Attorney: Historic district ‘wielded as a weapon’ against ATO house owner
Plus, repairs start for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Samara in West Lafayette. A new LSC school board member appointed. And Mitch Daniels’ ‘mom mower’ Mother’s Day wishes
It wasn’t familiar territory, designating a property as significantly historic against the owner’s will to save a structure from the wrecking ball, members of the West Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission admitted Monday afternoon.
“This is a new experience for us,” Aaron Thompson, president of this historic preservation commission, said.
That said, the commission voted 6-0 during an emergency meeting Monday evening for a recommendation that would put the former Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, built at 314 Russell St. in 1922, in a local historic district. The designation would prevent the owner from razing or significantly altering the exterior of the building without first getting city permission.
The proposal goes to the West Lafayette City Council, which is scheduled to meet in an emergency meeting of its own Thursday afternoon.
The moves come after PCM Properties, the owner of the former ATO house, applied in late April for a demolition permit. That, in turn, came months after the city rejected plans last fall that would have replaced the brick house with Russell Station, a $12 million to $15 million, four-story, 101-bed apartment project with first-floor retail space.
An attorney for PCM Properties asked the commission to take a pause on imposing a historic designation that he agreed was an extraordinary precedent for the city.
“It appears and certainly feels like the authority of this commission has been wielded as a weapon against property owners,” Ryan Munden, attorney for PCM Properties, said.
Munden said the timing of the move was interesting in a section of the city – often referred to as “the island,” which includes rows of Greek and cooperative houses just west of Purdue’s main academic campus – that had been going through extensive redevelopment, much of it led by the university.
“Russell Street looks nothing like it looked in the early-2000s,” Munden said. “Now it’s been heavily developed by Purdue. That development has consisted of tearing down old buildings. So, it feels like the commission is a day late and a dollar short by trying to preserve 314 Russell St.”
Munden also said PCM Properties was looking to demolish the former fraternity house — it’s been vacant since spring 2021 — after it was ransacked in October, shortly after the city council’s no vote on rezoning and redevelopment. That proposal that met strong opposition from ATO members, Purdue’s administration and historic preservationists. Munden said police didn’t catch who broke inside, tore doors off hinges, knocked holes in walls and spray painted messages. But he said the vandalism caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages and left the viability of renovations in question. Windows have been boarded up from the inside to keep people from getting in.
Munden also said PCM Properties had come to the city, willing to consider a planned development that would keep the architecture intact, but had been told the project was premature. He asked the commission to hold off Monday to give the owner time to work with the city development department on that concept.
The historic preservation commission already had gone to bat to save the ATO house once. In September 2021, as a vote approached for the 101-bed redevelopment project, the commission sent a letter to the city council, urging it to reject the plan. Among the historic preservation commission members’ pleas was this:
“Historic structures like this are of an esthetic quality, durability, manner of construction and design that will never be built again. The materials and craftsmanship used to create them are either largely unavailable or no longer financially viable. They are not replaceable and our community’s historic structures are a finite resource and a collective community asset. Simply, they are works of art that tell our community’s story, that can not be reproduced or replaced once gone. Our historic architecture is public art, in every sense of the meaning and a critical component to the cultural fabric of our community.”
The historic preservation commission urged the city council “to use the authority and mechanisms at your disposal to protect this historic property and encourage an appropriate and responsible adaptive reuse.”
Aaron Kowalski, an adviser to the historic preservation commission, said the house met the criteria for a local historic district:
With its Tudor Revival and Collegiate Gothic style, it is listed as “outstanding” on the National Register of Historic Places.
The architect, Robert Frost Daggett, was considered an important player in designing buildings on campus, including Jordan Hall at Butler University in Indianapolis and other buildings at Purdue, IU and DePauw. (“So, you would look at this building and say, gosh, this fits in in a college campus. Well, there's a reason for that,” Kowalski said.)
The ATO members who lived there included alums of note at Purdue, including the late U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, astronaut David Wolf and NFL quarterback Len Dawson.
And the style of architecture, as the letter from last fall suggested, is slowly being lost.
Colby Bartlett, a member of the historic preservation commission, said he hoped the city and the ATO house owner could work out a way to redevelop the property and still save the structure and encouraged the city council to consider making that part of its discussions.
That conversation happens Thursday.
IF YOU GO: The West Lafayette City Council will hold a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, May 12, at West Lafayette City Hall to consider a local historic district designation for 314 Russell St. Here’s a link to the council’s agenda.
This and that …
$1.6M IN REPAIRS START FOR FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT’S SAMARA: Movers will be at Samara next week, taking furniture from the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in West Lafayette into storage in the Samara Room in the West Lafayette Public Library, as long-awaited repairs begin on the house-slash-museum. The project will include $1.6 million in interior and exterior work to the home on Woodland Avenue, funded with a $500,000 Save America’s Treasures gran from the National Park Service, the John E. Christian Family Memorial Trust and private donations, according to Indiana Landmarks release.
“As might be expected with any 66-year-old home, Samara is ready for some structural restoration,” Marsh Davis, Indiana Landmarks president, said in a release.
Repairs will include fixing damage done by erosion and tree roots, restoration of the exterior Philippine mahogany woodwork and work on heating and air-conditioning systems.
Tours of Samara, typically done by appointment, will be canceled through 2022, when restoration is expected to be done.
Wright designed the home between 1951 and 1956, commissioned by John and Catherine Christian. Construction finished in 1956. The Christians famously adhered to Wright’s design touches and furniture selections, pulling from a file of the architect’s suggestions as they lived there. Catherine Christian died in 1986. John Christian died in 2016. Samara continues as a museum, now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
LSC APPOINTS SCHOOL BOARD MEMBER: Allison McKay, a former teacher now working for Purdue, will serve the remaining months of a four-year term on the Lafayette School Corp. board, filling a vacancy after Rebecca Sprague resigned in March to move to Virginia. The LSC board approved the move Monday during its months meeting. McKay will represent District 6, one of four board seats up for election in November. McKay was an English as a second language teacher at Speedway High School and Lafayette Jeff before joining Purdue’s Summer Start program. “I’m excited to lend a hand and learn what goes into this,” McKay said. School board candidates, who are listed as independents on the ballot, may file to run July 27 to noon Aug. 26. School boards are responsible for selecting new board members when there are vacancies.
DANIELS ON ‘MOM MOWERS:’ Purdue President Mitch Daniels, a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s op-ed pages, took Mother’s Day weekend as a chance to relay the view from a university administrator’s office of helicopter parents. In a piece headlined, “Hail to mothers, even those who can’t let go of their college-age kids,” Daniels offered this about “mothers who, let’s just say, carry things a little far” with complaints about accommodations or other aspects of their kids’ lives on campus: “But after years on the receiving end of such entreaties, I find that the term ‘helicopter parent’ no longer seems adequate to capture the closeness of the hovering. ‘Mom mowers’ might be more descriptive.” The column, let’s just say, is causing a stir. Have a read. And happy Mother’s Day, a few days late.
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