University is seeking savior for Blue Ridge hospital property
By Dan Heuchert
Battling against the erosive effects of time and nature, the University announced a last-chance plan to save some of its historic structures at the former Blue Ridge Sanatorium property, and develop the rest of the site.
University Architect David Neuman outlined the plan Nov. 18 at a meeting of Charlottesville, Albemarle County and U.Va. officials. It calls for the University of Virginia Foundation — the current holder of the property — to seek a private entity to develop the site and preserve up to 19 structures with historic significance for “adaptive reuse,” possibly as office space. The developer would be eligible to receive tax credits for the preservation work, Neuman said.
New construction on the 142-acre site, located at the southeast corner of Interstate 64 and Route 20 just below Monticello, could support “mixed uses,” Neuman said, which could include housing and
research park activities.
The rest of the property’s approximately 37-building inventory, which has little historic significance, is slated for “sustainable demolition,” Neuman said, meaning that some of the materials might be salvaged and either sold or reused. There is substantial demand for structural steel and aluminum, he said, and even brick could be crushed and used as aggregate for paving.
The state acquired the Blue Ridge property in 1914 to establish a treatment site for tuberculosis patients. A 382-bed hospital opened in 1920; by the end of the year, it housed 198 patients who were “taking the cure.”
The treatment regimen included plenty of fresh air, fresh food and dairy products. The main hospital building, Wright Hall, featured private rooms opening onto communal, open-air sleeping porches. Nearby, a dairy complex — which comprises 10 structures, including a barn, silos and other outbuildings — provided fresh milk.
A Gothic Revival-style chapel, financed entirely by patient contributions, opened in 1925. The oldest structure on the property, the Lyman Mansion — which dates back to the 1870s — was first used as administrative space and later as nurses’ quarters.
The sanatorium ceased accepting new patients in 1962, although some remained until 1978, when the state turned the site over to the U.Va. Medical Center. The state also pledged to provide $10 million for upkeep and a share of the operating costs, said Leonard W. Sandridge, U.Va.’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. However, the General Assembly appropriated just $3 million that first year and nothing thereafter, scuttling the possibility of major renovations.
“We tried several times to find an economical way to go into those hospital buildings and find some use for them,” Sandridge said. Renamed Blue Ridge Hospital in 1978, the property housed some mental health and substance-abuse treatment facilities, an employee child care center and other offices.
In the early 1980s, University officials strongly considered building a replacement hospital at Blue Ridge, but ultimately chose the Medical Center’s current site because it was closer to existing medical office space, Sandridge said.
The Medical Center ceased operations at the site in 1998, and the state turned the property over to the U.Va. Foundation in 2000. Under an agreement negotiated with then-Gov. James Gilmore, the University pledged to use the space to build a research park while allowing the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates
Monticello, to use a portion of the site to build a visitors center.
Monticello has since decided against building there, but the terms of the U.Va. Foundation’s memorandum — that the property be used as “a research park for uses that further the educational and research mission of the University while respecting the property’s unique historical and environmental significance” — still hold, Sandridge said.
Over the years, a number of surveys have been conducted to determine the historic value of the buildings. Neuman said only a handful may have significance: Wright Hall, the Lyman Mansion, the chapel, the dairy complex and a half-dozen staff residences dating back to about 1915.
The Lyman Mansion may be too dilapidated to save, he said, although some of the building’s intricate woodwork may be salvageable.
A 2002 study estimated the costs of renovating Wright Hall at about $3.2 million, which includes removing lead paint and floor and ceiling tiles that may contain asbestos. The price tag for renovating the chapel was pegged at $220,000.
Under the University’s new plan, the structures to be renovated will be sealed and any invasive vegetation will be trimmed away from the walls. The other structures will be demolished as soon as possible because they are “a tremendous safety and security issue,” Sandridge said.
Neuman’s office will undertake a land-use survey of the site, scheduled for completion in the next several months, to determine what portions of the property are best suited for development. The U.Va. Foundation will then invite bids from private entities to develop the site and renovate the historic buildings.
Daniel Bluestone, an associate professor of architectural history who has long advocated preserving the Blue Ridge site, said the latest plan means the University “is moving in a good direction.”
However, he suggested that U.Va. may be underestimating the value of the buildings slated for demolition,, suggesting developers may want to reuse other buildings on the site. “I know that there is developer interest in redeveloping sites like this,” he said.
If a developer can be found and a plan agreed upon, development of the property may take at least a decade, Sandridge said.
If no developer can be found, “the options are not good,” Sandridge said. The property may have to be returned to the state, which, he noted, once considered it for a state prison.