Photo Caption: Until this past year, the chain hanging from the right-hand pole was stretched across the Dairy Lane south entrance to the Ridges Land Lab, effectively blocking vehicle access. Nobody's saying why the chain has been removed.
Ohio University's Ridges property slides to the front of the local news queue every year or two. It's definitely been the case since last fall when Ohio University's plans to raze Building 26, the old TB ward/Beacon School/haunted school building, began stirring controversy.
I'm guessing that the Ridges will still be controversial in 100 years, when local antagonists will be scuffling over whether a spaceship landing pod should be built on the former site of Building 26. Or more likely, whether the Ridges still has a viable future as an oasis in the midst of the vast Midwest desert.
Yet, I have a deep personal understanding of why the former Athens Asylum campus and grounds generate such passion among local residents. If I had to list all the places in the world that are special to me, the Ridges would be in the top five.
I fell in love with the sprawling Athens Mental Health Center grounds in the mid '70s while attending OU. As they do now, many college kids and community members at that time were free to hike around the hundreds of acres to the south of the actual asylum campus. By that time, patients were no longer caring for the orchard directly to the south of the asylum campus, and especially at dusk, the neglected apple trees gave off a creepy Wizard of Oz vibe to impressionable (and often stoned) college students taking the orchard lane.
Similar to now, the logical destination for anyone walking on the Ridges – which as far as I know wasn't actually called the Ridges back then, at least not by college kids – was Radar Hill. The spot is located at the pinnacle of a ridge-top pasture, offering a breathtaking 360-degree view of Athens County. But back in the day, Radar Hill offered more than a view. A mysterious radar station occupied the small plateau atop the hill, and a few hundred yards down the hill, to the north, a defunct fire tower rose skyward.
Did college kids ever climb to the top of the tower? Since nothing was stopping us, of course we did. This evidently was before the golden era of liability, litigation and actuarial tables.
My group of friends developed a particular fondness for the Ridges property, taking dozens of hikes during our college years in Athens. Since returning to Athens in 1986, I've hiked on the Ridges many more times, and still head that way whenever I get a chance. Walking on the sprawling property, you never really have to take the same hike twice, since at 700-plus acres, it's nearly as big as New York City's Central Park (843 acres).
Not only did I introduce my approving wife to the Ridges, but my two daughters grew up hiking, exploring and picnicking on the Ridges, whether in the land lab, around the asylum buildings, or along the paths of the nature and cemetery trails.
It would be difficult for me to think of another physical spot with which I've got a greater emotional connection. But I'm not alone in this, which explains why so many locals take such a proprietary interest in what happens on the Ridges.
So as an honorary Friend of the Ridges, by virtue of years of fond attachment, I've got a few concerns, questions and observations:
Put the chain back up!
Why has the chain been taken down from the entrance gate off Dairy Lane near the new composting facility? A sign states: "Authorized vehicles only; violators towed" but there's nothing to stop anyone from driving into the Ridges Land Lab. One thing about the Ridges, nobody ever follows the rules. The strictures about "staying on the trails" and "no pets" are vigorously ignored by nearly everyone who visits the Ridges. My suggestion: Put the chain back up. A key aspect of this special place that makes it so special is the lack of vehicle traffic.
Also, if the OU science folks are so concerned about demolition traffic disturbing the land lab, as we reported on Monday, I sure hope they've demanded that OU stretch the chain back across that south access lane.
Yours truly did make an effort to get a simple answer to the question, "why did the chain get taken down?" earlier this week, but, alas, the university has an inability to answer a mind-numbingly simple question without going through a time-consuming bureaucratic game of keep-away. So, as far as I'm concerned, they refused to comment on this and other simple questions for this column.
Just as a test, maybe I'll call an administrative official and ask, "what street is the College Gate on?" just to see if they'll refer me to their public relations people.
One building out of many
The TB Ward: I can't deny I was surprised when OU's plans to demolish this old building became one of the bigger controversies of late 2012/early 2013. In 30 years attending college and editing a newspaper in Athens, until a year or two ago, I had never heard anyone talking about Building 26, either good or bad. It was just a depressing, abandoned building that you walked past when entering the old orchard and land lab from the northeast gate.
It just seems odd that such high value has been placed on a building that nobody except an occasional vandal or ghost-hunter paid a scrap of attention to for three or four decades.
Any time local preservationists start railing at OU about its Ridges management, they should step back and acknowledge that the university has saved and renovated much more of the old Athens Asylum campus and its buildings than anyone ever thought possible back in the late '80s. At that time, doomsayers (some of the same people as now) were confidently predicting that OU would tear the whole place down. The truth is that no other local entity would have had even a sliver of the resources that OU has managed to leverage in behalf of preserving, renovating and, most importantly, using the old Aslyum grounds.
I respect fealty to the value of historical architecture, but critics should at least discard their "OU the destroyer" chicken-little routine, and admit that the university's tenure as owner/manager of the former Athens Asylum campus and grounds could have been a lot worse, and likely would have been a lot worse without them. Critics don't help the cause by holding their breath and turning blue.
That %!*#! air conditioner
It's odd and somewhat perverse for the scientists at the Konneker Research Center, just to the east of Building 28, to complain about demolition traffic disturbing "old mice" used for their (admittedly) important research, when the massive HVAC apparatus next to the building has been the single biggest source of noise on the whole 750-acre Ridges property, and I'd guess, in all of Athens. During warm weather, one just has to take it on faith that birds are singing on the Ridges, since one certainly can't hear them.
It does appear that the old, loud-as-hell HVAC unit has been replaced by a double-barreled Carrier air-cooled liquid chiller (which its advertising boasts is super quiet). So maybe that problem has been solved, though with OU refusing to comment, we can't really be sure about that. For all we know, the one that's there now is the same one that made all the racket previously.