Plan to demolish six houses in the University Courts Historic District draws opposition

  • Sept. 12, 2013

By Jon Blau

Residents and historic preservationists continued to voice their displeasure Wednesday with Indiana
University’s plan to demolish six houses in the University Courts Historic District, rebelling against
their elimination for the placement of a fraternity by packing a Bloomington City Council meeting

Phi Gamma Delta’s fraternity house is next to IU’s Maurer School of Law, and the IU Foundation has
a deal in principle with the greek organization to take its house in exchange for land on the corner of
Woodlawn Avenue and East Eighth Street. At the same time, the FIJIs have to raise the money to build
the house, which will be south of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.

More than a dozen people came to the podium to urge IU to reconsider its deal with the FIJIs. And
some of them had harsh words for the fraternity; they believed the greek organization should have
accepted a location along North Jordan Avenue, which is where most fraternities are located, rather
than pushing for a house off of Woodlawn Avenue.

“This is about power and money,” Sandi Cole, a Bloomington resident and an IU employee, said. “The
university offered the FIJI house other property. They refused.

“Shame on those who have the power and the money to put IU in that position.“
The city council has no power to save the houses, but concerned citizens dominated public comment
time in the hopes that IU or FIJI alumni would be listening.

Special status

The neighborhood and the Bloomington Historic Preservation Commission have objected to the plan,
because the university’s status as a state institution allows it to demolish the properties on behalf of
the FIJIs, bypassing local controls that would otherwise protect historic buildings.

In a letter sent Aug. 9 to IU President Michael McRobbie, the IU Foundation’s Board of Diretors, the
university trustees and Tom Morrison, vice president for capital planning and facilities at IU, the
city’s preservation commission asserted that this demolition would propose a “dangerous precedent”
because the FIJIs don’t face scrutiny for getting rid of buildings on the national and state historic

Morrison responded on behalf of the university Aug. 27, saying “preservation must be balanced
against all university needs,” and, while the university does “understand and respect that some will
inevitably be disappointed” with the agreement, that an academic building at the old FIJI site and a
residential building on Woodlawn Avenue was in the master plan.

Poor fit

But residents aren’t convinced that the fraternity or its inhabitants will fit the character of the
surrounding neighborhood. Jon Lawrence, with the Council of Neighborhood Associations, said that
families, the demographic the University Courts has served in the past, wouldn’t want to live near “100
beer-fueled men.” The historic preservation commission’s letter to IU said a new FIJI house on
Woodlawn Avenue would “often function as much like a tavern or nightclub as it will a residence.”
“Usually IU is a good steward to the properties they own. They have been a good steward to these
properties for almost 100 years,” said Jenny Southern, a resident of Elm Heights, who noted the city’s
upcoming effort to remake a brick street on Park Avenue. “This seems like a throw away of money if
we are going to take away the structures that go with the brick streets.”

Wednesday wasn’t the first occasion the issue of University Courts came to the council. Council
member Chris Sturbaum, who is also on the historic preservation commission, gave a presentation
two weeks ago about the proposed demolition, reviewing some of the history of the buildings. He
highlighted 825 E. Eighth St., which he said is the best example of prairie-style architecture in
Bloomington and was also the home of Ewald O. “Jumbo” Stiehm, a coach and athletic director at IU
from 1916-23. Most of the other houses are colonial-style buildings.

IU may have answered the question of whether it is legal for it to demolish the six houses, he said, but
Sturbaum wasn’t sure if it was right.

“Where does a 2,000-pound gorilla build its fraternity house?” Sturbaum said. “The answer is
‘Anywhere it wants’ . unless we speak up.”

Code overhaul

The city council delayed action on an overhaul of a section of municipal code pertaining to pawn
brokers and secondhand dealers.

A final vote on the ordinance, which will introduce new online reporting requirements for those
businesses’ purchases, is scheduled for Sept. 18.

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.