It may not look like it now, but some famous OU alumni lived here

 

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While nobody can deny the rich history of Ohio University, one of the oldest universities in the country, for some, 2016 will mark the final year that one of Athens oldest buildings is open to students.

The Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house on 50 East State St., one of my favorite places in South Eastern Ohio, is undergoing significant renovation throughout the 2017 school year. While the century-old original house will be demolished, the impact of the chapter and its alumni will live on for generations to come.

Originally founded in 1906, the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity made its way to Ohio University in 1911 and quickly built a house for their members that stands to this day. Needless to say, the house is in dire need of renovation but nevertheless many members are still sad to see it go.

60s-house

While this massive renovation project will certainly mark the end of an era for the longest continually operated chapter at Ohio University, it also serves as a time to reflect on the partnership between the fraternity and Ohio University over the last century.

The late Ohio Senator Greg Voinovich, an Ohio University graduate and Phi Kappa Tau member, formed the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs in 1998.

According to the schools website: “The school integrates scholarship, learning, and practice to solve environmental and energy problems; promotes value creation, smart policymaking and innovation in governments and nonprofits; builds businesses, drives entrepreneurship, helps develop the regions economy and molds current and future strategic leaders in public and environmental affairs.”

Before Voinovich was spending his college days at 50 East State, famous actor and Navy veteran Paul Newman joined the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. Although Newman never graduated from Ohio University, he spent the rest of his life raising money for his SeriousFun Children’s Network.

 

 

To this day, every chapter of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity donates money raised during their philanthropy events to Newman’s charity. The Ohio University chapter consistently gives more than any other chapter in the nation. In 2015, the members of the Ohio University chapter raised $3,000, a sizable difference than the $1,000 average given by other chapters.

Although the house that has fostered these outstanding Ohio University alumni is being torn down, the influence of the chapter will undoubtedly grow as time goes on. While the renovation of this historic house is definitely due, the members of the fraternity will certainly miss their favorite place in Athens throughout the lengthy process.

Crazy relaxation at the looney bin.

It may sound a little crazy, but next time you get the chance you should really stop by the Athens Insane Asylum…I mean the Ridges.

The Ridges (formerly the Athens Insane Asylum), was a functioning mental health hospital from 1874 to 1993. Ohio University obtained the property in 1989, the land grab almost doubled the size of the Athens, Ohio main campus.

Despite its marred past of mistreating the mentally ill and partaking in acts of quackery such as lobotomy and shock therapy, along with its believed connection to the supernatural, the Ridges is a perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.

This piece of 19th century architectural gold sits atop the hill (or the ridge rather) on the south side of the Hocking River directly across from West Green. Take a walk out Richland Ave. past the roundabout. Then you will come to a park. Hang a right and then head up the rugged brick road.

(Photo: Eben George
Large black birds perched atop the historic Ridges complex at Ohio University. (Photo: Eben George)

The sprawling grassy knolls of the Ridges make for a perfect picnic perch, lofted above the Hocking River Valley. Bring a friend or a special companion along with you. Layout on a blanket, soak up some rays and raise your serotonin levels with some good ol’ fashion vitamin D.

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The beautiful green space at the Ridges makes for a perfect place to collect your thoughts, hit the books and hang with friends. (Photo: Eben George)

If being lazy and lethargic isn’t your thing, then get active and in touch with your nature side. Take a hike on one of the Ridges hiking trails. The favorite trail among students is the Ridges Cemetery Nature Walk. The gravel trail winds through the hill littered, dense wooded area surrounding the grounds.

The cemetery is somewhat of an eerie place, old, decrepit grave markers are scattered throughout a clearing on the hill. Many of the markers bear no name, rather just a number to identify the deceased patients. The lack of names is due to the stigma surrounding the mentally ill during the early days neuroscience and mental healthcare.

It doesn’t take long to notice that many of the buildings at the Ridges are in ill-repair. Despite the crumbling facade, the future does look bright for the the Ridges.

In 2015 OU announced that it has developed a tentative plan to make major renovations to the existing buildings. The plan also includes utilizing the land for new structures.

