Varner House ‘razes’ its roof despite effort to save it

On the southeast corner of Oakland University’s campus, at Avon and Butler roads, stands a decades-old brick and frame building. On Tuesday, a contract was signed that green-lighted its demolition, which is scheduled to begin this week.

Its current state

Talks to raze the house began several years ago, John Beaghan, vice president of finance and administration, said.

After hearing arguments to preserve the house, OU signed a $30,000 contract Tuesday with Blue Star, Inc to raze Varner House and its adjacent garage, which student organization Urban Farming at Oakland University currently uses as a tool shed. The nearby farmhouse and four chicken coops — three of which currently serve as storage — will remain intact and UFAOU will be provided with a new means of storing its tools.

Although Varner House currently sits vacant — for over 10 years now, said Terry Stollsteimer, associate vice president for facilities management — there are some “minor utility costs” in maintaining it, according to Beaghan.

There are also security issues involved, Beaghan said. Because Varner House is far-removed from the main campus, it’s difficult to monitor.

Another problem, Don Sudol, dean of the college of arts and sciences, said, is that “an abandoned building is a hazard because it invites vandalism and people could get hurt.”

A multi-story house

Varner House was built around 1938 and originally served as the poultry manager’s home on the Meadow Brook Farms Estate. The two-story house has since endured several chapters.

In 1959, after $15,000 worth of remodeling, it became home to Durward B. “Woody” Varner, Oakland’s first chancellor — now known as president — and his wife, Paula.

Under Varner, whose name the house then took, the place of residence doubled as a location for visiting dignitaries and professors. After taking a job as chancellor at the University of Nebraska, Varner left OU in 1970.

After sitting vacant again for a few years, in 1974 it was converted into a “Residential Center for Retarded Children and Adolescents.”

Approximately 10 children or adolescents, ages 7 to 17, were housed there in its charter year. Community Living Centers, Inc. and the Macomb-Oakland Regional Center leased the building from OU, with $64,000 in annual funding from the Department of Mental Health.

Money matters

There have been several attempts over the years to again convert the house for other uses, “but nothing’s ever taken hold,” Stollsteimer said.

The Athletics Department considered using it for their offices and as for locker rooms for the track team. The Art and Art History Department later made plans to convert it into faculty studio space.

The main snag everyone runs into, according to Stollsteimer and others, is the price tag of renovation.

“It’s been open to anyone; no one’s been willing to pay. …Everything in there has got problems because it’s pretty much been abandoned,” Stollsteimer said.

Beaghan said renovating the house would run $280,000. That estimate does not include parking lot repairs, which would cost an additional $100,000. Necessary renovations would include plumbing repairs and roof replacement, as well as making the house handicap-accessible to bring it into compliance with the American Disabilities Act.

Stollsteimer said he has mixed feelings on the house; he said he’d like to see it be put to good use, but is yet to see a financially viable way of doing so.

“Someone’s got to come up with a need that sticks on this, then it could be saved,” Stollsteimer said. “But they’ve had two years.”

Dr. Fay Hansen, associate professor of biology and outgoing chair of the Campus Development and Environment Committee, still sees “huge potential” in the building.

The CDEC is charged with advising “the administrative officers responsible for campus development” in issues like “maintenance practices.” When the possibility of razing Varner House was brought to CDEC’s attention last year, Hansen started coming up with other uses for the space.

“It’s not a threat, it’s not ready to fall down,” Hansen said. “Why are we spending $30,000 on a tight budget to tear down a building?”

Hansen said the house could serve as a “collaborative learning site,” where students do the remodeling work themselves to convert the house into a learning space with classrooms and labs.

The main focus, she said, would be on green technology: solar panels, rain-collection, radiant heating, and so on.

“Reuse, recycle, repair: We need to live (by those principles), not just talk them,” Hansen said.

Hansen, who is also the faculty advisor for UFAOU, stressed that the area would be open to everyone, not any particular student organization.

“It’s just such an excellent resource that it would break my heart to see it go,” Hansen said.

A final effort to sustain it

Students who use the nearby urban garden also had high hopes for the space.

Brett McIsaac, student services director of OU’s student congress, and UFAOU President Jack Cunningham met last week with Glenn McIntosh, dean of students and assistant vice president of student affairs, to present the Varner House Proposal.

Drafted by Cunningham and three other OU students, the 12-page proposal outlined plans wherein students could volunteer at — or perhaps even live in — Varner House to obtain “hands-on lessons in biology, eco-architecture, green engineering, alternative energy methods, and self-sustainability.” It also provided a list of programs and foundations OU could apply for grants from.

The students’ main hope was that the administration would issue a stay of execution order, which would have allowed time to form a “Varner House Sustainability Task Force” that would come up with a sustainable, cost-effective use for the building.

“There’s no maintenance costs; they actually spend more cutting the grass in front of the house than they do maintaining the house itself,” said Cunningham, whose main hope was to buy more time.

McIntosh said he was impressed by the students’ efforts to save the house from being razed, but said he supports the administration’s decision to proceed with the demolition.

Demolition will begin July 17. Stollsteimer said the house should be down in about two weeks, with the whole project lasting 30 days.