Demolition of faculty row is legally on hold for now

The nine brown houses that make up the almost 100-year-old "Faculty Row" are planned to be demolished in favor of a new park.  (Amar Batra/The Daily Campus)  

A set schedule for the demolition of Faculty Row is on hold while the University of Connecticut works with the State Historic Preservation Office, university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said.

“We don’t have a specific timeline for when work would start on the houses,” Reitz said.

The nine brown houses that constitute “Faculty Row” are slated to be demolished in favor of a new park on the University of Connecticut’s Storrs campus, Reitz told the Daily Campus. Originally, it was intended to serve as the location of a new honors dorm, but the reduction in state aid to the University of Connecticut has resulted in a slowdown of student enrollment, eliminating the need for additional housing in the near future, Reitz said.

Part of UConn’s agreement with SHPO, known as a Memorandum of Understanding, requires the university to document the historic properties, update its current Historic Preservation and Adaptive Reuse Plan and serve as a venue for a symposium on historic preservation as part of the construction process. It is still unclear, however, whether UConn will need to fulfill these mitigation requirements before construction begins, Reitz said.

The houses, built between 1900 and 1920 when UConn was still the Connecticut School of Agriculture, are listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places. Connecticut’s Historic Preservation Council wasn’t made aware of the planned demolition, however, until a member happened to pass the construction site on campus, said Margaret Faber, a member of the HPC speaking in an individual capacity.

“No one was informed, we just found out about it by happenstance,” Faber said. “It was absolutely in perfect condition, there’s no reason to take those buildings down.”

A petition to “Save UCONN’s Faculty Row” has since received 650 signatures and 30 letters in support of preserving the historic homes, Faber said.

Normally, this might have been enough to present the case to Connecticut’s attorney general under the Connecticut Environmental Protection Act, said Todd Levine, historian and environmental reviewer for SHPO, according to verbatim transcripts from Aug. 3 HPC meeting. However, due to the “Doctrine of Sovereignty,” the state of Connecticut cannot be sued to secure preservation of a historical property under CEPA without its own consent, Levine said.

As a federally funded program at a state university, the demolition of Faculty Row also receives this legal immunity.

It was absolutely in perfect condition, there’s no reason to take those buildings down
— Margaret Faber

Levine was not available for comment in time for publication.

Even if the state of Connecticut did allow the suit to be brought forward, the citizen or organization serving as the plaintiff would be responsible for the legal expenses of both sides if they lost the case, said HPC Chairwoman Sarah Nelson, according to the Aug. 3 transcript. Nelson did not respond to request for comment in time for publication.

“The State of Connecticut cannot be sued, unless the State specifically allows a suit to be brought forward by the Claim Commissioner,” Nelson said according to the transcript. “That’s terribly, terribly important here. Those are the two most important pieces of information and why this is so different in this case from absolutely every other issue that the council has considered.”

Due to UConn’s Memorandum of Understanding with SHPO, the only way the demolition of Faculty Row could be prevented would be if the department was presented with new information about the case or if the university failed to meet its mitigation requirements, Levine said in the transcript.

Quentin Kessel, a professor of physics at UConn, said his parents lived in one of the houses on Faculty Row in 1936, shortly before he was born.

“Back in those days, there were only 500 students on campus and almost all faculty and administrators lived right along there,” Kessel said.

Kessel said he is worried that the influx in funding from the UConn 2000 initiative brought a “new breed of administrator” to UConn, endangering the university’s historical assets.

“I think the world of President Herbst, but the fact is she brings in her own administrators and lawyers and for whatever reason they’re eager to remove vestiges of another time,” Kessel said. “These are people who lack the knowledge of the history of the university, so they do not have any appreciation for the older buildings.”

Faber said she is also concerned by some of the relationships between UConn staff and the Department of Economic and Community Development, which oversees both SHPO and the HPC. Catherine Smith, commissioner of the DECD, also serves on UConn’s Board of Trustees, while HPC Chairwoman Nelson co-founded an architectural firm in 1996 with University Planner Laura Cruickshank, who negotiated the MOU on behalf of the university.

Normally, council members recuse themselves from issues that may result in a conflict of interest, Faber said, but this was not the case.

It would cost the university $9 million to renovate the Brown Houses, according to Cruickshank’s letter to the Hartford Courant, but Kessel said he believes it would be worth the cost.

“Even if they take them down, they have to go through and take out all the asbestos and lead,” Kessel said. “They’re going to spend a fair portion of that anyhow. It’s a total waste of buildings that add a little variety to the campus and are potentially still very useful. Until they’re torn down they could be saved.”


Kimberly Armstrong is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.