The university has yet to set a timeline and funding plan for the project in stone. However, the 700-acre complex presents the university with its greatest opportunity for physical expansion. This need for expansion becomes more evident as the main campus population inches closers toward 25,000

Ohio University has already renovated serval of the structures at the Ridges. Most notably the asylum’s administration building, now know as Lin Hall. It boast iconic victorian towers and a breathtaking three tiered porch. Inside the beautiful Scofield creation now resides the Kennedy Museum of Art .

Lin Hall's stunning Victorian era towers were designed by the prominent Cleveland architect, Levi Scofield, in 1868. (Photo: Eben George)
Lin Hall’s stunning Victorian era towers were designed by the prominent Cleveland architect, Levi Scofield, in 1868. (Photo: Eben George)

Regardless of your interest, the Ridges is a perfect place to unwind from the tightly wound spool of college life. Go and catch up on your R and R before you wind up being in need of a lobotomy yourself.

 

The College on the Hill

It is the first sight you see on the college application next to the great bold words of Ohio University. It’s as old as the place gets, College Green to me makes me feel at home. Between the endless old brick walkways sit beautiful Cutler, McGuffey and Wilson Halls. They have been the foreground to this university since it was referred to as “the college on the hill”.

When I first arrived at Ohio University of course I got that homesick feel as this was the first time ever being away from home for an extended time. The part that made me realize that the change was for the good, were the friends I could tell I was making and the memories I was creating.

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” – Mark Twain

Walking to my classes everyday through College Green, in that first fall semester, I could hear the leaves crunch under my shoes as they started to change colors and fall to the ground. That same cool homey feel you had growing up as a kid walking to your bus stop. You could tell winter was coming because you had to put an extra layer on to keep warm. I got the same comfort walking back and forth that first semester which made me settle in very nicely.

“Sometimes in life, we become so focused on the finish line that we fail to find the joy in the journey”- someone on a journey

Through the years College Green has taken a new form in my life. Every time I see a commercial come on for Ohio University and I see the walkways and trees as old as the University itself I get that feeling of pride. Not the same pride feeling as you get when you study all night and ace a test but that pride feeling of knowing you were apart of something bigger than yourself. Learning about the old traditions of this great university and realizing that only a selected few will ever get to experience something as great as the time you had here makes it feel special and well worth it.

A eulogy for Mr. Taco

The corner of Foster Place and Union Street has a history of restaurants coming in with big plans but ultimately failing to stay afloat.  Mr. Taco, an authentic mexican restaurant, opened in the latter part of spring semester last year.  Hoping to build off America’s love of Mexican food, that only seems to be growing, Mr. Taco had big dreams here in Athens.

Initially, I would walk past the restaurant everyday and not pay much attention to it.  Finally a day came where I was hungry but not willing to walk far for food.  This was Mr. Taco’s time to shine.  This was what Mr. Taco was all about.  It was a special treat for residents of Foster Place who didn’t want to walk too far for a meal.

Over the next few months, I understood exactly what I wanted from Mr. Taco and it was never anything complicated.  Their limes and onions were clearly cut a day before actually being served.  Their burritos were dry and underwhelming.  Only one thing on the menu kept me coming back, the nachos.  Mr. Taco’s nachos were their magnum opus.  The nachos were a flurry of cheese, meat, lettuce, and sliced vegetables.  I didn’t know how fresh the ingredients were and I didn’t care.  For those few times I had the opportunity to sit down and relish in the Mr. Taco atmosphere it took me to another world.  The dimly lit dining area combined with the strange art that was probably bought a thrift store brought me to a place that was unequivocally Mr. Taco.

 

Mr. Taco's forgotten check out counter.
Mr. Taco’s forgotten check out counter.

Sometime in August, I was walking down my usual route from Baker back to Foster Place and what was there the day before was gone.  Mr. Taco’s door was locked and its lights off.  I went back to my roommates and we all agreed that they were simply on vacation.  Mr. and Mrs. Taco were off in some tropical paradise to celebrate their great and profitable summer.

 

Mr. Taco's closed door.
Mr. Taco’s closed doors.

The vacation didn’t end and walking by again, I saw a letter from the IRS sticking out of the mailbox.  There was no spin to this, Mr. Taco had died and it was all our fault.  If only the residents of Foster Place bought one more plate of nachos or a few more dry burritos, Mr. Taco would still be standing.  

