MANSFIELD — A loophole in a 40-page agreement may allow the University of Connecticut to demolish one of the last architectural links to the college’s beginnings as the first state-supported agricultural school in the United States.
The agreement, which was signed in 2017 after a lengthy fight that drew support from preservationists across the state, committed the university to maintaining two of nine faculty houses dating to between 1912 and 1920 that were part of a campus plan by noted landscape architect Charles Lowrie.
“We came to the table and signed it in good faith that it was an agreement. It makes me wonder when you sign an agreement — if this doesn’t hold up, then what holds up?” said Jane Montanaro, executive director of the state-charted nonprofit Preservation Connecticut.
Although school officials say they have made no definite decision to demolish either of the houses, plans for a 200,000-square foot dormitory and dining hall were announced on Dec. 7 on the Council on Environmental Quality’s Environmental Monitor.
On Dec. 8 university officials met with Preservation Connecticut and the State Historic Preservation Office, both signatories of the agreement, to discuss plans for the site.
“At that meeting, we were notified about the project and that they were looking to move forward on it this month in January, and that there were already plans developed, so we have concerns about the speed at which this is moving,” said Jonathan Kinney, a staff member at the State Historic Preservation Office, in a phone call with CT Examiner.
Stephanie Reitz, a spokesperson for the university, told CT Examiner that the university has not proposed to demolish or relocate the house at 4 Gilbert Road, which stands in the way of the planned development.
“UConn proactively notified SHPO and the Trust in fall 2021 that the University was re-visiting an earlier concept for potential development of a residence hall on South Campus,” Reitz explained in an email to CT Examiner. “UConn reached out to the agencies in the spirit of partnership, even though that vision is in early design stages. UConn has not determined whether to move forward with the proposed development and if so, what impact – if any – it might have on other South Campus properties.”
Reitz pointed to language in the agreement that appears to allow the university to void the agreement and move or demolish the buildings.
“The Maintained Houses will remain where they are presently located so long as they do not interfere with any proposed campus development,” said Reitz.
A question of maintenance
Montanaro said that the university had not followed through on a number of its obligations under the 2017 agreement, including maintaining the buildings and implementing a plan to reuse the structures by Jan. 1, 2022.
“From our perspective, it does seem like they haven’t maintained what was set out in the agreement. We were supposed to have regular meetings with them that we haven’t had. We didn’t hear anything about any plans for the building that they were supposed to be looking into,” she said.
As part of the 2017 agreement, the university pledged to maintain the two remaining faculty houses and to stabilize them promptly to prevent further deterioration.
Reitz said the university has followed the terms of the agreement and had maintained the houses at 3 and 4 Gilbert Road.
In a phone call with CT Examiner, Reitz said that she learned from a university spokesperson that when the university signed the agreement, the structures had been last used as fraternity houses and were in rough shape.
“The spokesperson said the university has not upgraded the buildings because the university had not decided on potential uses for the buildings,” Reitz said.
In a Dec. 16 email to James Libby, an architect for the university, Margaret McCutcheon Faber, a member of the state’s Historic Preservation Council, said that the university did not uphold its end of the agreement.
“Neither house has been restored or adaptively re-used. In fact, both have been allowed to deteriorate into an unfortunate state of disrepair, which gives the appearance of a deliberate strategy of ‘demolition by neglect,’” wrote Faber.
In 2015, Faber organized a petition that drew more than 600 signatures to oppose the destruction of the original nine faculty houses, an effort that led directly to the 2017 agreement. Faber now has a new petition with more than 300 signatures to save the last two buildings.
Because the houses are on the National Register, they are subject to possible protection from “unreasonable destruction” under Connecticut’s Environmental Protection Act, known as CEPA.
Losing half of Lowrie’s plan
Christopher Wigren, deputy director of Preservation CT, explained that the faculty houses represented a naturalistic domestic scale of architecture that set off the more formal layout of monumental educational buildings in Lowrie’s 1910 plan for the campus.
“The importance of faculty row [and] of these two buildings is that they’re the remnants of that section of the plan, so in essence, they kind of represent half the plan,” said Wigren. “You need more than one [house] to kind of create that image, so that was the argument we made in 2016 under which UConn agreed to preserve two of the buildings because then you get the sense of a section, a plan, an area, rather than just a single building.”
Kinney emphasized in a Dec. 15 letter to Libby that the remaining houses were saved for a reason.
“Together, these buildings preserved and expressed the historic character of the buildings that were lost. Specifically, the two remaining buildings are situated across the street from each other, are sited with large setbacks, are of similar architectural style, and together they frame a view towards Mirror Lake; all character defining features of Faculty Row and the larger district as a whole,” Kinney said. “As a result, a visitor can stand between these buildings and understand the historic landscape and its intended design of a human scale institution.”
At a Jan 5 meeting of the Historic Preservation Council, state architectural historian Todd Levine, said the state agreement with the university was not airtight.
“The document that we currently have — even though it was prepared by legal counsel on both sides and approved by legal counsel on both sides — has some holes, apparently,” he said. “I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know exactly how those holes were allowed to go through, but there’s some problems with the language, so what my plan would be is to do a new document with airtight language that makes it a requirement to do what they said they already were going to do.”
But Kinney, in conversation with CT Examiner on Jan. 6, said the current agreement was binding, even with language that allows for negotiation.
“My understanding is that it absolutely is a binding agreement. This was drafted by attorneys back in 2017 and executed by all parties involved, laying out the terms of the agreement,” he said. “There’s a clause in there that kind of allows you to come back to the table and negotiate a way to move forward with potential additional demolition or relocation if it somehow is interfering with the needs of the university, but it requires that you can conduct timely consultation with SHPO and it’s our position right now that that was not accomplished.”
Kinney said that because the university did not fulfill a number of obligations in the agreement, it was a matter of figuring out the next steps.
“We want to make sure that we give these buildings a fair opportunity. And we want to make sure that the terms of the agreement are being honored,” said Kinney.