Demolition permit filed for ATO frat house. WL goes into emergency mode to save it
With plan to rebuild near Purdue rejected, owner of century-old Alpha Tau Omega house looks to raze it anyway. West Lafayette goes considers imposing a historic designation to save it
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West Lafayette will go into emergency mode to save a 1920s-era fraternity house near Purdue, after the owner filed for a demolition permit, months after a rezoning and redevelopment plan was rejected by the city.
The West Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission will hold a special meeting Monday evening to consider whether to impose historic status on the former Alpha Tau Omega house at 314 Russell St., in a move to preserve the brick house built in a Collegiate Gothic style.
The West Lafayette City Council is scheduled to follow that with a special meeting of its own Thursday to consider designating a new local historic district for the lot and the house at the corner of Russell and Fourth streets. According to notes on the agenda, council members likely will be asked to vote twice on the matter Thursday, giving it initial and final approval in one meeting, rather than the standard two.
The city’s redevelopment commission filed for the local historic district Thursday, after PCM Properties, the Middleton owner, filed April 14 for a demolition permit.
What PCM Properties plans to do with the property wasn’t clear. The demolition permit puts the work at $125,000. Mike Cates, PCM Properties’ owner who bought the ATO house two decades ago, did not immediately respond to a message for comment.
In October, the West Lafayette City Council voted down a planned development rezoning request that would have cleared the way for PCM to build Russell Station, a four-story, 101-bed apartment project with first-floor retail space. The project was expected to cost $12 million to $15 million, with a projected opening date of fall 2023.
The proposal came with opposition from Purdue’s top attorney who contended that the university’s plans for that corridor through campus envisioned the former ATO house remaining as it was, either as a fraternity or sorority or another student housing option. It also came with protest from ATO fraternity brothers and members of the Greek community, who claimed PCM systematically had pushed out the ATO chapter through escalating rents and deferred maintenance on the century-old house.
As of Friday, the house was empty, the ATO sign was chiseled off a brick sign near the entrance and assorted windows had been boarded from the inside.
“We already fought this battle once,” Peter Bunder, West Lafayette City Council president and an appointee to the historic preservation commission, said. “All the students said they didn’t want to see this. Purdue said they were against this. We were against it. … This just seems to be the next step.”
The property already is on the National Register of Historic Places, which catalogues significant architecture and properties in communities but offers no formal protection from significant remodeling or demolition. The city’s local historic district status would give city bodies more control over what could and couldn’t be done to the structure.
The National Register of Historic Places listed the Alpha Tau Omega house in 2002, referring to it as “Maltese Manor” and saying it was a landmark and “a prime example of the craftsmanship and grandeur of the late-1800/early 1900 building trends on university campuses.” The National Register rated the ATO house as “outstanding, despite its replacement windows and addition.”
According to the National Register’s history, the Alpha Tau Omega Chapter House Association bought three lots at the corner of Fourth and Russell streets for $3,465 in 1912. The fraternity house, designed in a Collegiate Gothic style by Robert Frost Daggett, himself an ATO from Pennsylvania, cost $28,000 to build in 1920. Among the Purdue alumni who lived there: U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, NASA astronaut David Wolf and Purdue and NFL quarterback Len Dawson. The house was nearly lost in an arson fire on New Year’s Day 1995. But Alpha Tau Omega alumni raised money to restore it by 1996, according to the National Register.
The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity moved up Russell Street in 2020. An attorney for PCM told the Area Plan Commission and city council members that no one had lived in the house’s rooms since May 2021.
The redevelopment of the property seemed to be on track in 2021, going through consultations with city departments and Purdue housing officials, including a standard presentation before the Joint Board, a body of city and university representatives who review projects near campus. Dan Teder, a Lafayette attorney who represented PCM, said in public hearings that Purdue had come to the developers hoping to use the 101 beds in a master lease as soon as it was open, to help deal with crowded residence halls and rising enrollments.
Purdue brought that to a skidding halt when Steve Schultz, Purdue’s general counsel, surprised everyone by testifying to the Area Plan Commission. He allowed that PCM had gone through the various checkpoints with the city and Purdue. But he said that after a deeper review, Purdue officials believed the Russell Station project was, “on a fundamental level, … inconsistent with Purdue’s campus master plan.”
The ATO house is surrounded by properties owned by Purdue or Purdue Research Foundation in a section of the city called “The Island.”
The university’s 50-year master plan, adopted by Purdue trustees in 2018, envisions tighter, walkable connections between the university’s main campus and the residence halls just west of the island’s blocks. Purdue already has committed $175 million in projects – the Honors College, Hagle Hall, the Bechtel Innovation Design Center and the Third Street conversion to a pedestrian mall – in the past five years. In 2021, Schultz told the APC that Purdue’s plan saw the Alpha Tau Omega house continuing as student housing, as a fraternity, sorority or other congregate setup.
Teder objected to Purdue suggesting it had that sort of control to say what people could do with their properties, simply because the university contemplated plans near campus. He suggested that high-level ATOs had the university’s ear. Teder told city council members in October that he predicted Purdue or PRF eventually would get rights to the property and tear down the fraternity house for its own development.
What a local historic district, one imposed by the city on a property it doesn’t own and without an owner’s blessing, would do in a situation like that wasn’t immediately clear.
This week’s meetings with the West Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission and city council should address some of that.
IF YOU GO:
The West Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission will hold a special meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, May 9, at West Lafayette City Hall, 222 N. Chauncey Ave., to consider making 314 Russell St. a local historic district. Here’s a link to the commission’s agenda and the proposal.
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 the designation for 314 Russell St. Here’s a link to the council’s agenda.
Thanks, again, to the ongoing support from Barash Law in Lafayette for helping make this edition of the Based in Lafayette reporting project possible.
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