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Can Historical Status Status Save Stanford Frat House from Demolition?

July 12, 1991

Santa Clara County's Historical Heritage Commission voted unanimously last night to recommend Point of Historical Interest status for the Beta Chi Chapter House of the Sigma Nu Fraternity at Stanford Unversity. The house, more recently known as Synergy House, was designed and built in 1913 by renowned architects Bakewell and Brown, but was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and has been slated for demolition by the Stanford Administration. The effect of the vote on the demolition plans, which is believed to be scheduled for August, are not yet known.

The unanimous vote of the Commission came in spite of the appearance of Phil Williams, Director of Planning at Stanford University, at the Commission's meeting. Williams presented a letter and spoke against the proposed historical designation, referring primarily to the financial cost of repairing the house and secondarily to it's lack of previously documented historical significance. The Commission members, several of whom stated that it was not their place to judge the financial impact of their decision, were convinced of the house's historical merit by evidence and documentation presented by the Committee to Save the Hill Houses.

The Sigma Nu house, along with the Delta Tau Delta house and the Phi Psi house (also known as the Cooksey House), were all badly damaged in the '89 quake. Estimates put the cost of repairing the houses at $4.5 million, and although Stanford initially committed to repairing the houses, they subsequently reversed their decision in favor of a plan to build faculty housing on the land and use the money to build student housing elsewhere.

Opponents of the demolition believe the Administration is moving forward hastily with a plan they will later regret. "We don't deny that, if all their estimations are correct, the University may save about $2.8 million dollars," says Barry Lake of the Committee to Save the Hill Houses. "But we would argue instead that $900,000 each is a very low price to pay to preserve these beautiful and historic houses. They should be considered part of the University's historic endowment; once they are gone, they are gone forever."

The vote by the Santa Clara Commission is a necessary prerequisite for approval as a State Point of Historical Interest. A hearing by the California Historical Resources Commission is scheduled for August 2. According to Paul Baer, also of the Committee to Save the Hill Houses, "We believe the State Commission will follow the lead of the Santa Clara County Commission, but we don't know what effect that will have on the University. Obviously we would like them to delay demolition plans until after the hearing, but so far they seem determined to continue. Otherwise they would not have appeared here to oppose us, but would have instead been trying to help us prove the houses' historical merit. Perhaps that way we could raise the funds necessary to repair them."

The Committee to Save the Hill Houses is attempting to rally alumni support, although they have not yet begun fundraising for repairs. "The amount of money is not that large once the commitment to raise it is made," argues Baer. "But we have to make the University stop long enough for that possibility to be pursued. We still think the odds are against us, but the Commssion's ruling strengthens our case immeasurably."