Auf Wiedersehen: UVA boots German House residents

Glenn Rife thought his fourth year in the UVA's German language dorm was a given until last month. That's when UVA informed the residents that fire code concerns mean that the Max Kade German House, the university's oldest language house, is closing indefinitely.

While this doesn't mean the end of German-language living– UVA's Housing Division vows to find replacement housing– what's been offered so far, Rife says, is "totally unsatisfactory."

The timing of the announcement has raised eyebrows among residents, who didn't find out they would be out of a home this fall until the parents of one resident wondered why they hadn't gotten a contract, says Rife.

Residents were then told that the lack of a second stairway in the 78-year-old house made it a danger for the students living there. Also, the building's fire alarm needs modification, and additional sprinklers need to be installed.

"The closing took everyone by surprise," says Benjamin Bennett in the German department. "The house has been inspected a number of times."

The issue of how residents were informed "leaves a negative impression in my mind that this the best option," says Rife.

"Essentially," says Mark Doherty, UVA's chief housing officer, "it was some late breaking information from the state fire marshal that necessitated major alterations if it was to continue as residential facility."

What's not clear is why the decision to evict comes so late in the school year. All university buildings are inspected on a regular basis, according to Ralph Allen, UVA's director of environmental health and safety, and he says of the upgrades, "None of it's really imperative."

Two environmental health and safety staff members who are deputized by the state fire marshal made the call that upgrades were in order. "I don't think anyone is making them shut down," says Allen. "We're recommending they do these things on the second floor, and they can't do them with students in there."

He notes that the recommendations are not violations because the building is grandfathered in under the fire code and "is perfectly legal." Violations are given a specific deadline for being fixed; recommendations usually have more leeway.

The issue was an architectural one: how to put on an additional stairway and make it work, according to Allen. Housing decided to move the residents elsewhere while a decision is being made about whether renovating the building is economically feasible.

"We're still trying to get a good design and estimate," says Doherty. At the moment, an official number is $200,000. "Part of our concern is if this magnitude of work needs to be done, what other work might need to be done?" he says.

"The problem with old residential buildings is they're not what you'd build if you were building for students today," says Allen. Fraternity houses pose the same sort of concern.

In January 2000, a fire in a dormitory at Seton Hall University in New Jersey killed three students. "After the fire at Seton Hall, we're quite concerned about protecting students," says Allen.

With the German House's prime location at 581 Brandon Avenue directly behind the UVA Medical Center, what are the odds it will fall prey to hospital expansion?

Unknown, says Doherty, explaining, "We need to look at the university's long-term needs for space. That's an inquiry that's ongoing at this moment."

UVA Health System spokeswoman Marguerite Beck says the German House won't suffer from hospital expansion plans. "It's not scheduled for demolition," she says.

"Our commitment is to continue with a German residential facility whether at that location or another," Doherty says.

The Housing Division offered two six-student suites at Gooch-Dillard, a modern Scott Stadium-area complex. That's what Rife calls "totally unsatisfactory to those of us accustomed to living in a house atmosphere."

Currently, German House residents dine together four times a week, speak German, and enjoy weekly German films. The Gooch-Dillard option allows access to a kitchen that would be shared with non-German speakers– with no provision for a dining space.

"We identified some spaces in Gooch-Dillard as sort of the best of a bad lot," says Doherty. "The timing of this news sort of limited options available."

"If we were all satisfied with the university's option, we'd jump on it," says Rife. Instead, he's looking at a house on Valley Road that can house eight people, a net loss of four spaces. And whether residents can afford off-campus housing is another matter.

Doherty says fate of the Max Kade German House will be decided by early this summer.

Max Kade was a German-born pharmaceutical magnate who made his fortune selling Pertussin. After World War II, he founded the Max Kade Foundation to promote better understanding between Germans and Americans. The foundation helped purchase the house on Brandon Avenue.

And while a German language residence will continue in some form or another, "It's sad because this might be the death knell of the German house that's been around since the early '70s," says Rife.