As you approach Indiana University from the west, after passing through downtown and continuing along 7th or 10th streets, you come upon a neighborhood with brick roads, hundred-year-old houses and a mixture of university and residential property. The area, known as the University Courts Historic District, is on the National Register of Historic Places.
It’s home to WIUX radio, the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and the Collins Living-Learning Center. And it’s now at the center of a controversy about what may soon be the newest neighbor there, the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, commonly known as the FIJI house.
“The university and the (IU) Foundation and the FIJIs have been talking about finding a new home for the FIJIs for some time now,” University spokesman Mark Land said.
Land says the university wants the land where the current FIJI house is located, in the 600 block of East 3rd Street.
“The IU Foundation has reached an agreement with the FIJIs to essentially exchange properties. So the Foundation would get the FIJI house…and the FIJIs would get the properties down on Woodlawn, that they would then use to build a new house,” Land said.
But those properties along Woodlawn are not vacant. There are six houses there, including one originally designed for a former IU football coach who was hired in 1916. The city’s official brochure for walking tours of the neighborhood describes the house as Bloomington’s best example of Prairie Style architecture, a style commonly associated with the architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
“This is really the finest example of one of the old neighborhoods,” said Jon Lawrence, the president of Bloomington’s Council of Neighborhood Associations. “It was originally occupied by faculty, famous coaches…as that original group of faculty started aging and moved out of their houses, the houses started switching off occasionally into rentals and the university was buying up the property.”
The announcement that these six houses would be demolished to make way for a fraternity house did not sit well with Lawrence, or with many others interested in historic preservation in the city. Neighbors also complained, and much of the city Council meeting last week was spent discussing the issue.
But technically the Council and even the city’s Historic Preservation Commission has no power to stop the deal. Which, according to Land, is why city government and community members weren’t consulted before the university reached an agreement with the FIJIs.
“The city doesn’t really have any jurisdiction over this piece of property, over this area,” Land said. “It’s university-owned property…we’ve decided that this is how we always handle these kind of deals.”
The university has historically been allowed to do what it wants with the land it owns, even if that land is within the city of Bloomington. Other property owners are routinely required to obtain permits and occassionally approval from elected or appointed boards and commissions when they want to build or demolish or even change the uses for their properties. Most would certainly run in to problems if they attempted to demolish houses on a national register of historic places. But the university has no such restrictions.
Critics of the demolition have pointed out discrepancies between the university’s master plan, passed in 2010, and the recently announced deal with the FIJI house.
The master plan describes University Courts as a “enhanced residential neighborhood, complete with front porches, stoops, brick-lined streets, and gas lamps.” It goes on to say “this neighborhood can be developed as a residential district for faculty and visiting professors.” Several critics have questioned how moving in a fraternity would encourage professors to live there.
Jeannine Butler, a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission who also lives in the University Courts area, said “We have a lot of students in our neighborhood and for the most part they are very good about being quiet late at night…The difference is you’re talking about students who live in a house where there may be 10 or 12, or (in the case of a fraternity) you’re talking about 100. There’s a big difference.”
IU did offer the fraternity other locations before settling on the plan to demolish the houses. Recently all new Greek housing at IU has been located in the area along North Jordan Avenue. This is the first time in more than half a century a fraternity or sorority has been allowed to build anywhere else. And according to Land, that’s because the circumstances are different this time.
“The FIJIs already have a location that they like,” Land said. “In most of the cases where (Greek organizations) have built out there…the North Jordan extension was a move up for them…In this case, the FIJIs have a location that they like and that they’ve been established at for years.”
Representatives from the Fiji house said the fraternity would not comment for this story. So WFHB News couldn’t ask them how they liked their current house. But a newsletter released this summer said the house is QUOTE “very rapidly approaching the point of being impossible to keep properly repaired and is becoming a competitive disadvantage for recruiting the best young men.”
According to the newsletter, the fraternity determined that the only viable solutions other than to move would be to tear down the house or do a massive renovation. Both of those options would require the fraternity to come up with all the money themselves, and the newsletter says it would also require the brothers to move out and find temporary housing for at least a year. The fraternity’s house corporation reportedly evaluated the possibility of asking IU to approve either of those options, but determined IU would probably turn them down, ultimately forcing them onto North Jordan with all the other new Greek housing.
Many critics of the move say there are probably hidden motives for the university’s decision to allow the frat to take the historic properties.
“The FIJI alums and the people who are in the (FIJI House Corporation) are well off and very influential and probably huge donors to IU,” Butler said. “And IU isn’t gonna tick them off.”
There are undoubtedly some powerful FIJIs connected with IU, although no one interviewed by WFHB pointed to anyone in particular as having special influence.
Gov. Mike Pence is an alumnus of the fraternity, although he attended Hanover College, not IU. So is the CEO of the Whirlpool Corporation, Jeff Fettig, who is also on the Board of Directors for the IU Foundation, which arranged the land swap deal. But Land insisted power and money had nothing to do with the agreement.
Regardless of the reasons behind the deal, the recent issue has brought up new concerns about the sometimes awkward dynamic between the university and the city that surrounds it. Without any local control even much transparency about the university’s actions, Lawrence said there is reason for local property owners to be wary.
“This is a huge concern to all neighborhoods in Bloomington because no matter where you are, the university can purchase the house next door and tear it down,” Lawrence said. “Nobody else can do that.”
Land said it may be months or years before the deal with the university is complete. He said the fraternity first must prove it has the financial ability to build a new house on the property.