The Board of Architectural Review grabbed headlines last month when it gave the okay to the destruction of three buildings on West Main Street, including the partial demolition of a warehouse used by famed photographer Rufus Holsinger.
But no one’s crying about a doomed building some consider far more attractive than an old warehouse. Miller Hall, originally built in 1868 and rebuilt after a fire in 1920, will become history when it crashes down later this month. Its anticipated demise has sparked little controversy– most complaints have been about a few trees tagged to come down in the major expansion of Alderman Library once Miller Hall is out of the way.
Unfortunately for Miller Hall, it’s historically significant, just not significant enough in the grand scheme of university buildings. Not even its notoriety as the site of one of UVA's worst fires and worst honor code violations was enough to spare it.
Originally a chemistry building, Miller Hall (named for legendary educator Samuel Miller) was built to withstand "failed chemistry experiments, i.e., an explosion,” says Mary Hughes, university landscape architect. Such a blast did occur– in 1917– and the building withstood the explosion as planned: the roof blew off, but the load-bearing walls remained standing.
A major scandal followed when it was discovered that the fire had been set in the middle of the night to cover up the theft of over two pounds of platinum, according to newspaper accounts provided by historian and author Coy Barefoot. Student S. Dabney Crenshaw IV of Richmond was arrested for grand larceny and malicious burning after some of the missing platinum was found in his room at the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house.
When Miller Hall was rebuilt in 1920, architect Eugene Bradbury added a second floor– but only one toilet. The building was the center of biology studies before it began housing the office of admissions in the ‘70s.
In a 1998 report prepared by architects assessing whether to renovate or tear down the old building, Miller Hall was damned with faint praise as “a background building.” Frederick Doveton Nichols, who spurred the 1970s restoration of the Rotunda, described Miller Hall as a “pleasant 20th-century version of Roman revival (Jeffersonian)– not a really fine building, but adequate, attractive and pleasant.”
Getting by on its good looks wasn’t enough to spare Miller Hall when Alderman’s Special Collections needed a new home.
“We’re not taking it down because we don’t think it’s significant,” says Hughes. “We’re taking it down because Special Collections couldn’t use the building.”
Those big load-bearing walls that can withstand explosions aren’t an advantage when it comes to renovation. The building didn’t meet code, and the state’s Department of Engineering and Buildings turned down UVA’s1993 request to renovate the building because of cost.
The fact that much of the new $19.3 million Mary and David Harrison Institute for American History, Literature and Culture, and the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library will be underground presented another obstacle. “We would have to dig under Miller Hall," says Hughes, "and its foundation already had some structural problems.”
Miller Hall was not without its supporters. Reportedly, Board of Visitors’ discussions on its fate were “lively,” and Hughes says UVA president John Casteen was one of the people most dismayed that Miller Hall could not be resuscitated– his office had been there when he was dean of admissions.
Beginning later this month, Miller Hall will be demolished with a crane, piece by piece, according to project manager Don Riggin. Its proximity to other buildings obviated an implosion, and those sturdy old walls probably would have resisted another explosion as well as they did in 1917. “It’ll be taken down with care,” assures Riggin.
Approval from Charlottesville’s BAR was not required for Miller Hall, but its destruction was scrutinized by other state agencies.
It was the April 16 meeting of the BAR that had tongues wagging. That's when a litany of emotional appeals from members of First Baptist Church swayed almost all the BAR members to overrule staff suggestions and let the church demolish most of the adjacent building it owns. Now housing a business called Priority Press, the simple brick structure was once owned by photographer Rufus W. Holsinger, whose glass plate negatives documented early 20th century Charlottesville life.
Priority Press manager Peggy Duncan isn’t worried about having to vacate the building anytime soon. A long lease means it’s “nothing we have to worry about in the immediate future,” she says.
As for the BAR’s decision to allow the demolition, Duncan says, “I think the Board of Architectural Review should be deciding on architectural merits rather than social values.”
UVA landscape architect Hughes echoes that concern: “Once you stray from applying the guidelines, it becomes hard to justify refusing future demolition requests.”
After the emotional pleas to tear down the Priority Press building and hints that the church might have to move if the request were denied, approval for the demolition of Peyton Pontiac and Merchant Tire farther up West Main was more low-key. Now that owner Coran Capshaw has permission to raze those buildings, project architect Jim Grigg admits that “We’re so early into it, we’re not even sure we’re going to demolish them.”
Grigg wasn’t surprised that the BAR granted approval to demolish the two buildings from the auto age on the 2.2-acre site. “I thought that question was settled in 1997 when the owners [Greg and Denise LaCour] asked permission to demolish.” When the BAR denied that proposal, an appeal to City Council garnered a thumbs-up just as Council approved demolition to build the Marriott Hotel, another West Main project.
“I was more surprised when the requested demolition permit was sent back to the BAR,” says Grigg.
Grigg says he may file a site plan in the next month or so, and if the whole property is redeveloped with parking and mixed use, the buildings will come down. However, “We may return to the notion that the value of what’s there is worth renovating.”
Assistant university architect Connie Warnock is very fond of the 20th century auto age architecture that the Peyton Pontiac showroom and Merchant Tire buildings exemplify. “It was the first pass at a style of modernism that didn’t take off in this country,” she says.
“Can’t you picture it as an art exhibit space or as a dance space?” she asks. “We’d love that more than a Toys R Us type building.”
And, Warnock points out, how many places can you drive into? Soon, it may be two fewer.