ON ARCHITECTURE- Born and razed: Preservationists won't forget Beta House

On December 27, this "memorial" was erected at an undisclosed location to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Compton, a.k.a Beta House demolition.

William Faulkner was describing the history of the American South when he wrote "The past is never dead. In fact, it's not even past."

But he could have just as easily been talking about preservationists. It's been over a year since the Compton, a.ka. Beta House on Maury Avenue was demolished by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation and VMDO Architects to make way for a new 25,000 square-foot, $21 million headquarters (more than $800 per square foot!). Preservationists, however, appear unwilling to forget.

On December 27, the one year anniversary of the demolition, a group of local preservationists created a "memorial column" made out of salvaged terra cotta roof tiles from the house, which was displayed in the backyard of an individual who wishes to remain anonymous.

As you may recall, the terra cotta roof tiles were a distinctive feature of the Beta House, which was built in 1913 as a private residence by famed local architect Eugene Bradbury, who also designed St. Paul's Church, the Kearney Mansion atop Lewis Mountain, the building now housing UVA's women's center, and the Bank of America building on the Downtown Mall, to name a few. Despite the original intent, the house had housed a fraternity for its last 50 years. 

"The important thing about the tiles, other than their beauty, is that they were not original to the house," says UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone. Not original?

"The Beta fraternity replaced the roof at a cost in excess of $50,000 in the 1990s," explains Bluestone, "going back to the original Ludovici tile manufacturer for the tiles."

The discovery of such an architectural gesture would seem to partially vindicate the frat boys, who were blamed by the Jefferson Scholars Foundation for running the house into the ground. During a public hearing on the project in September 2007, Foundation president James Wright said that preservation might not be an option because the Beta House frat brothers had been so hard on the structure. And project architect Bob Moje of VMDO Architects said the building could not be preserved because it had been "decimated by 50 years of fraternity use." 

In fact, it looks like the boys might have tried to preserve it. 

"The easiest thing in the world would have been to throw an asphalt roof on the building," says Bluestone, "but they did the right and sustainable thing instead." 

Of course, Moje explained that it was the interior that the boys had abused. He described stair treads completely worn away, rooms haphazardly reconfigured, and an electrical and plumbing system completely unworkable. "You wouldn't be restoring the house, you'd be recreating it," Moje said.

Still, City Council joined preservationists in condemning the demolition. The Foundation secured $18 million in bond financing for the project from the Albemarle County Industrial Development Authority, but because the property was located in the City it had to be approved by City Council.

Later, after preservationists began to protest, the Foundation came before Council seeking an additional $3 million in bond financing, but Council denied the request. At the time, Councilor David Brown said that Councilors wanted to know what their plans for the building were.

"But they never came back to us," Brown said. Indeed, after being denied, the Foundation chose to seek additional funding elsewhere. 

At the time of the original bond request, Brown suggested that the Foundation had misled City Council, pointing out that there was no mention of a possible demolition. Brown told the Hook in January 2008 that Council members believed that a foundation bearing Jefferson's name and associated with UVA would surely be dedicated to historic preservation. "Who would have thought it was their intent to tear it down?" he asked. 

During a January 7, 2008 City Council meeting, Brown said, "I deeply regret we didn't take a closer look."

The controversial demolition prompted two major preservation initiatives, what preservation planner Mary Joy Scala has called "historic preservation lite" and "architectural design control district lite." The first initiative identified over 100 previously unprotected city properties for possible special protection, then slowly pared it down to 12. The second initiative, which was recently approved by the Planning Commission and will go before City Council for approval next month, will allow neighborhoods to create special "conservation districts" to protect nearby properties from demolition. 

Last June, during a Planning Commission site plan review of the Foundation's new building, Commissioner Genevieve Keller proposed a more formal memorial for the Compton House, asking Moje if space could be made to "commemorate and institutionalize the history of the Compton house.' 

Moje responded by saying the house had been "severely compromised by its benign neglect over the years," and added that it had high levels of lead contamination. However, Keller then pointed out that she was not trying to discuss the demolition, but simply wanted to know if there was a way to incorporate a commemoration. Moje said they had been discussing the idea, but made no promises. 

At the end of the meeting, Keller again strongly suggested that the house be honored in some way in coordination with the City's Historic Resource Commission. 

However, city preservation planner Mary Joy Scala said she had not heard anything more from VMDO or the Foundation about plans for a commemoration of the Compton House. 

 Recently, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation announced it would be awarding fewer of its prestigious grants to incoming students, the result of a $50 million hit its $245 million endowment took during the fall due to the market crash. But that doesn't seem to have stalled plans for the new headquarters. Construction began in the fall, and the new LEED-certified facility is expected to be completed in January 2010. In fact, you can watch the construction on builder Martin Horn Inc.'s webcam at www.bricams.net/martinhorn/JeffScholars.

But, of course, for preservationists, the past is never past.

"I would love," former Preservation Piedmont president Aaron Wunsch recently lamented, "to see the calculation of savings if they'd kept that building."