Let’s Talk About Old Main’s Lawn


Whoa! Wait a minute!

Let’s talk this over,” is my response to the University of Arkansas’ announcement (May 21 in the Democrat-Gazette) that administrators have given a green light to tear into the front lawn of Old Main, the face of the campus, to build a construction road.

In case you think campus construction isn’t the business of alumni, donors, locals, students and all Arkansas taxpayers, let’s pause for a minute to remember that it was citizen activists who saved Old Main, who saved Carnell Hall and who have tried unsuccessfully to save other buildings like the 4-H House, an architectural remnant of Carlson Terrace, and other campus attributes such asthe University Museum.

UA decisions are often announced as done-deals rather than deals that might be better handled if discussed broadly. Such pronouncements are certainly understandable considering that public input is as messy as sausage making, often loud, timeconsuming, and, well, democratic. Experience is a great teacher, which is probably why historicpreservationists got an Arkansas legislative resolution, HCR 1024, passed in 2003 as a preemptive measure. It states, “Be it further resolved that all publicly-owned historic structures and sites should not undergo any alteration that would compromise the historic integrity without: First a public announcement of the intent and goals of the alteration or renovation project; and, Second, a review conducted ... to insure that taxpayer money is spent to enhance the historic property and not compromise the integrity of the historic structure or site.”

So what’s the big deal about a construction road? Wrap your mind around this scene.

The block of Lafayette Street from Gregg to Arkansas avenues will serve as a busy route for large heavy trucks, which will also cross over the historic and slated-tobe-restored Lafayette Street Bridge. Trucks will drive across Arkansas Avenue and then enter the campus. In order not to leap the wall, which must be at least 3-feet high, a 20-foot length of its old stones will be removed and numbered for theirfuture return, and a sloping grade change will be cut.

The ground preparation across the lawn will be “geotechnical fabric” covered over with red dirt base material and chert rock.

This lawn is a campus arboretum. That means it is occupied by living things that can’t pick up their skirts and move out of the way of huge machinery, nor can they protect themselves. These trucks will be driving between tree trunks, under hanging branches, and over the root systems of 100-plus year old trees, which are intertwined and woven together in a mass probably no deeper than 18 inches. Because root systems can stretch two to four times the distance of tree canopy drip-lines, the truck entry slope could obliterate a tremendous amount of the established and vital life supportgrowing beneath those trees.

Few folks realize that tree roots must obtain oxygen through porous dirt. Road materials, even 4 to 6 inches, compacted by thousands of two-way truck trips for at least two years (good luck) will suffocate, starve, and crush the roots in this wide path, geotechnical fabric notwithstanding. Root damage increases stress andsusceptibility to insects and diseases and compromises the anchoring stability of large trees.

Putting it bluntly, this route is a mistake and there is nothing “temporary” about the impact that a parade of multi-ton vehicles will cause. Taking the long way east to west instead of accessing work sites from the north or south sides of campus will physically barricade the two sides of the university’s front yard from other uses and scar it for at least half of the time some studentsattend college. Alternative route pros and cons need intensive public discussion, especially considering what local historic preservationist, Paula Marinoni, learned in a meeting with university representatives. She said that the loss of a few parking spaces on one alternate route was actually a consideration in nixing that path.

Alumni have sometimes called Old Main’s front yard, “sacred ground,” because its arms embraced us as young students and gave us a sense of place andbelonging as we began our first big venture away from home. Walls can be put back, as can sidewalks, and even every tiny piece of red dirt and chert can be picked up, but those trees will be gone forever and with them will go things impossible to teach inside any of the buildings on campus: beauty and peace and priorities.


Opinion, Pages 15 on 05/29/2011

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