Photo Caption: Building 26 at The Ridges.
An Ohio University official made emphatically clear last week that OU has never held out any hope to local preservationists that the university might reverse its decision to demolish a former tuberculosis ward on its Ridges property.
He also said, however, that despite what some people in the OU/Athens community may believe, no other Ridges building is currently slated for destruction, and OU welcomes input from community members and preservationists about the future of other buildings on the site.
"I am sure there are misconceptions out there," said Harry Wyatt, OU's vice president for facilities, during a telephonic news conference Thursday. He noted that he has seen a "Save the Ridges" petition that includes a photo of the Kennedy Museum of Art – an important OU facility that he said is in absolutely no danger of being knocked down.
Local preservationists, led by the Athens County Historical Society and Museum, have complained bitterly about the university's plans to raze Building 26, a nearly 90-year-old structure that was once a TB ward connected to a state mental hospital, and later served as a school for people with developmental disabilities.
OU announced late last year that it planned to demolish the unoccupied building, which it said is in bad shape, and is an "attractive nuisance" to trespassers and vandals, based on legends that it may be haunted. Separate from the rest of the Ridges campus, the old TB ward is located near where the road is gated, and people park to hike into the Ridges land lab and nature trail.
Originally the university planned to have the building destroyed before Halloween 2012; it later postponed that. Recently, OU announced that the demolition is now scheduled to take place next month – though in Thursday's news conference, Wyatt still would not give an exact date.
Leading the charge to save the building has been Ron Luce, director of the county Historical Society. Luce has voiced concerns that the university's "master plan" for its Athens campus seems to indicate that in the long term, it intends to demolish other buildings on the Ridges as well as Building 26.
On Feb. 7, Jennifer Kirksey, chief of staff for OU President Roderick McDavis, emailed Luce about his request to take a meeting with McDavis about possibly sparing Building 26. Kirksey pulled no punches in the message, telling Luce, "The decision has been made to remove the building and that process is under way."
She added, however, that "we will be reaching out to you as well as other members of key organizations at the appropriate stages when we begin our master planning for The Ridges."
Luce responded by asking Kirksey whether this means that OU is working on a new "master plan" for the Ridges, to replace the existing one that's posted on OU's website, and which, in Luce's opinion, calls for "removing a large number of buildings from the Ridges."
Wyatt said Thursday that he believes that some people have misread the existing master plan for the OU campus. He acknowledged that the plan does talk about "selective demolition" of Ridges buildings, but pointed out that any demolition of buildings would require funding, which isn't in ready supply at the moment. (The university has received $300,000 in state funding to pay for razing Building 26, but the job, according to Wyatt, will cost about $150,000 more than that.)
"It's a reference document," Wyatt said of the master plan. "By no means was it meant to be a capital plan."
Luce said last week that Kirksey's message to him seems to imply that "the university does plan to undertake (the writing of) a Ridges master plan sometime in the next year." But OU's communications with him so far, he suggested, leave very vague the issue of what status or authority such a plan, if it's ever completed, will actually have.
"(They say that) the master plan is not a capital plan, but a reference document," he said. "So it's not a master plan, really."
Wyatt confirmed Thursday that OU officials "have committed internally to undertake a master-plan study of the Ridges."
Luce has said that the Historical Society has located two developers who have expressed an interest in buying or leasing Building 26, but that OU has essentially ignored them. Wyatt said Thursday that he is only aware of one of the developers, and that while the university looked into that man's interest in Building 26, he never actually submitted a formal proposal.
"There was no proposal made, no proposal reviewed," he said.
In addition to Luce, Historical Society Board President Tom O'Grady has also spoken out strongly against the demolition of Building 26. Board members of the Society who were contacted by The Athens NEWS generally expressed support for Luce's campaign to save the building, but also suggested that it's a lost cause.
"I would hate to see the building torn down," said board Vice President Marjorie Stone. "I think the whole Ridges and Lunatic Asylum grounds should be kept in toto. On the other hand, the university did get possession of it, and if they want to let it go down, after the preservationists have said their piece, I don't think there's any need to keep beating a dead horse."
Board Treasurer Ellsworth Holden, a former Athens City Council member, said he is relatively new to the board, and hasn't gotten much involved with the Building 26 issue.
He said, however, that he tends to agree with Stone that any further effort to save the old TB ward would be wasted. "I would probably go beyond that, (and say), there are things to be saved, but this is a world of economic realities, and tradeoffs… 'What can we afford to save?' might be a way to put it."
Board member Sara Green said she believes Luce has had broad support from his board in his campaign to save Building 26, as well as his earlier fight against the demolition of the BellaVino beer-and-wine shop on Stimson Avenue.
"In general, I would say that (board members) are backing Ron, and the preservation aspect of it," Green said.
Regarding the pending demolition of Building 26, Wyatt of OU said that one reason for the earlier postponement was the discovery that OU would need to deal not only with asbestos in the building, but also with lead paint. He said the contractor who knocks down the building will use an access road off the site, rather than the main road from the main part of the Ridges campus, to avoid taking the debris and toxic materials past sensitive sites such as the Konneker Research Center.
Other sources have indicated that the contractor, with various heavy equipment, will use the one-lane dirt road that enters the south, or back, side of the Ridges property.