Back from the ashes the Union open again

     Resurrected from that destructive blaze in 2014 the Union has opened its doors again. A landmark of not only the Athens music scene, but that of the greater Ohio area. Inside its walls sits more than a bar, or a venue to see shows, the Union is a place where the people of Athens can come together and enjoy the town’s nightlife.
The Union is one of the few places in Athens that actually hosts live music, and the only place in Athens, that is not university affiliated, that can pull in bigger acts that the others can’t. This led to the Union grabbing some talented acts, some of which eventually move on to preform bigger venues. The Union gives bands a place to show off their talent and bring their music to Athens.
Famous acts like the Black Keys and the White Stripes have played their stage before they got big enough to sell out larger clubs. While they’re able to find some of the acts before they’re too big. While the Union likes to show off the talent they’re able to bring in, the Union is truly a place where anyone who wants to show off their talent can come and perform on decent stage.
On top of their music endeavors the Union will host performance pieces too. The open environment of the Union allowed for many groups to showcase their work without going through the university or leaving the Athens area. The local production of Rocky Horror Picture Show once had a lines around the block until the fire forced the local theater group to move locations.
When the Union caught fire in the early morning of November of 2014, with most of the roof gone with the fire, the situation looked grim for the Union. They weren’t the only ones affected by the fire, being in the middle of the fire’s path which took out several other neighboring businesses, forcing many to relocate and for others to shut down permanently.

A view of West Union today.
A view of West Union today.

     After a lengthy period being closed, the Union is finally back. Walking in it’s hard to tell there was ever a fire there to being with. The bar’s owners took care to not only restore the damage done, but to improve from what they were before, while keeping to their punk rock roots. When the fire took most of their roof, the Union sadly lost most of it’s music equipment to the combined efforts of water, smoke, and fire. However, this gave them the chance to seriously improve the sound quality in the venue upstairs.
The owners of the Union went through great lengths to make a nicer bar, but with the same feeling they had for decades. The Union is more than just a bar or a place to play music, it’s a center point for the local culture of Athens to show itself, while being exposed to acts from around the country. Deep down it’s still the same old bar, just with a much fresher look to it now.

Marching band made me love a nasty river

I know what you’re probably thinking: “Ellen, why is your favorite place in Athens a dirty river?” And if you are, in fact, thinking that, you do have a point. The Hocking River is not exactly what the kids call “clean” or “safe” or “guaranteed not to have used hypodermic needles at the bottom.” But it means a lot to me.

The Hocking is basically an outline of one side of campus. I can see this line whenever I make the trip from my hometown back to Athens and I can see it from the bike path where I run. But the reason I love it is because of marching band.

The Hocking in all its stagnant glory
The Hocking in all its stagnant glory

Ever since I came to OU two years ago, the 110 has been a huge part of my life. It’s given me opportunities that I never would have dreamed possible had I not decided to buy a trombone off of Craigslist the summer after I graduated, and it’s given me my best friends (it’s also given me irreversible joint and hearing damage, but you can’t win ’em all). And throughout all the time I’ve spent with this band, the Hocking has been there.

The 110 practices on Pruitt, which is right across from the river. The rest of the trombone players and I have music sectionals a few times a week under a group of trees next to the bike path. We also do this thing before we perform pregame at football games where the 28 of us all line up at the edge of the bike path and do a bunch of really stupid dance moves. The Hocking is visible during all of this, which adds up to about 11 hours every week.

Like many other rivers, the Hocking River contains water
Like many other rivers, the Hocking River contains water

Now, based on that alone, it might make more sense for the bike path to be my favorite place in Athens. But while it has its merits, it’s not. And I’ll tell you why.

The 110 has been around since 1967. In the past 49 years, very little has changed. We still wear the same uniforms and march the same way, and we also keep the same traditions.

Two of the most important traditions involve the Hocking. I’m not going to go into a ton of detail on these — they really won’t make any sense unless you’re actually in the band — but in summary, that disgusting river is really symbolic for us. We’ve marched through it and our band jackets, which we’ll wear at homecoming for the rest of our lives, smell like it. The Hocking is basically a border for everything the 110 does, even if no one really thinks about it that way. So, while there are countless other places in Athens that I love dearly and which smell significantly better, the Hocking River is, ultimately my favorite.

