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Tempe's Historic Preservation department, which advocates the preservation of at-risk buildings that are 50 years old or older, has no interest in Alpha Drive, Jeff Abraham, spokesman for the frats, insists. "The fraternities met with Historic Preservation about three years ago, when there was some effort to preserve the old Valley National Bank building," he says, referring to the Visitors Center, the famous domed structure on ASU's campus near the northwest corner of Rural and Apache that was torn down early last year. "And the preservation people really had no interest in even looking at the Alpha Drive site."
The Historic Preservation people understood, Abraham says, that Greek Row was too far gone to save. It apparently needs to be wiped out, simply because it's resting on valuable land.
There's an underlying irony to all the teardown talk. ASU President Michael Crow has made sustainability — the art of living with environmental and social responsibility — a cornerstone of what he's dubbed the "New American College." In 2006, ASU opened the nation's first School of Sustainability, where students explore water scarcity and urban air quality. Crow, who arrived at ASU in 2002 after 11 years at Columbia University, is often accused of wanting to re-create ASU in his image. But what seems more true is Crow's desire to wipe out ASU's architectural history in the name of more sustainable buildings. The university now requires that any new building erected at ASU must be built to exacting environmental standards — standards very different than those used by the craftsmen who created Greek Row a half-century ago. Why restore interesting old houses, Crow and his cronies appear to be asking, when you can knock them down and put up something green?
Crow has initiated an extraordinary number of these "sustainable" construction projects, most recently a $120 million residential complex for students of ASU's Barrett Honors College, which will reside not far from the recently demolished Visitors Center. Much of the construction budget has gone to expanding the college with new campuses in downtown Phoenix (home to the university's nursing, journalism, and public policy schools), the former Williams Air Force Base in Mesa (where the planned Polytechnical Institute will eventually cover 3 million square feet of research space), and a former shopping center in south Scottsdale that now houses the college's international business center.
Apparently, all this expansion must take place at the expense of what Lockley jokingly refers to as "a bunch of old buildings" that are standing in the way of ASU's glittering new expansion. It's a renovation that's easier for the university to pull off, he believes, with buildings that are off the public's radar. Lockley points out that when ASU was criticized for knocking over that well-regarded VNB building last year, the university issued a statement that the structure's famous domed roof would be carefully stored away until it could be displayed somewhere appropriate.
Lockley thinks this is both hilarious and sad. "Where," he wonders, "do you display a giant, paneled dome roof?"
It's one thing to take down a bank or a leaky old frat house, even one designed by the disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright. But what's to stop ASU from one day tearing down Grady Gammage Auditorium, another university-owned building that's not listed as "historic" and which is certainly not as new or in as great shape as other arts facilities around town? Lockley thinks this is unlikely. "People may not know or care about a little frat house in Tempe," he says, "but everyone knows Gammage."
Lockley and Lowell both agree that while ASU's new buildings are environmentally responsible, none of the buildings is especially memorable or distinctive.
"None of these buildings offer a clue as to how one is meant to relate to them," says Lockley, who thinks a dentist's office should look like a dentist's office. "Assuming they're even allowed to stay standing, the only thing these structures will be remembered for is their environmental responsibility."
Sometimes Peter Slayton and his fellow frat brothers squeeze through Phi Delta Theta's boarded-up windows and wander through its ruined interior. They admire the sloping ceilings and what Slayton calls "the cool little secret rooms."
Slayton, a 21-year-old business and communications major at ASU, lives at Alpha Epsilon Pi. He's appalled that the university wants to "crap all over" the Greek system by ripping down the cool old buildings he and some of his frat brothers have come to love.
He believes that ASU has as little regard for its fraternities — those Greek-lettered, single-sex, initiatory organizations launched in the 18th century to help socialize undergrads new to college life — as it does for what's left of its significant architecture. But while ASU tussles with ways to force its fraternities into more easily controlled, on-campus housing, the fate of the Greek system nationwide remains up in the air. While Columbia University has recently expanded its fraternities' presence, another New York college, Alfred University, has voted to end frats altogether. Dartmouth College continues to funnel money into reorganizing its Greek system, while other campuses — notably Maine's Bowdoin and Colby Colleges — have shut down their Greek houses for good.