The two remaining faculty houses, built between 1912 and 1920 when the University of Connecticut was still an agricultural college, face an uncertain future with proposed plans for South Campus development.
In early December, plans for a 200,000-square-foot dormitory were announced on the Council on Environmental Quality’s Environmental Monitor, and the university, the State Historic Preservation Office and Preservation Connecticut, which is a private, non-profit organization, met to discuss the plans, according to the CT Examiner.
An agreement made in 2017 between the three parties established that UConn would preserve and maintain two of the original nine faculty houses, part of a campus plan by landscape architect Charles Lowrie located at 3 and 4 Gilbert Road, unless they interfered with campus development. If plans were made, Preservation CT and the State Historic Preservation Office needed to be notified in a timely manner.
“The maintained houses will remain where they are presently located so long as they do not interfere with any proposed campus development,” said University Spokesperson Stephanie Reitz, citing the agreement.
Reitz said the university had made the two preservation parties aware of their ideas for this dorm back in September, and if they decided to move forward with an actual plan they would follow all steps in a timely, collaborative manner.
“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 said.
Christopher Wigren, Deputy Director for Preservation CT, said UConn had been “murmuring” about the nine faculty houses for years, but there hadn’t been a formal plan to demolish a large number of them until 2016, when two were saved as a compromise.
“We argued at the time that UConn’s central campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation for the university recognizes three areas of importance: The houses are part of the educational history of the school, the architecture itself and campus planning,” said Wigren.
Part of the faculty home’s history was housing fraternities and sororities, now located in Husky Village. Their poor condition contributed to their removal, because they hadn’t been serving a purpose to the school and were in serious disrepair.
“We argued in 2016 that to represent that whole segment of the campus, you needed at least two buildings. In the end, the university agreed to save two buildings instead of one,” said Wigren. “They said they were in poor repair, that they didn’t need them anymore. They had a vision of more intensive development in that area of campus, renovation costs to keep them would be too high, but we convinced them to continue representing the old faculty row.”
Preservation CT alleges that the two houses are still in visible states of disrepair and that UConn has not been fulfilling their end of the agreement. This puts the responsibility on UConn to reach out annually to give updates and show how they are maintaining and actively looking for ways to use the property. There was no part of the agreement with incentives or penalties related to monitoring the buildings’ states.
“They need to identify funding and a purpose for the house. Their argument for not meeting the goal of not only maintaining the houses but renovating them fully by Jan. 1 of this year is that they hadn’t figured out what to use them for,” said Jane Montanaro, executive director of Preservation CT.
Although the two faculty houses may go unnoticed to some of UConn’s bustling campus, Wigren and Montanaro both stress the importance of retaining the roots of the school not just for educational purposes, but also for culture and connectivity.
The buildings represent the remaining portion of Lowrie’s commissioned campus design: The small, wooden and informal architecture of the faculty area, laid out on curving roads, contrasted to the academic area, such as Wilbur Cross Hall, which is formal and laid out in squares using masonry architecture.
“This is an institution that has perpetuated the culture, the history and the knowledge of Connecticut and its heart. These buildings are a part of that, so it calls for some level of respect. The old saying, ‘You can’t know who you are until you know where you come from’ is very true,” said Wigren.
Montanaro said the past ties people to the present, and UConn’s history is no exception.
“If you’re a student at a university and you walk around campus, you feel so connected to the community there and to those that came before you. The university is so rich in tradition at all levels that having that physical reminder of how the university started, how it grew, how it adapted over time … that ties people together,” said Montanaro.
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