Home for music and weirdos, I mean The Smiling Skull not my boyfriend’s house

Cheap beer, live music, and no ID requirements at the door. It’s basically what broke college student dreams are made of. While it may not be a gem to many the Smiling Skull Saloon is definitely a remarkable part of Athens.

Athens has a large music scene and The Skull is one of the many locations used as a venue to book shows for local and other up-and-coming musicians. Shows at the Skull tend to be more punk rock oriented with the occasional bluegrass band. This is only my second year at Ohio University but I’ve been able to see numerous bands at this small dive bar alone.

The crowds at shows tend to get very rowdy, especially after a night filled with drinking. Last year New York punk band, Bbig Pigg, was wrapping up the show for the night as last call approached. I was hoping to stay until the very end of show but during one of their songs a member of the audience stole the microphone from the vocalist. The microphone thief then smashed his beer bottle onto the ground. Shards of glass flew all over the place and I was so excited I didn’t realize some of the pieces cut my legs and were stuck to my clothing.

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Graffiti wall inside the women’s restroom

In”Smiling Skull Saloon a sanctuary for students and townies alike,” Emily Bohatch captures the essence of the bar. She said the usage of old license plates and photos hanging on the walls as decoration of bar “embodies a sense of tradition and home.”

The vintage posters and photos hung around the walls surrounded by graffiti are what make the Skull some kind of time machine for me. Even though the bar is only 16 years old the graffiti is a sobering reminder that I’m only going to be here for four years. I should enjoy it just like everyone else who left their mark somewhere in the bar.

The decorations are not the only thing that make the bar remarkable for me. It’s also the people I’ve met and stories I’ve learned. There’s always an interesting mix of patrons which make up of bikers, ‘townies’, and college students.

The most interesting to talk to have always been the older crowd of bikers and ‘townies’ because they always have a story to tell about “back in the day” and you can see how people’s eyes light up when reminiscing.

One of the most notable characters I’ve met has been Santa. A tall, older man with a beard that reaches his belly who sits by the door greeting people. There hasn’t been a night in which he isn’t filled with jokes and compliments.

Everyone in Athens has a bar that they prefer, and the Skull is definitely it for me. Many people I’ve met are usually not too excited about the idea of going to a dive bar at first but it’s an experience they end up enjoying. The Skull stands out and is unique, just like its patrons.

Why my favorite place in Athens is a green, metal bench

My favorite place on Ohio University’s campus isn’t so much a building or object as it is a setting; the location is more important to me than the object itself. Keep that in mind, because my favorite spot can be pretty underwhelming without context. It may seem a bit disappointing, especially given the options available to me in Athens, but my favorite spot on campus is a green, metal bench that sits outside of the Academic and Research Center on West Green.

Honestly, the bench really isn’t that comfortable. I usually bring an extra sweatshirt with me to place on the seat to make sitting on it for long periods of time tolerable. And I usually don’t sit there before 4 p.m. on weekdays. The rush of students going in and out of the ARC can be pretty distracting. The bench is also right next to a bike rack. I — or I should say my elbows — learned very early on not to get too comfortable while students are adding and removing bikes from the rack. Elbow bruises cause more problems than you’d think.

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The view from the bench

But the bench does have its redeeming qualities. It’s outside. As one can easily determine after looking at how pale I am, I don’t really get outside much. Spending an hour or two outdoors is not only good for my complexion, but it’s pretty relaxing as well. I also look forward to hearing birds chirp or seeing the famous Athens squirrels digging through trashcans to find dinner. It’s all part of the college experience, you know?

Don’t be fooled; I’m not a person who is extremely fond of nature. I flinch when I see an ant. I’ve never been a huge fan of outdoor pursuits, but there’s just something so calming about doing homework while sitting in a secluded part of campus and being able to glance over my shoulder to watch the sun set on the western horizon.

The best part about my favorite spot is I can still continue to work there after the sun goes down. Unlike other spots on campus, the area by my favorite bench is still illuminated at night. The spherical lamps and img_0244yellow light spilling from the windows and entrance to the ARC spreads across the area so well, I can still read notes I wrote by hand in light blue ink. Even when the sky becomes pitch black and the stars become visible, my favorite spot remains not only beautiful, but functional, too.

So here’s to you, green bench. Thank you for being something seemingly unimportant to most and a treasure to me.