Plans to raze historic building draw protest

The Baltimore Sun

DAYTON, Ohio -- Plans to demolish an Art Deco building where a top-secret program broke Nazi codes have prompted a battle between preservationists and the University of Dayton, which owns the building and intends to have it razed to make way for a 50-acre campus expansion.

The university agrees that what went on in the building more than half a century ago is the stuff of legend. Its officials would create a memorial nearby to honor that feat. The demolition's opponents say any memorial would be a poor substitute.

In 1942, the National Cash Register Co., working with naval engineers, was commissioned to produce an advanced version of the British code-breaking machines that unscrambled the German Enigma codes but that became obsolete after German technological advances.

Working quietly behind the building's glass-block windows, a team led by Joseph Desch, an NCR engineer, succeeded in making the new code-breakers by early 1943, enabling U.S. forces to decode messages nearly as fast as the Germans who received them and to reroute ships imperiled by German submarines. Then, after D-Day, the machines helped track German troop movements.

Desch, a University of Dayton graduate, took his secrets to the grave in 1987, several years before the code-breaking project was finally declassified. In 2005, the building where he had made such silent history was bought by the university from NCR.

The 1938 brick-and-sandstone structure, known simply as Building 26, has been obscured by 1960s steel-skinned additions wrapped around three sides. Some sandstone flourishes and most of the original brick exterior remain, and inside there are some original plaster walls and ceilings. But the stylized sandstone facade on the front of the building has been shaved to within 1 inch of the interior walls, university officials say.

Still, that is more than enough to preserve and restore, said Jerry Hauer, a Dayton music store owner who organized a town-hall meeting March 21 to rally opposition against razing the building. "If they do a sculpture or something," Hauer said of one idea for a memorial, "it's meaningless."

Deborah Anderson, a daughter of Desch, has also pleaded for preservation, saying, "You can have wonderful exhibits and artifacts and whiz-bang experiments, but it won't be the same as stepping into that building."

Anderson joined a university-created committee that is studying options for a memorial, but only after the institution's officials announced March 9 that demolition, which they had raised as a possibility in 2005, was the course they would definitely pursue.

The university's decision hinged in part on a survey it commissioned from the ASC Group of Mason, Ohio, a firm specializing partly in historical and architectural services. ASC concluded in January that given a failure to meet standards like those for design, setting, materials and workmanship, the building was ineligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

"If the analysis had concluded this was a historic building, we would have gone in another direction, but this building has been altered too much," said the university's president, Daniel J. Curran, adding that the building's remaining flag stand and other historical markers would be salvaged.

The university plans to begin demolition as early as this summer as part of the expansion, which will accommodate research facilities, housing, retail and other uses.

The memorial, meanwhile, could take the form of public art, an indoor exhibit or a plaza that tells the story of Desch and his colleagues, said Vincent F. Russo, chairman of the university committee. "It's a chance to do something permanent and conspicuous that will be a real asset to the community," Russo said.

But there may yet be hope for the preservationists' cause. When Hauer called a meeting on March 21, Michael R. Turner, the local Republican congressman, threatened to withhold support for federal funds that would subsidize the development. After that, the university promised a public hearing on the issue. In addition, the Ohio Historic Preservation Office, a part of the Ohio Historical Society, will review the ASC study.

Should the public hearing or the review uncover additional historic value in the building, the university will reconsider its decision, Curran said.

Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the Aviation Heritage Foundation here, still laments Dayton's loss of Orville and Wilbur Wright's bicycle shop, which was moved to Dearborn, Mich., in the 1930s.

"What I want," he said, "is for the university master planner to sit down with the preservation community and explore options to see if it really does make sense to save the building."

Daniel Bluestone, a professor of architectural history at the University of Virginia, said that whatever the architectural integrity of Building 26, saving it for its historical significance would be in keeping with American tradition.

"Why wouldn't you want to harness that history?" Bluestone said. "People going to do their work in that building would have that in the back of their mind. You would have a workplace with a soul."

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