many cases, people who advocate preservation have the vision of what the existing structure can look like and how it can contribute to the community. It appears to me the owner has shown neither vision for utilizing the current house or showing anyone his vision of the site once the house is gone. I see a diamond in the rough and hope that the current owner will reconsider his plans and restore it.

True, this was a speculation purchase. Moneybags Chapman didn't have to buy a historic house, nobody held a gun to his head. If you want to be a big-boy developer then you have to be willing to lose a few now and then. But he's well aware that it probably won't sell in this market and he'll be able to demo it.

If the city listened to all the whack-job libertarians (and developers) like the commenters above, there wouldn't be a scrap of cool vernacular architecture left in this town. Hey, we're not going to let you destroy the ENTIRE town, okay? Buy some empty land and build there. But leave the awesome buildings alone. They may not be part of your heritage, but I promise they are a part of someone else's.