Medical marvel: Varsity Hall packs up to move

Moving can be hard, especially for a 145-year-old, 600-ton building. But that's just what UVA's Varsity Hall will soon do, to make room for a 115,000-square-foot addition to a building at the foot of the Lawn.

"That is our current plan," says UVA landscape architect Mary Hughes, adding that despite earlier announcements of a summer move, no date has been set.

Ed Lay, retired architecture professor and author of The Architecture of Jefferson Country, says he's relieved the building, constructed for $7,500 in 1858, will remain intact.

"It has a unique HVAC system in it," says Lay, "so I'm happy it's being saved."

Used first as an infirmary through the late 19th century– where that unique ventilation system helped prevent the spread of typhoid– by the turn of the century, Varsity Hall had become home to Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Since 1951, the brick building has housed UVA's branch of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Varsity Hall stands in the path of the planned expansion of Rouss Hall, one of the three Stanford White-designed structures at the foot of UVA's hallowed Lawn.

Initial plans called for the destruction of Varsity Hall, but UVA's Historic Preservation Master Plan– a survey of the university's 150 buildings pre-1965 structures– identified Varsity Hall as a keeper. The Board of Visitors voted in October 2003 to move the building, and it will land on the site of the soon-to-be-demolished 1950 Brugh House, at 204 15th Street, a logical location given its proximity to the medical center and Varsity Hall's medical history.

Now, it's just a matter of time before Varsity Hall hits the road. But, as one might imagine, moving the building is a bit more complicated than moving its contents.

For the job, UVA has tapped Expert House Movers, a decision that owner Jerry Matyiko attributes to the Maryland company's track record.

Matyiko is part of a family of structural movers– in fact, he was bidding against two of his brothers for the job. But he says, when it came down to it, "There's nobody who's moved this many buildings." He also cites his company's partnership with International Chimney, an engineering firm that specializes in moving structures, as a factor in his winning bid.

Among his "hundreds" of building moves, Matyiko cites four lighthouses, two theaters, and a monument from Arlington National Cemetery.

Moving a historic building like Varsity Hall comes with a special set of considerations, however.

For instance, says Matyiko, Varsity Hall's bricks aren't set in modern mortar– they're set in clay and lime, meaning his company will have to provide extra bracing for the building by wrapping it with more cables than usual so that when the structure is lifted on jacks and placed on a truck bed, the bricks won't crumble while traveling the mile between sites.

Then there's the issue of the turn-of-the-century windows, which actually extend behind the brick from top to bottom. In those places, the exterior brick wall, instead of being a foot thick, is only one brick thick, says Matyiko, providing another opportunity for cracking if everything isn't done perfectly.

Finally, there's a tower on one end of the building that has already separated from the primary structure.

In all, the move is fraught with potential problems.

UVA's Hughes knows this, acknowledging, "It's a last resort," she says.

So if it all falls apart?

"That would make it hard to get paid," chuckles Matyiko. And with a move like this one, getting paid means a hefty check.

Matyiko could not provide the exact price of the Varsity Hall move, but suggested a rough estimate of approximately $800 per ton. At 600 tons, that would put the Varsity Hall move at near $50,000. Not cheap, but still a far cry from what a building of that size and construction would cost new.

Though UVA didn't release the move date, Matyiko says he thinks it will be right around Christmas.

With a move this delicate, he'll have to look out for flying reindeer...

Moving a historic building like Varsity Hall is fraught with potential troubles.