A 'modest proposal' could save Eastern's log cabin

The Suburban and Wayne Times

Rachel Perry

13 March 2008

Who ever thought that a small, decaying log cabin could be the source of so much controversy? Although it has been closed up for years, the log clubhouse at Eastern University made news recently when the school planned to tear it down. According to Ted Pollard, president of the Radnor Historical Society, in October 2006 another society member was walking her dog on the campus and noticed that the cabin was taped off. Due to the protests of local preservation groups, Eastern administrators decided to postpone the demolition. Since then, Pollard and others have been working hard to ensure that the log clubhouse, which Pollard says is the "premier cabin of its type in the country," doesn't get knocked down.

The 1,700 sf cabin was built in 1912 as part of the Walmarthon estate of Charles Walton, and it has filled a variety of uses over the last 96 years: guest house, music practice studio, Eastern's student center and more. "They spent a lot of time on the design," Pollard said. "To me, it's the heart of the campus, and it would be an absolute disaster [to lose it]. When it's restored, it will be the jewel of the campus." But there's no promise that the cabin will even be restored, although 2006 architectural studies done by Richard Ortega, a local preservation and design professional, and Marcus Brandt, a log-cabin restoration specialist, claimed that the building is savable - a report that conflicted with an earlier study performed at the cabin.

"The university was worried because they'd gotten a couple of quote-experts, who told them it had a lot of bugs and was in danger of falling down," Pollard said. Archer & Buchanan recently published a report of the studies done by Ortega and Brandt, and proposed a four-phase restoration plan, carried out by the company itself, for the cabin.

"We recognize that full restoration of the log clubhouse will be an expensive, long-term endeavor that can take a commitment of time, money and resources that neither Eastern University nor the concerned preservation organizations are able to immediately provide," the published report, titled "A Modest Proposal for Saving the Log Club House at Eastern University," stated. "Therefore, we are proposing an incremental, phased approach to stabilizing and using the structure."

However, at this time, the university has not taken a clear stance on the proposed renovations and plans to take more time to review the phased plan. "We just received a proposal from the architect and a lot of time hasn't been given at this time for review," said Carl Altomare, executive director of campus services at Eastern. "[A decision] hasn't been made yet; it's being evaluated at all levels. Obviously, there's a significant cost involved with the renovation. I'm not sure what we'd actually use it for, but of course that will be studied as well. But I do know that a final decision has not been made ... "

Some suggested uses for the restored structure, proposed by the report, were an environmental study station, a small conference facility, a special-events facility, a coffee shop or a student club or small university department headquarters. "We need to continue the dialogue with the university to see what they want to do for an end use," Pollard said. "We'd like to ask the Eastern community, 'What would you like to use it for?"' But the students and alumni of the university already have a lot to say about the possible uses of a restored cabin - and the notion of restoring it at all.

"Amidst the questionable expansion of Eastern's - to this point - environmentally unconscious and architecturally mediocre facilities, I would be sad to see the loss of an important aspect of its vernacular architecture," said Eastern junior Josh Lore. "In my opinion, the cabin holds quantitative value on campus as well as qualitative - the former, in terms of usable space ... The latter, though, is obviously the main issue. It's part of the area's heritage. Its presence ties the island to the original estate, and it ties the campus to the past. It gives the contextual value that keeps Eastern from being merely identified as 'another institution."'

"I don't like any kind of home demolitions," said senior Peder Wiegner. "I think the cabin is a nice aesthetic presence on campus." I'd be sad if they demolished it," chimed in 2006 graduate Sarah Vanacore. Wiegner and Lore also expressed distaste about the idea of the building becoming a gift shop. "I think a gift shop is a bad idea. It should serve a higher purpose," said Lore. "An environmental study center is a good idea. Another possibility would be a museum. Not necessarily an 'Eastern museum,' but perhaps for the anthropology or some other department. That may or may not be practical; I don't know for sure."

2005 alumnus Pat Gann said, "I was totally upset when I learned the cabin would be demolished. When the plans were put on hold, I was happy." While Gann said that he doesn't know that he would consider the cabin to be an "important asset" to Eastern's campus, at least "not from a utilitarian/functional standpoint,'' he doesn't want to see it demolished.

"Ultimately, it's just a really pretty building. I'd like to see it stay," he said. "I don't think the restored cabin ought to be used for anything fancy. A club meeting place would probably be best." "I always hate to see beautiful architectural and historical buildings demolished just because they are no longer useful or functional," said Lauren Russin Stouten, another 2005 alumnus of the university. "I don't think we have to come up with a utilitarian use for the cabin in order to justify its presence on campus. It should remain standing because it's a part of Eastern and Radnor history. Even though it's not one of the most prominent Eastern landmarks, it is still a landmark and I always enjoyed seeing it on campus. After all, how many campuses in the country can boast that they have their own log cabin?"

"The cabin by the lake at Eastern University is one of my favorite landmarks on campus," added Shellie Sauder Aseltine, who also graduated from Eastern in 2005. "Whenever I return to campus, I enjoy spending time by the cabin and the lake. This cabin represents a piece of Eastern's history. When I worked in the admissions office giving tours to prospective students and their families, the cabin was often a notable place to stop for pictures. If restoration is feasibly possible, I would be greatly disappointed with Eastern's students, faculty and administration if they instead decided to demolish this architectural landmark."

But one student didn't find as much value in the cabin's presence as some of the others. "I would say the cabin is not as important an asset to the campus as, say, the waterwheel, which appears on far more EU publications and advertisements," said Brian Baker, a 2005 alumnus. "If the cabin is to be restored, however, it could not be used for events until some way is paved for ambulances and fire trucks to have access to it. And such renovation is bound to further threaten the beauty of the campus. Part of my ardor for EU is its tranquility, its rusticness, its counterutilitarian serenity; in and of itself I have no qualms about the proposed demolition of the cabin, but I'd hate to see the whole campus suffer what the entranceway suffered when Eagle Hall was erected."

As for Baker's claim that the cabin could not be used until it's accessible by rescue vehicles, Altomare said that that's not actually been proven yet - the Radnor Fire Department would need to come out and assess the site. The cabin is accessible to certain types of vehicles, via a paved section of ground under a shallow part of the lake, but it's not certain whether fire trucks or ambulances would be able to drive through the water.

Right now, though, the cabin is in apparent disrepair - a recent visit by Suburban staff found it to be full of trash, leaves, holes and even the decaying carcass of a raccoon. But in the opinions of Ted Pollard and other cabin preservation activists, the vaulted ceiling in the main room, the original stone fireplace and the feeling of genuine history that fills the cabin are more than enough to make the restoration worthwhile for the university. A lot of renovations will be needed if the plan is carried out - to the tune of $ 1 million or $1.5 million dollars, which the proposal said would hopefully be funded at least in part by grants.

"In writing this report and formulating our Modest Proposal, we recognize that making impassioned pleas, outlining a logical viable approach to restoration and citing inspired goals for others is far easier than raising the funds, committing institutional and organization resources and marshaling a complex and delicate process over an extended period of time," the proposal concluded. "The real work has yet to begin and it will take a long-term commitment of time, materials and money. We believe this report proposes a realistic and viable approach to taking on a complex challenge in small steps over time."

This log cabin that sits in the middle of Eastern University's campus was slated for demolition, but university administrators put a hold on the process as per a request from local preservation groups. A four-phase architectural proposal from Archer & Buchanan, was recently sent to the Radnor Historical Society and Eastern University but has not yet been approved.

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