ONARCHITECTURE- Too much, too late? Behind UVA's $2 million Blue Ridge demo

UVA will save the Lyman Mansion and eight other buildings on the old Blue Ridge Sanatorium site, but want to demo 23 others.

After a decade of what one of its own professors considers reckless neglect, UVA seems to have decided to show a little love for its property at the old Blue Ridge Sanatorium. As recently reported, the UVA Foundation (the development arm of the University) plans to spend $2 million demolishing 23 buildings on the 142-acre, 45-building site just off Route 20, supposedly to make room for a research park. But the Foundation has also promised to preserve nine of the buildings and "stabilize– mothball– them to ensure no further deterioration," according UVA spokesperson Carol Wood.

Buildings that will be saved, says Wood, include the Lyman Mansion, the Wright Pavilion, the Chapel, the Director's House, the three Bradbury houses, the Brick House, Apartment Building #2, and a barn and silo.

While critics of UVA's past treatment of the property– which they have called "demolition by neglect"– agree it's better late than never, they aren't sure wether to laugh or cry.

"Ten years ago, it would have cost $200 to repair the roof of the Lyman Mansion," says says UVA architectural historian Daniel Bluestone. "Now it will cost millions."

It appears that UVA was not eager to publicize its latest plans. In fact, news of the proposed demolitions first appeared on the Hook's news blog after a reporter found the application in a summary of County permit activity.

The planned demos were news to Bluestone, whose students conducted a comprehensive historic survey of the site five years ago and presented an adaptive reuse development proposal for the buildings to the UVA Foundation (faculty.virginia.edu/blueridgesanatorium/). Even more surprising, Kathleen Kilpatrick, director of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, says she knew UVA wanted to demo some buildings, but did not know they had already applied for a permit. When asked why she hadn't been informed, Kilpatrick politely defers, noting, "You'll have to ask the UVA Foundation that."

UVA Foundation president Tim Rose says they simply applied for the demo permit to keep the process moving, not knowing how long it would take to secure approval.

"We had already decided what buildings they wanted to save," says Rose. "We also knew that if a decision was made to keep additional buildings, we could do that regardless of whether we had received a permit to take them down."

According to Wood, the UVA Foundation "consulted closely" with Kilpatrick's office to determine which buildings to save and which to demo and that approval for the demos is expected "in about a month." UVA's list of doomed buildings, Kilpatrick explains, has triggered a state review. "We will comment when it's complete," says Kilpatrick. "I don't want to short-circuit that process."

According to Bluestone, the UVA Foundation could have saved itself a lot of trouble and money by taking his students' development proposal more seriously.

Does history make money? Bluestone thinks so.

"My argument is partly cultural in this case," he says, citing his concerns about preserving the history of the site, "but I also think it's economic. It's obscenely wasteful to tear down these buildings. They would make more money by adapting them. Developers all over the country have figured this one out."

The students' proposal recommended saving 14 structures, including the Lyman Mansion, all staff houses, the old boiler plant, the east wing of the infirmary, the chapel, and a "colored servants'" dormitory. The proposal was based in part on Albemarle County's Neighborhood Model, a planning scheme which calls for pedestrian-friendly development.

Philosophically, the 2002 proposal embraced the idea of "reviving and re-imagining" the historically rich site by taking advantage of the "narrow streets, human-scale buildings, and pedestrian-oriented center" already there. As the proposal noted, the historic fabric of the site already "corresponds directly to the core concepts of the Neighborhood Model."

At the time the students were surveying, the UVA Foundation, which took control of the property in 2000, was planning to locate the Thomas Jefferson Foundation headquarters on the site, including a new visitor's center for Monticello. However, when the TJ Foundation elected to build the center elsewhere, the adaptive reuse proposal was tabled, and the property was again left to crumble. In 2004, UVA unsuccessfully offered the Blue Ridge site to developers.

Bluestone doesn't mince words about why preservation efforts weren't undertaken years ago,

"Bungling. Incompetence," he says. "Not stabilizing them has promoted the original desire, which was to be rid of all the buildings."

Indeed, in 1988 UVA applied for a demo permit to take down all the buildings on the site, but the request was denied because of concerns about its historic significance. UVA hospital operated a few mental health and substance-abuse facilities, as well as a childcare center, on the site, but they were closed permanently in 1998. Since then, little effort has been made to "stabilize" or "preserve" the property. In fact, that's when some say the deterioration began to accelerate.

"The buildings were vandalized," says preservation activist Steven Meeks. "Paint began to peel, roofs started to leak, and the grass and weeds grew uncontrolled. The only thing anyone at UVA saw of any value were the boxwoods, as they were dug up and removed from the site, leaving big holes where they once graced the complex."

But according to Rose, the Foundation has been actively trying to preserve the site since 2001. He says that historic preservationists were called in, "continual repairs" were made to the Chapel, and asbestos was removed from the Lyman Mansion and Wright Hall.

"Stabilization of the buildings has been made more difficult by vandals and trespassers," says Rose.

The Foundation's concerns about trespassing are legendary. In 2004, Rose had 23 UVA students and their English professor arrested for trespassing. Justin Gifford, a graduate assistant who was teaching a course on detective fiction, had led his students to the site for inspiration. Charges were later dropped, and the University covered the students' court costs according to news stories at the time.

Several years ago, Meeks says, he toured the property with fellow preservationists and representatives of the UVA Foundation, and it wasn't the work of vandals that alarmed him.

"The conditions at that time were bad," he says. "Nothing was being done to stabilize the Lyman Mansion or mothball any other buildings. They should have been mothballed the day they were closed down. It has been a complete waste of usable buildings for the past ten years. As stewards of historic and useable buildings, the UVA Foundation gets a grade of F-minus."

TJ Foundation vice president Kat Imhoff says that "design concerns" over how a tourist attraction would fit into a business park, as well as "cold feet" about having to bus visitors up Route 53, nixed the decision to locate the visitor's center on the Blue Ridge site. Recently, construction of the new center began on the site of Monticello's old ticket office.

But Imhoff also cites UVA's dithering.

"UVA wasn't ready... they had no real vision for the site," she says. "I think they're still trying to decide what to do with it."

Indeed, as Wood has said, not only is there no timetable for the research park project, but nothing is being actively planned.

However, Rose says things are still on track. "The property was transferred to the Foundation by the University with the direction of creating a research park," he says, "and that has not changed." As for the "demolition by neglect" charge, Rose suggests that may be an exaggeration. "The most dramatic view of what appears to be a result of neglect is a deteriorated section of the Lyman Mansion," he says, "that was never considered as being historic or intended to be restored."

As far as Bluestone is concerned, it appears unlikely that the UVA Foundation will choose to do anything creative with the site. "This simply does not fit the UVA Foundation model of development," he says. "They are clueless and over their heads when they get beyond the Fontaine or North Fork model of a suburban office park." #