Demolition of UNC's West House begins

Staff WriterAugust 17, 2006 

— With the crunch of wood and toppling of bricks, a tiny house caught in a tug of war between preservationists and UNC-Chapel Hill administrators began coming down Wednesday afternoon.

West House, a home built 71 years ago by a wealthy textile magnate for his son, is being torn down over protests of more than 1,000 supporters who signed petitions to try to save it.

The university says it must make way for a new Arts Common, which will include a music building and performance hall, and an addition to the Ackland Art Museum. The West House site will be part of the common's central green space.

"I'm so disappointed in this university I don't know what to do," said Jennie Capparella, 76.

During summer school sessions in 1950, Capparella dated one of the home's residents, Frank Ashcraft. The couple were reunited 32 years later and stayed together until Ashcraft's death.

"He loved that little house," Capparella said. "There's no good reason to tear it down. ... Why would they get rid of the only architecturally unique place to make room for art? I mean this is art; this house is art."

The home was built in 1935 by Kenneth Tanner as a home for his son and four other students studying at the university. The home, noted for its cozy garden enclosed by a brick wall with curved nooks, was then on the edge of the university's old Fraternity Row, just off campus.

The campus grew around the home, which was later a residence hall, headquarters of the Carolina Volunteer Training Corps during World War II and the first home to the university's computer science department. Most recently, it was the Carolina Asia Center, sitting at the edge of a parking lot on a small island of grass.

Just after 3 p.m., the jaws of a yellow track-hoe crashed into the gable just above the home's small porch. As the roof came down, the home's white Doric columns crashed to the ground in pieces.

Demolition work likely will last through the middle of next week, said Garland Myrick, a superintendent for BE&K Building Group, the general contractor overseeing the project.

Though the home's supporters, including State Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, insisted that the home's unique history and architecture made it worth keeping, the university said the structure wasn't significant enough to preserve.

Anna Wu, director of facilities planning and university architect, said university officials had to evaluate the building in the context of their program to restore other historic structures on campus.

"I think that's really a more important point to stress. We continue to be what we think are good stewards of our historic resources," she said, citing the recent renovation of the 99-year-old Campus Y building, current work to restore the 1887 Love House and planned renovations of several other historic buildings.

Ken Moore, who received a master's degree from UNC-CH in 1964 and worked for the university for 33 years, said the university deserves credit for its other preservation efforts. But changes to campus over the past 15 years concern him.

"We're looking more and more like an urban campus," said Moore, a leading opponent of the West House demolition. "The bulk of the administration ... [has] little regard for the history that went before them on campus."

Staff writer Lisa Hoppenjans can be reached at 932-2014 or lisa.hoppenjans@newsobserver.com.

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