A Columbus attorney and Ohio University alum is questioning the university’s $711,000 project to demolish the 90-year-old Brown House on University Terrace, right next to College Green.
Bret Adams, a Columbus attorney and an Athens property developer, told The NEWS on Friday last week that he has offered to buy the house – located at 2 University Terrace – for far less than the demolition price to preserve it and renovate it, either as a residence or for another purpose that the university might be amenable to.
However, it doesn’t look like the university is going to budge on its current plans to demolish the building, which was built in 1928. The OU Board of Trustees in June approved demolition of the building, as well as an old maintenance building located on Jefferson Hill, at a cost of roughly $815,000.
University Planner Shawna Bolin said in response to Athens NEWS questions last Friday that the university already has begun the “abatement” part of the demolition process. Workers were busy Friday afternoon tearing out materials from the building, with a fence erected around the property.
Bolin said in her email that the total cost of the demolition project is actually about $711,000.
That dollar amount includes “abatement, demolition, site restoration, addition of lighting, and other miscellaneous contract costs,” Bolin said, as well as demolition of the dilapidated Edgehill Maintenance building located at the corner of East Union Street (on Jefferson Hill) and Edgehill Drive.
“Brown House is not a smaller house, at 7,800 (gross square feet),” Bolin continued. “It is important to note that while the building is not able to be renovated due to significant structural failure, had it been, a significant amount of the costs we are currently spending for demolition would need to be spent to remediate hazardous material.”
The university Trustees approved the demolition of the building after a multi-year evaluation process that OU conducted on all 15 “small houses” located on and around College Green. That evaluation – called the “Small House Planning Strategy” – called for Brown House’s demolition because it’s in “poor condition,” with foundation and load-bearing wall collapses and “water intrusion/envelope issues.” However, the evaluation did call for $1.5 million worth of investment in Trisolini House on East Union Street, and for the sale or lease of Pilcher House (also on East union Street) to an as-of-yet identified person, business or other entity.
Still, Adams said he’s concerned about the cost of tearing down the buildings, and in general about the removal of historic building on campus.
“…Beyond the historical concerns and the blight of having empty space on the College Green, is that economics should have the greatest impact here,” Adams said.
“It is fiscal university malpractice to spend $800,000 to demolition a building that a private developer could save,” he said. “Deed restrictions would ensure that the property does not become student rentals or any business that would conflict with university goals.”
Adams essentially said he’s asking the university to halt the demolition process until other alternatives can be considered.
According to OU’s website, the university purchased the building in 1964, and its first occupant was the home-economics department.
“Brown House is named in honor of Mildred Francis Brown, who, along with her husband Louis I. Brown was the former owner,” according to the entry. “She was reared in Athens, the daughter of William and Isabell F. Francis. Her grandfather, Thomas Francis, a pioneer of Athens, was the contractor for three of the oldest buildings on the Ohio University campus.”
TIM TRAXLER, A LOCAL HISTORIC preservation advocate and longtime construction contractor in Athens County, said the university should never have let the building get into the poor condition it’s in in the first place.
“If you owned a home… you would fix the roof, you would repair the foundation, you would put a new window in when it got broken… because these things have value,” he said.
Traxler has been critical of the university’s past decisions to demolish old buildings, including the Tuberculosis Ward/Beacon School building at The Ridges in 2013 and the President Street Academic Center in 2016. The demolition of Brown House, he maintained, is part of a larger pattern at the university of failing to keep up maintenance on historic buildings, leading to demolition of those buildings.
“Our efforts to save historic properties are about the city of Athens and the city of Athens,” he said. “We’re not trying to cause trouble; this isn’t about trying to cause somebody to lose their job. We just want people to do the right thing.”
Tom O’Grady, director of the Southeast Ohio History Center, said he’s received a number of concerned calls lately about the demolition of Brown House and the recent razing of the old “Dance Factory” building on Factory Street in Athens (which was authorized by the university to make way for a new OU Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine building).
“The town has lost more than a 100 houses and other large and small buildings over the past several decades,” O’Grady said. “That concerns people. They call hoping that we can save these historic structures. When we lose historic buildings, we lose a part of ourselves. As the community changes, people begin to lose their connection to it. It is difficult for many people to embrace the changes and the new structures that replace our disappearing heritage.”
Adams said Tuesday that he’s tried reaching out to OU Board of Trustees Chair David Scholl, but had not received a response as of Wednesday morning. In response to that query, he did receive an email Wednesday morning from OU General Counsel John Biancamano (which was forwarded to The NEWS by Adams).
“With respect to Brown House, officials from the city of Athens and the university deemed the structure too unsafe to remain on campus due to, among other things, structural failure in the foundation,” Biancamano wrote. “As such, the Board of Trustees approved the demolition of the facility. This decision was based, for the most part, on the fact that the structure is in such a bad condition that it presents a risk to the safety of our students and campus visitors.
“After removal of the structure, the location will be used for other public purposes consistent with the university’s mission and long-term plans,” he added.
Biancamano noted that the university has invested approximately $5.7 million on the “small houses” located on and around College Green in recent years.