Kristi Allen photo

Historians and preservationists who want to save a row of historic homes at the University of Connecticut made what they thought was a final plea Wednesday morning.

But by Wednesday afternoon they received some welcome news from Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes.

In a letter to the University of Connecticut, Barnes said his approval of plans to demolish the buildings is contingent on “UConn not commencing demolition of the Brown Houses until the required mitigation has been completed.”

The mitigation efforts are spelled out in a June memorandum of understanding between the school and the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO).

The memo requires the university to document the contents of the homes, host a symposium for municipal leaders on the best use of historic preservation, and consider adaptive reuse of the historic buildings in the future.

SHPO said UConn is currently working to fulfill the requirements in the memo. They haven’t submitted a report yet.

The homes, which have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, housed students, faculty, and at one time Greek fraternities and sororities. Four currently house administrative offices. The homes were constructed between 1900 and 1920, but the University of Connecticut wants to tear them down to create green space.

When it looked like their demolition was imminent Wednesday morning State Historian Walter Woodward surprised members of the Historic Preservation Council by playing guitar and singing a song about the “nine little houses” he didn’t want to see torn down.

Kristi Allen photo

Woodward is a non-voting member of the Historic Preservation Council, which is a 12-member body appointed by the governor to advise the Department of Economic and Community Development on historic preservation issues. The council discussed the demolition of the buildings at its meeting Wednesday, but was told by state officials that it was unable to accept public comment and each member was limited to three-minutes to speak.

Earlier plans to demolish the houses were postponed in April. The university had been planning to use the site for a new dormitory at that time.

In UConn Today, a publication compiled by the university’s communications office, it described the homes as “largely abandoned and dilapidated former fraternity and sorority houses.”

In that article the university claims it would cost approximately $1 million dollars per house to renovate or rehabilitate them, a figure some of the preservation advocates disputed.

In May, the SHPO determined that the loss of the homes would have an adverse effect on historic resources, and it disagreed with UConn that there wasn’t a “reasonable, feasible alternative to demolition.” But just one month later, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the university that condoned their demolition.

That memo came with conditions, including requiring the university to document the contents of the homes, host a symposium for municipal leaders on the best use of historic preservation, and consider adaptive reuse of the historic buildings in the future.

SHPO said UConn is currently working to fulfill the requirements in the memo. They haven’t submitted a report yet.

A group of individuals have been fighting to save the buildings since June. They’ve gathered 371 signatures on a petition and have asked the SHPO to call on Attorney General George Jepsen’s office to seek an injunction from a judge.

But the SHPO says its work is done.

“For us, the policy and process is closed. We are not going to go back and reopen it,” SHPO Staff Archeologist Catherine Labadia said. She stressed that the SHPO only has the authority to make recommendations, not halt demolition altogether.

The state says the individuals can petition a judge to make their case against the university, but if they lose they would need to pay the other side’s legal fees. Because the state is sovereign, SHPO officials said they can’t be sued unless they consent to the lawsuit.

Margaret Faber, a member of the Historic Preservation Council, said that’s a scare tactic.

She said it’s always been the SHPO that solicits the help of the attorney general to move forward with a case to prevent the demolition of historic property.

The SHPO said because they had finished their review process and issued the memorandum, they can’t take action through the attorney general’s office.

Faber said nothing about the demolition of these homes has been typical and she will be talking to attorneys about the situation.

“We would like to see more of an open forum and information for the community so they could get behind saving these buildings. It doesn’t seem like there was a real public opportunity to talk about this,” Beverly Palmer, a preservation advocate, said.

Another preservation advocate, Ronald McCutcheon, agreed that there wasn’t enough time or information provided to the public. He also was unsure what the end result for the space would be.

“I think the intention is really another building, not green space. It’s just to placate,” he said.

According to the campus master plan, there are new buildings planned for the area eventually. However, the 2015 master plan doesn’t contain any plans to demolish the historic houses and says “in the long term, most of the historic buildings in the district will be renovated or restored.”

Laura Cruickshank, the University’s master planner and chief architect, said the area would be a “park-like green space, including grassy areas, plantings, trees, benches, and tables.” The area is adjacent to a dorm complex that is also being demolished to make way for a new student gym.