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Waltham puts brakes on Usen Castle demolition

Brandeis officials contend that it is cost-prohibitive to save more of Usen Castle.

Brandeis University

Brandeis officials contend that it is cost-prohibitive to save more of Usen Castle.

Brandeis University’s plan to tear down most of the historic Usen Castle has been put on hold, for now.

The Waltham Historical Commission voted unanimously Monday to impose a one-year demolition delay with hopes that the university will consider saving more of the structure.

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Brandeis officials contend that it is cost-prohibitive, but commission members said expense alone is not a valid reason for demolition.

“As a board, we felt there was nothing in their application that proved it wasn’t feasible to renovate or restore a much larger portion, if not all, of the castle,’’ said commission member Alex Green. “When we took that into account, along with the extraordinary historical significance to it, it was enough to say that it was worth preserving.’’

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The commission considered a demolition delay because the castle, built in 1928, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a building of historical significance.

Today, the castle houses sophomore dorms and Chum’s coffee house.

Brandeis plans to demolish most of the castle except for two main towers — described by university officials as the “most iconic and visible parts” of the building.

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With the exception of Chum’s, which will stay open, Towers A and B would be unoccupied while the university analyzes options and fundraising opportunities for reuse.

“Unfortunately, the castle was both poorly designed — without the benefit of an architect or engineers — and cheaply constructed as it took shape during the Great Depression,’’ Interim President Lisa Lynch said in a statement at the meeting. “Despite our maintenance over the years, the castle is reaching the end of its useful life.’’

At the same time, the school needs more on-campus housing, she said.

The plan would allow Brandeis to build new residences on the castle site to accommodate approximately 160 students.

Students will continue to live in the castle through the end of the fall semester. The university hopes to begin site work in spring 2017, with construction to be finished by August 2018.

Green said members hope university officials come back to the commission with a “reasonable’’ plan to save more of the castle. If it does, Green said the commission would consider lifting the demolition delay.

But Jim Gray, vice president for campus operations at Brandeis, said it is too expensive to save anything other than the two towers.

“I don’t want to rule out anything — we just started a conversation with the commission,’’ he said. “But the long-term viability of the castle pieces other than A and B are subject to such extreme costs that it’s impossible to imagine justifying that cost.’’

Lynch said in her statement that the cost of preserving the entire castle is between $80 million and $90 million. She said it would have resulted in spending nearly four times as much per student bed for 60 percent fewer students than the option they selected.

“We have a responsibility to spend our scarce resources on our core mission,’’ she said. “As a top-tier research university, our highest priority is to invest in educational excellence — by continuing to attract the very best faculty and by increasing financial support so that no exceptionally qualified student who is offered admission at Brandeis, including many from Waltham, is precluded from attending for financial reasons.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.
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