Written by Laura Wainman, Editorial Intern
When Ron Luce was invited in August to look at the Ridges Building #26 in Athens, Ohio, two things surprised him. The first was that he was invited by an employee of Ohio University -- the institution which already had plans in place to demolish the building -- and the second was that the demolition date was only two months away. As executive director of the Athens County Historical Society and Museum and a strong proponent of historic preservation, Luce was concerned.
“Letting Ridges #26 be torn down would set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the Ridges complex, and the buildings are too vital a part of our history to lose,” Luce says.
The 1924 building, listed along with the rest of the hospital complex on the National Register of Historic Places, is part of the former Athens Asylum (later Athens Mental Health Center) and one of the last remaining structures designed from the Kirkbride model for mental health facilities in Ohio. Also known as the TB Ward/Beacon School, Ridges #26 is owned by Ohio University and has sat vacant for decades.
Though the main administration building at Ridges now houses the Kennedy Art Museum, many of the other Ridges structures are empty. Luce fears that letting one Ridges structure be demolished would cause a domino effect of destruction.
Luce made a visit to the building where he found a “magnificent” but deteriorating structure with large windows, a plain uninterrupted roofline, and very few exterior adornments.
“The building has a lot of cosmetic needs that I’m told would cost around $10 million to repair, but the basic structure itself is in good shape considering its age. It was built like a fortress,” says Luce.
Sitting atop Reservoir Hill on one of the most secluded parts of the grounds, the building has become a beacon for vandalism and trespassing by students and ghost-seekers alike. In fact, the university originally intended to demolish the building before Halloween as the number of trespassers looking for haunted hijinks tends to go up around the holiday.
“A young woman died in the building and you can still see a large stain where her body lay on the first floor. So those seeking a spooky experience often break in to the building and it has become a safety hazard for the university,” says Luce.
After his visit, Luce got to work engaging the community in efforts to save the building. He made a report to the Athens County Historical Society Board of Trustees, which responded by contacting the Ohio Historical Society and state senators and representatives. Their goal was to make sure the university understood that there are people concerned by its plan who do not want to lose Ridges #26.
After agreeing to postpone the teardown, Ohio University officials met with members of the Athens County Historical Society, including Luce, on October 16 to discuss the future of the building. Luce proposed that a comprehensive plan be developed for the entire Ridges complex and mentioned possible alternative uses for the building by the university, the community, and the business sector.
“The university was very receptive to the idea of creating a long-term preservation plan for the whole Ridges complex, and they seemed open to rethinking their plan to tear down Ridges #26,” says Luce. “Now we have to wait and see what they say, but I am feeling very positive about the meeting.”
In the meantime, Luce says the community can continue to help in the effort of saving Ridges #26 by writing letters to the editors of local papers, making phone calls to local and state government representatives, and expressing their desire to keep the building.