Friday, August 20, 2004

Saving West House

Does it take a botanist to save a brick building? If it seems unlikely, that's because you don't know Jeffrey Beam. Jeffrey, who is also a talented poet and performer, is a botanical librarian whose long years at UNC have led him to appreciate and, too often, to fight for the campus' natural environment. His advocacy sparked the formation of the Chancellor's Task Force on Landscape Heritage and Plant Diversity.

Now he has focused his attention on West House, a gem of a historic structure on UNC's campus whose only fault is that it stands in the way of progress. It's smack in the construction zone for UNC's planned Arts Commons (as of this moment, there seems something missing* on that link, but if you go here and click on the second item, you'll get a PowerPoint presentation of what the plan looked like until recently, when the configuration was changed to preserve the whole length of "Porthole Alley"). If he is tilting at windmills, fortunately he has a lot of help. The West House Coalition is gaining numbers by the day. Our own Sen. Ellie Kinnaird is one who is helping to make the case. For what it's worth, I'm another.

West House was built in 1935 by a wealthy textile magnate for his son as a campus housing alternative. (Today I guess he would have just bought a condo.) Representing a mix of colonial and Greek Revival features, including a garden enclosed with a serpentine brick wall, the house has significant preservation value.

The National Trust, Preservation North Carolina, and Richard Jenrette (former chair of the UNC Board of Trustees, international preservationist, former owner of Hillsborough's Ayr Mount, and great friend to preservation at UNC), are all on record as being deeply disappointed in the university's willingness to sacrifice this building.

As a member of the Piedmont Board of Advisors for Preservation North Carolina and a UNC alum, I think they're right.

The garden was designed by Chapel Hill's own Bill Hunt, a noted local horticulturalist and fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society; it is his only landscape on the UNC campus.

The architect, M.E. Boyer, Jr., was a prominent Charlotte architect; his granddaughter, Mary Louise Brown, is writing his biography. Some of his houses are on the National Register. He was instrumental in saving the U.S. Mint in Charlotte, now the Mint Museum, from destruction. The Boyer family includes many UNC-CH alums; on the granddaughter's maternal side are founding members of the university and members of its first Board of Trustees.

The Tanner family, which commissioned the house, has contributed much to UNC over the years, including the Tanner Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. The West House was given to UNC by the Tanners many years ago.

The distinguished historian C. Vann Woodward was a resident of the house while he studied here.

Kirk Ross wrote a nice history of the house's various uses back in December. From 1964 to 1987 it was the original home of the Computer Sciences Department, where Fred Brooks, its chair, said he had "the nicest office on campus." From 1987 to 2002 it housed the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, headed by Ruel Tyson. Today it's the home of the Carolina Asia Center.

The argument has been made that since it was the result of high privilege--built by a rich man for a son too good for common housing--it's not worth saving. But surely every building on the campus is the product of privilege in one way or another (should we tear down Memorial Hall because Paul Carrington Cameron was a wealthy man?). Chapel Hill citizen Laurin Easthom made the point well in a letter to the editor:

Its origins are not as significant as the role the house has played during its history within the oldest public university in the United States. For 69 years the small West House has graced the UNC campus and has been used over the years in a variety of ways.

The Chapel Hill News agrees that West House is worth saving right where it is.

UNC officials have consistently said that if someone is willing to pay to move the house, they would talk about it. The university even hired a study of what it would cost: upwards of $500,000. The West House Coalition has accepted that assessment as realistic, while noting that it is quite unrealistic to expect any organization to step up to that.

The Coalition wants to see West House stay just where it is--for it to be integrated into the design of the Arts Commons. The use we have talked about with the most excitement is as a visitor welcoming and orientation center, but other uses are imaginable. It could be temporary housing for artists, for example (kind of the way guest housing is available on Jefferson's lawn at U.Va.).

The university maintains that the plans are too far along for what's done to come undone. But are they? See asterisk below and the text it refers to above. Major changes have been made to the plans in the past weeks and months. All that appears to exist now is a shape-shifting conceptual master plan. The designers of that plan are top-flight architects. If they were asked to engage in a redesign (the West House Coalition would be willing to raise the money needed for that), it sounds like the kind of challenge that a creative architect would welcome.

This story is far from over. Even so, earlier this year Jeffrey received an award for his efforts from the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill. That's because only a poet-preservationist can make an argument like this:

I’m no Luddite — I appreciate progress and expansion when measured and balanced. I had ignored the process of the Arts Commons development, which was leading to the building’s demolition, for I loved the idea of the commons and assumed, mistakenly, that the designers held the same values as I and others, could see the obvious usefulness of West House in the Commons, and knew its significance.

. . .

America adores expansion. It’s part of our karma. We owe great and sundry achievements to this drive. However, it’s become a disease that is destroying our international reputation, our social fabric, our freedoms and is ultimately detrimental to our material existence. Short-term gains for lasting ills. I’m shocked to realize it has infiltrated our universities, traditionally home to less aggressive values.

The poet Russell Edson says, “The things we took for granted do not take us so.” This applies to trees, as well as cultures, religions as well as oceans, institutions as well as friends. We blindly think progress is always bigger, better is always more. Mies van der Rohe argues, “Less is more.” Poet Peyton Houston reiterates, “The storm in the heart of a flower is also the hurricane of God’s whisper.”

I have trained myself as a poet to look at places we don’t usually look. The poet Rilke made evident, “We are slowly losing the honey of the visible.” I believed it when poet Miguel Hernandez said, “The lemon tree in my garden is a bigger influence on my work than all the poets together.” And when Emily Dickinson observed, “There’s a noiseless noise in the Orchard — that I let persons hear.” I prefer to look at the “under / side of things, the side / shaded / by moss, the coolness under / the walkway / stone.” I have found beauty and value in the “The last place we would think / to look / … in the discarded / shattered world.”

When as a young poet I read William Blake’s great law, “Nations are destroyed or flourish in proportion as their poetry, painting, and music are destroyed or flourish,” I took my job seriously. For 30 years I’ve understood my role as writing and performing poetry and music. Now, observing our society act out its greed and destructiveness domestically and internationally, I understand that my role is larger than that. I am Emerson’s poet, standing “among partial men for the complete man” apprising “us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.”

I cannot rest while we lose the honey of the visible — the signature landscape that makes Carolina’s campus unlike any other. I cannot watch a building with a varied, important and unique history be destroyed. Nowadays, beauty, scarce in our culture, and its guidebook, aesthetics, remain virtually untaught under the thrust of invention-increase and must be guarded like a flame. Otherwise both will go out, and much good with it. As a poet, and as a spiritual being, I know that beauty, ethics, and morality are inseparable. What little we learn from the past if we desire the new at the expense of the valuable old!

If you're interested in joining the West House Coalition, now is the time. For more information, please get in touch with me or with Jeffrey, or (919) 967-2470; or Ellie Kinnaird at (919) 929-1607 or (919) 824-5240.

UNC alums can submit letters of support directly to the Alumni Association.

*What's going on here? Not long ago, this page had an illustration of a recently redesigned Arts Commons with one long street in it ("Porthole Alley"). You can still see that picture--as of now anyway--if you google "images" for "unc 'arts commons.'" (At the moment, the picture comes up in Safari but not in Firefox.)

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