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West House, R.I.P.



Last month was a sad month for me and the core group that worked for three years to save West House, the elegant, if quirky, brick house with an enclosed, serpentine-walled garden built by Kenneth Tanner in 1935 on private property for his son and four other students to use as a dormitory while they attended UNC-Chapel Hill. Designed by noted Charlotte architect Martin Boyer (whose buildings there are getting preservation recognition), it was built of the finest materials with slate roof tiles and copper gutters, the only known structure of its kind (a private dormitory!) in the country. It was eventually gifted to the university, successively housing such departments as computer science, the Institute for Arts and Humanities and most recently, the Center for Asian Studies. Even the university's own preservation report noted its careful construction and costly appointments, while continuing to downplay its historical significance in light of plans for the Arts Common. Our group fought constant misreporting of the facts of our case. For example, once it was reported that the building blocked critical systems needed for the Arts Common, such as electrical hook-ups (completely untrue), it seemed we could never shake off public misperception.

Media op-ed pieces seemed to sway like the spring breezes--one month they were for us, the next against, in a flurry of editorials that sprinkled through the Chapel Hill News, the Daily Tar Heel and the Chapel Hill Herald over the past few years. The Chapel Hill News finally decided to be kind to West House--after it was torn down.

I kept passing by the house on my way through town before the demolition, catching a hopeful peek of its gables rising above the chain-link construction fencing. Word was sent out among our group that one of our number had stopped to talk to university president Erskine Bowles. He had promised to visit West House. Like a prisoner awaiting execution, I prayed West House would be granted a last-minute stay. Alas, it was not to be.

Our group has been made up of incredible, special people. First and foremost, Jeffery Beam, a supporter of the Arts Common, suddenly realized those plans threatened demolition of the West House. Beginning single-handedly, he raised a coalition that grew in numbers and prestige, and mounted a campaign that collected over 1,000 signatories on a petition opposing West House's demolition. Sen. Ellie Kinnaird joined our effort, valiantly gaining access and speaking on our behalf at a UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Governors' meeting this summer. Jennie Capparella lent her heartwarming tale of first love at West House. Now 75, Capparella's college sweetheart Frank Ashcraft lived there, and there she was courted. She married someone else and got divorced, but found her true love, Ashcraft, again. Reunited after 32 years, they lived happily ever after until he died.

Now it seems that the Gothic-revival style St. Thomas More Church, long a beloved feature of the Gimghoul neighborhood, is being torn down to make way for VilCom president Jim Heavner's obviously obscenely large mansion. His business manager says it will be designed in keeping with the neighborhood.

Yet another of the unique, precious though rather modest places that make Chapel Hill special is lost. Pride goeth before a fall, says the Bible. One wonders what is in store for Chapel Hill.

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