According to its website, Ohio University is home to more than 24,000 students who occupy 8 million gross square feet and over 200 buildings. There are many old and historical buildings on campus, with the oldest being Cutler Hall, constructed in 1816. One group on campus is fighting to preserve these buildings to ensure many students can continue to enjoy them for years to come.
At the beginning of the 2022 Fall Semester, Taylor Connelly, currently a sophomore studying journalism, was inspired by her astronomy professor, Tom O’Grady, to start SOAP, or Society of Athens Preservation.
After a year as president, Connelly passed the baton to Max Baker, a sophomore studying environmental science. Connelly took on the role of vice president and devoted her time to the club’s newsletters. Baker works to keep SOAP on track with research, regular newsletters and the club’s Instagram account with posts about the school’s most historic buildings.
SOAP’s mission is to act as a form of investigative journalism on the destruction of buildings on OU’s campus. Baker shared that the confusing aspect of the demolition of buildings is there is not always a clear reason for the removal.
“(For multiple buildings) there's a lot of information about the history itself, but not why it was knocked down,” Baker said. “I suspect it's due to structural issues that could have been solved if they paid attention to them earlier.”
According to the club’s social media manager, Eliza Russo, a sophomore studying theater, when a problem occurs in one of the buildings, the school pushes it aside as “deferred maintenance,” and it never really gets solved.
“It’s kind of a university shorthand for, ‘We've decided 10 or 15 years ago that we're going to get rid of this building, so we're going to stop maintaining it until it becomes demolished,'” said Russo.
According to OU’s definition of deferred maintenance on page 28 of their Six Year Capital Improvement Plan, deferred maintenance involves “investment or repairs needed for facilities that have failed, are failing or those whose life cycles will come due within the next 10 years.” This includes major repairs like roof replacements and life cycle needs, which are then deferred to future funding cycles given the building’s condition.
One example of a deferred maintenance turned demolition was the President Street Academic Center, which is now a square patch of grass between Bentley Hall and Buffalo Wild Wings. According to Russo, this former science building was the cornerstone of liberal arts at OU and kept the school from becoming a teacher's college.
According to the club, one of the problems with these buildings disappearing lies within the tradition and selling point OU depends on with the historical, brick aesthetic. Sometimes the cost of repair is more than completely rebuilding, but in most cases, the buildings can easily be saved, according to Russo. This was the case with the Academic Center.
“It would have taken about $15,000 to renovate the building with a given plan,” Russo said. “They spent $1.5 million on the demolition.”
According to an open letter from the Athens City Historic Preservation Commission regarding the Academic Center’s demolition, that $15,000 price tag was the yearly maintenance cost for the building. Like Russo, the letter advocates for the annual spending of $15,000, rather than the $1.5 million cost the Board of Trustees had proposed. This $15,000 was not a renovation estimation, but rather a continuation of the building’s current expenses.
The club suspects OU’s demolition plans will eventually include the entirety of Back South, Lindley Hall and Kantner Hall, which has already fallen under deferred maintenance.
The most recent focus of SOAP is The Ridges, the northern, more isolated part of campus that has mostly been abandoned and provides services to the school as museums and academic offices. Baker and Connelly attended a meeting with the advisory committee of The Ridges about a year ago where they learned of plans for potential dorms, artist studios, housing and more faculty offices, but there is still a lot of mystery surrounding the topic.
“We are always keeping an eye on The Ridges,” Russo said.
They have tried to get a better look, but with the Ohio University Police Department often patrolling, and the fear of any student getting hurt, it’s difficult to get up close and personal.
A new member, Hester Lambright, a sophomore studying history, joined SOAP at the involvement fair in August. Lambright has always had an interest in historical preservation and so far has most enjoyed the “archive days” on Sundays where the group meets to dig up new discoveries.
Lambright’s hometown, Smithfield was built in 1793, and she experienced a similar loss of heritage as old buildings began to disappear.
“I've seen so many of these houses get torn down, or they're in a state of disrepair, so when I saw that they were doing Athens preservation, I was like, that's something that’s been a part of my entire life,” Lambright said.
As a relatively new student organization, all 17 members are looking forward to what’s to come as they gain membership. Taylor Connelly shared her excitement and plans for what they can do with this expansion.
“To have more people gives us the chance to do things that we've been trying to do since last year, like a podcast and greater community involvement and campus events,” said Connelly. “It lets us do more.”
As the club expands physically, they hope to expand their research and go into the history of Athens in connection to the university.
“It's important that when we talk about the history of Ohio University, we talk about the history of Athens because there is not one without the other,” Russo said.
The members are always looking for new intel on how students and staff feel about their favorite buildings. As they grow and more people know of the club’s presence, they hope to hear more from alumni and slowly acquire the puzzle pieces to not only hold onto the history but bring the forgotten campus back to life.
“We just want cool stories,” Russo said.
SOAP meets every other Tuesday in Gordy Hall room 202, and all its meeting dates along with other information on how to join can be found via their Linktree.