By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
It's not so beautiful anymore. Boarded up and surrounded by chain link, the once-proud house is in shambles — its paint peeling, its window casings cracked. Despite its pedigree, the Phi Delta Theta house is almost certain to wind up, like its ASU-owned counterparts, as a pile of rubble. ASU has already torn down its not-historically-significant Sorority Row, sending its female memberships into dormitory housing. The university wants to demolish what's left of its Greek Row within the next year or two, replacing it with a major multi-use facility featuring a hotel, restaurant, and non-Greek student housing, thus obliterating an historic architectural project and a notable chapter in the university's fraternity system.
ASU officials have been waylaid by a depressed real estate market and by complicated shared ownership of the properties. But they won't, according to principal players in the proposed teardown, stop until this, the site of umpteen keggers and thousands of pizza deliveries, is history.
Lockley thinks they'll do it, too, using any means imaginable. He worries that there's slimy stuff afoot at ASU; that the university wants to obscure the importance of these structures in order to get them ripped down before anyone with any real power can stop them.
"I've seen it happen too often before," he says. "A developer buys an old building here, allows it to fall apart, deliberately obscures its architectural significance, then tears it down because it's an eyesore."
Lockley's fears aren't unfounded. Both of the already demolished frat houses — Ralph Haver's streamlined Alpha Gamma Rho house and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon residence designed by Glenn A. McCollum — were owned by ASU. The university didn't need permission to rip these houses down; didn't need to wrangle or cajole with fraternities that owned the properties. They just hired a bulldozer.
The university won't have it so easy with the remaining frats, although there's evidence in the reams of correspondence generated by ASU on the subject of the frat houses that the university isn't above strong-arming landowners into selling their property to ASU. Read with a careful eye — the letters, e-mails, and reports released in response to a public-records request appear aimed at scaring Alpha Drive landowners with crime statistics, detailed descriptions of the crumbling frat houses, and a single news article about a recent rape that reportedly took place at one of the houses. Someone has even gone to the trouble of creating a chart that ranks the frats in order of their crime-worthiness — a sort of Hit Parade of drunken brawls and misbehaviors.
All this doom-and-gloom is followed — especially in proposals aimed at the property owners, who have joined forces in a corporation called The Threshold Project LLC — by glowing descriptions of alternative plans for an 18-acre site (bordered by Rural Road, Stadium Way, University Drive, Sixth Street) that would include student housing facilities for both fraternities and sororities, parking, a hotel, a conference center, and retail shops. The remainder of the site would be turned over to American Campus Communities, the Texas-based developer that recently erected ASU's student housing complex, Vista del Sol, and would probably erect a similarly monster-size apartment complex for students not affiliated with the frats.
There's an urgency to the Alpha Drive correspondence, as if its authors are in a rush to make their case before there's time for anyone to consider or discover the historic value of these buildings.
In one startling exchange between ASU assistant vice president of university real estate Steven Nielsen and former executive vice president Carol Campbell, Campbell seems to imply that the solution to obscuring the buildings' historic value may be in persuading property owners to scrape the land before selling the property to ASU. After receiving a May 2008 document from ASU architecture professor Ronald McCoy explaining the provenance of the Taliesin-designed frat house, Campbell forwards it to Nielsen with an eye-rolling note attached — "More complications!" — that speaks volumes about how little Campbell cares about the building's significance. Later that same day, she writes to Nielsen, "If we do get to the point of doing a land swap, do you think they will scrape the land first?" In other words, the importance of the Taliesin property won't be ASU's problem if what its buying is an empty lot.
"It's a shame," says Ken Lowell, author of Sun and Sand: The Art and Influence of Southwestern Design, a forthcoming e-book about mid-century Southwestern architecture. "It's bad enough that you guys keep tearing up what's left of that town's past, but now you want to crumble a project that's really like no other. Alpha Drive's frat houses are like those old 'Easy Streets' that developers used to build in the '50s and '60s, where you could go look at a whole block of model homes to see what your street would look like before you bought there."
Lowell, a Ralph Haver fan who grew up in Glendale and lives now in Springfield, Massachusetts, thinks no matter what happens to Alpha Drive, it's already been compromised. "They tore down the Haver," he says, pointedly. "And where was your Historic Preservation when that happened?"