Citing concerns about the fate of a historic house near the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville City Council has deferred approval of bond package to help the
Jefferson Scholars Foundation
build their new headquarters on the same property.
The 94-year old structure was originally the home of a doctor who worked at the University of Virginia, before being sold to the local chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. After that group lost its charter, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation purchased the site in February of this year, and have so far not said whether or not they will need to destroy the building to accommodate their plans.
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Council already approved the revenue bond once, at its meeting on June 18, 2007, but had to consider it again because the amount requested has risen from $18 million to $21 million. Technically, the Albemarle County Industrial Development Authority will issue the bonds, but the City Council has to approve the action because the property is located within the City. The Board of Supervisors approved the item last week.
Three members of the group
spoke during the Council’s public comment period.
Anita Anderson of Earlysville said destroying the house would hurt the historical fabric of the community, and that demolition of the house would be an ironic action. “This house is actually a beautiful example of classical architecture, and it’s totally an heir of Jefferson’s idea of architecture,” she said.
Aaron Wunsch, an adjunct professor with the U.Va. School of Architecture, urged Council to support preservation of the house.
“This fine Spanish revival house is the work of an important early 20th century architect, Eugene Bradbury. It has seen a hard life as a fraternity house, but it is solid in construction and eminently reusable.”
Wunsch listed a number of other former homes that have been saved from the wrecking ball, and added that the City’s Comprehensive Plan specifically calls for historic preservation.
Daniel Bluestone, another U.Va. professor of architecture, held up a map of the site, and said that the Jefferson Scholars Foundation could keep the building, and still build the 23,000 square feet headquarters that they have proposed.
“If they don’t have the intestinal fortitude to [preserve the building], let them give the building to someone who will take care of it,” he said.
The City’s authorization of the bond issue was originally placed on the consent agenda, meaning that it would have been voted on with about a dozen other items. Councilor
asked for it to be pulled do Council could ask questions of the president of the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, Jimmy Wright.
Wright said the increase is because the size of the planned facility has increased, and to cover costs to make the building “environmentally-friendly.”
“We are still in the process of trying to determine the exact size and scope of the facility,” he said. “We have not decided, contrary to what some folks said earlier tonight, to do anything with the existing facility. We’re still examining that.” He did say that the site is not located within any existing historic preservation area. He says the decision on what to with the Bradbury-Compton house would be up to VMDO, the architectural firm hired to perform the design work.
asked what power the Council actually had to place conditions on the revenue bonds. City Attorney Craig Brown said he would do more research, seeing as the City will not providing the financing. “It’s a different situation where we’re consenting to it, as opposed to actually providing the bonds,” he said.
“What we’re trying to do is figure out is what kind of facility is going to be most attractive to allow [Jefferson Fellows] to do their research and their work,” Bob Moje of the firm VMDO said. He added that a decision on the house will be made after a full site plan for the property is designed. “And then we can compare it with what the value of that existing structure is to contribute or hinder that mission and that goal.”
asked Moje what priority his team was placing on adaptive reuse. He responded that he’s been in touch with the University architect as well as the descendants of Dr. Compton to get information on what the house looked like in its early days. Moje said the full site design can’t proceed until they can set their budget, something that will be delayed now that Council deferred action.
Councilor Norris asked if the Jefferson Scholars Foundation would oppose designating the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
Wright said that was not his decision to make, but that the fact that it was not so designated came up when the Foundation was evaluating whether or not to purchase the property. “The highest priority for us is to create a facility that will give us the best chance of carrying out our mission. We are not as a Foundation in the historic preservation business, per se. We are in the business of trying to create a world-class intellectual community… I can assure that whatever happens there, with the house or without the house, we’re going to need financing to do it.”
said he was not prepared to support the financing until the Foundation prepared a report outlining why or why not the house can be incorporated into the site plan. “It is a value for us to preserve historic structures, and I believe it’s also a value for the University of Virginia… You’re asking us to endorse this funding, and we’re asking for you for something – to do your best to preserve that building.”
Wright protested that no decision to demolish the building had been made, prompting Councilor Hamilton to explain what she saw as the City’s role.
“Generally when we are asked to make decisions about these types of things it comes in a very different form. We’re looking at site plans, and if people want to demolish buildings, then we have the opportunity to delve into their reasoning a little bit more. And so, I think what some of the Councilors are saying is that we’re going to have to justify to the community if you decide that you’re not able to save this building,” she said.
“I understand that there are some, I guess, very talented architects and architectural professors and other of you who must know far more than I do about what makes something historic as opposed to just being old . It seems to me that if this building were the gem that’s been described by numerous people, it would have been designated as such. It’s not,” he said.
Council then voted unanimously to defer approval of the financing until a future meeting.