Pride, prejudice and government extortion
9/29/2022, 6 p.m.
Literary great Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
That sums up the government preservationists who have focused their wrath on the signs that now sit at the top of the 165-foot bell tower on the campus of Virginia Union University.
Lighted at night, the signs installed on the four sides of the tower feature the VUU initials.
From the government’s description, you would think those signs featured bold, garish, blinking lights. Nope. They are tastefully designed signs that are lit only enough to make the letters visible.
So why has the state Department of Historic Resources extorted the university into paying $35,000 a year to keep the signs in place?
The reason: Dr. Hakim J. Lucas, president of the historically Black university, did not secure permission from the preservation arm of the city, the Commission for Architectural Review, before installing them. And the commission is hot about that.
As it turns out, the tower and the building to which it is attached are in a city Old and Historic District, which the commission governs. Under the rules, the commission has promulgated, the signs are larger and brighter than its rules allow in such a preservation district.
The commission may do a great job, but in this case, they are proving that Mr. Emerson was right.
Here is why. First, those appealing signs cover the damage that a major storm wreaked on the top portion of the tower, which includes air vents or louvers. Much of the bell tower now is clad in a protective covering after a storm also destroyed lighting that ran along the side.
Yes, the building was designed to be lighted.
Most importantly the signs help neutralize the white supremacist and racist origins of the tower and the building to which it is attached, which were created to house Belgium’s exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair n New York and which now houses VUU’s gym and art programs.
The building’s exterior features sculpted artwork of semi-nude Africans frolicking in the Congo that Belgium owned and controlled at the time. It was supposed to illustrate how happy those “uncivilized” Africans were to be under Belgian control, just like the South promoted images of “happy” enslaved people in this country.
It was a cover-up of Belgium’s oppressive rule, the horrible abuses it meted out to natives who objected and its virtual enslavement of residents to exploit what is now the Republic of Congo’s mineral wealth.
Even so, VUU competed for the building when Belgium could not ship it home after being overrun by Germany at the start of World War II and won. The relocation to a Black university’s campus reduced the white supremacist sting, and the signs help further neutralize those racist origins by making a beacon for VUU.
Did the commission take racist purpose of the building into account? No. They foolishly focused on their guidelines barring signs of that sort instead of applauding the elegant solution VUU devised to cover the tower damage.
Instead of thinking through this individual case, the commission began demanding VUU take down the signs.
Fortunately, City Council on Monday refused that recommendation and instead voted 8-0 to override the commission and allow the signs to stay put.
That’s not the end, though.
Council still must approve a special use permit, and VUU must get a building permit. But the vote was an important first step.
The council’s action, though, will not get rid of that $35,000 punishment fee that the Department of Historic Resources and its board are gleefully eager to impose to make an example of VUU to prevent others from trying to bypass the commission.
But knowing what we know about this building and what VUU did, this is just wrong. It is wrong for the state agency and its board to demand that fine, and it is wrong to collect it.
We believe any fair-minded and intelligent assessment would conclude those signs enhance and do not detract from the effort to preserve the building. VUU’s action damaged nothing other than the pride of some decision-makers.