An empty lot sits atop Jefferson Hill near the corner of East Union Street and University Terrace. The chain-link fence surrounding the lot, which was decorated with caution and construction signs, was recently removed and the grass has since been mowed.

Anybody new to campus wouldn’t know the difference. Ohio University upperclassmen might only remember a hazy mental picture of the white building that once sat on the hill.

But to some residents or others familiar with campus, Brown House — a historic residential home that once housed the university’s economics department then later fell into disrepair — was integral to the fabric of College Green. 

The Ohio U Board of Trustees approved the demolition of the 90-year-old building in March 2019 as a part of their “Small House Planning Strategy,” a university study that examines residential-style houses on College Green and their future. University administrators cited issues with the condition of the structure — routinely deferred maintenance led to the building’s ultimate demise. 

Local historians and preservationists felt the sting, however, as many other university-owned historical buildings on and off campus have been wiped from recent memory due to demolitions.

Watch: The demolition of Brown House

A last minute effort to save Brown House:

In the eleventh hour before its demolition, Bret Adams, a Columbus attorney and Athens property developer, made an attempt to purchase Brown House from Ohio U.

Adams sent Shawna Bolin, assistant vice president for university planning and real estate, an email on July 8, 2019, saying he was interested in discussing a private purchase of Brown House.

Bolin responded on July 9:

After deliberate review and consideration of all options, Ohio University’s Board of Trustees approved the demolition of Brown House, and it is not available for private purchase. The university will be exploring options for public-private partnerships for the restoration and use of Pilcher House.”

But beyond further email correspondence, Ohio U denied a meeting with Adams, and Brown House was demolished.

“The house is gone. It’s a tragedy,” Adams said. “It could have been restored. It could have been saved.”

Steve Wood, the chief facilities officer for the Ohio U Office for Facilities Management and Safety, said the university’s unwillingness to sell had a lot to do with Brown House’s unsafe conditions, as well as the site’s proximity to the main part of College Green.

“The university was never interested in selling,” Wood said. “We were not interested in selling the house or the site.”

What was originally proposed as somewhere between a $275,000 and $400,000 demolition expense turned into an $815,000 one. 

Adams said, in his opinion, the cost was too high. He cited the pending demolition of East Elementary, a building within the Athens City School District. That project is set to cost around $410,000 in total, according to The Athens NEWS.

Wood said the demolition of both Brown House and the Edgehill Maintenance Building, as well as costs related to mold, design services and the restoration of the hillside all rolled into the more than $800,000 price tag. 

Beyond Adams’ inquiries, there was only one bid on the property.

Historic structures at Ohio U:

Named after Mildred Francis Brown — a former owner of the house and the daughter of an Athens pioneer who contracted three of the oldest buildings on campus — Brown House was built in 1928. 

Ohio U purchased the the four-floor structure in 1964 and it was most recently renovated in 1987. But it was demolished this past summer because of “significant deferred maintenance” and “significant mold issues,” according to the Small House Planning Strategy.

Nearly all of the buildings on the list of small houses are in need of maintenance, which has been routinely deferred. Maintenance is deferred when a structure’s necessary investments or repairs are postponed, sometimes in a cost-saving effort.

Additionally, eight of the other buildings on the strategy are listed as requiring “significant” maintenance. Some of these include 29 Park Place — which was once the home of past university presidents but is now vacant — and Bingham House, which was built in 1797 and is the oldest house in Athens.

Alongside accumulating deferred maintenance, Ohio U has also raised the ire of historic preservation advocates multiple times in the past decade.

In 2013, the university razed Building 26 at the Ridges, which was both a former tuberculosis ward and the old Beacon School Building. Like Brown House, Building 26 was more than 90 years old.

The President Street Academic Center (PSAC), formerly located next to Copeland Hall, was torn down in the winter of 2016. Leading up to that demolition, Ohio U was met by protest from the Historic Preservation Commission, the Athens City Council and Athens Mayor Steve Patterson.

Tom O’Grady, the director of development and outreach at the Southeast Ohio History Center, has lived in Athens for more than 40 years.

“We’re not talking about an old barn getting torn down,” O’Grady said. “We’re talking about houses and institutional buildings that have been part of our experience for every day that we are on this campus or in this town.”

He added that historic buildings like these don’t have a lot in the way of protections from demolition just because they are historic.

The National Register of Historic Places helps to document a historic landmark or building as well as protect it from federally funded projects that could impact it. The old tuberculosis ward, the PSAC and Brown House were all listed on the National Register of Historic Places — all three were demolished in the past six years.

Looking to the future:

“It’s time to start looking differently at our built environment,” O’Grady said.

Although Ohio U’s campus has seen a slew of demolitions in the past 10 years, he added that other communities he lived in also see the same types of changes.

“Growth in this day and age attracts a lot of cookie-cutter type development,” O’Grady said. “A lot of what we’ve inherited from the past was built for the ages. It was intended and expected to last.”

The demolition of old buildings and construction of new buildings has a lot to do with environmental concerns and sustainability, according to O’Grady.

“If it’s important to save bottles and cans and newspapers for the purposes of protecting the planet we live on, if that leads us to sustainability, then rehabilitating and repurposing old buildings — that’s sustainability on steroids,” he said.  

In terms of major decisions about historic structures, he said he would like to see more room at the bargaining table for historians and preservationists; he believes the first step should be to involve the community.

“I really want the best for this community,” he said. “I’m not looking to draw any lines in the sand. I know you can’t save everything, but I know we should be trying to. And if we can’t, we can’t. But I’m not 100% sure we’re trying.”

Wood said that there are no other buildings on the small house list that are scheduled to be demolished in the near future. 

The Board of Trustees will, however, seek out third-party interest in Pilcher House, one of the small houses located on Union Street. 

The use of the lot on Jeff Hill has yet to be determined.

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One Comment

  1. Steve Levine

    October 30, 2019 at 10:14 AM

    It’s absolutely idiotic to demolish that beautiful house. This wretched Shawna Bolin should burn in hell for such a decision.

    Reply

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