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Friday, August 29, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 72.0° F  Partly Cloudy
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After fire, Lothlorien co-op's future uncertain
One controversial option: Selling the lakefront property to a developer
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Xylon and Glyphia Doulas, with their daughter, Zelda, lived in the legendary co-op for eight years.
Credit:Seth Jovaag

In the Middle-earth of Tolkien lore, Lothlorien was a "Golden Wood" populated by reclusive elves.

In Madison, Lothlorien was, until September, home to elves of a different sort.

The four-story, century-old mansion at 244 W. Lakelawn Place, with its crenellated tower overlooking Lake Mendota, is perhaps the most legendary of Madison's roughly two dozen housing cooperatives. Before a Sept. 11 fire damaged sections of the 31-unit building, its 34 residents were carrying on the co-op's 40-year tradition of communal living that, in many ways, epitomizes Madison counterculture.

Flanked by stately fraternity and sorority buildings about a quarter-mile east of UW Memorial Union, "Loth" was an LGBT-friendly place where clothing was optional, biodegradable cleaning supplies were kept in the "question authority" closet and house decisions were made by an Elven Council, according to the surprisingly readable house manual. Members pooled cash each month to buy food in bulk, much of it fair trade, local or organic. Arguments could be mediated by "grievance elves" elected from the group. And Loth was known for hosting some pretty sweet parties, complete with live bands.

"I go anywhere and tell people where I live and they're like, 'I've been there at a party,'" says Xylon Doulas, an eight-year Loth veteran with ginger dreadlocks who married his wife, Glyphia, in the co-op.

"I loved living there," says Eric Rodgers, 28, a student at Madison College who moved to Loth several months before the fire after hearing friends rave about it. "I liked the diversity. The co-op experience was super cool."

But for nearly four months, Lothlorien has been empty, and its future remains uncertain.

Assessing the damage

Video of the third-story fire, captured from a neighboring frat shortly after 1 a.m., shows flames reaching 20 feet high or more. The cause of the blaze is officially "undetermined," though Brad Olson, supervisor of Madison Fire Department's investigation division, says it likely started in or near a raised garden bed on an outdoor deck.

Glyphia Doulas, a self-employed housecleaner, says she, Xylon and their 2-year-old daughter, Zelda, were sleeping when the fire alarm sounded.

"There were people running up and down the halls saying, 'This is for real!'"

No one was hurt and the fire was contained quickly, though Olson says a small "rekindling" later that day damaged a fourth-floor deck and extended water damage as far as the ground-floor entrance. The structure is sound, but contractors eventually had to rip out nearly half of the building's drywall and insulation. With the electricity and gas shut off, Lothlorien is a cold, dark place these days.

Loth is the largest of 11 housing cooperatives owned by Madison Community Cooperative, a nonprofit group with an office on Williamson Street. Since the fire, MCC has been inching toward a settlement with its insurance carrier, Auto-Owners Insurance Co., over the damages wrought by the two-alarm blaze, says Michael Carlson, MCC's maintenance director.

Initial estimates pegged the damages at $125,000, but after a thorough inspection, that figure climbed to $378,000, minus $82,000 for depreciation to account for the wear-and-tear from decades of housing 30-plus people, according to documents provided by MCC.

Those estimates, however, didn't name a price for several big-ticket fixes, including repairs to the plumbing, electrical and air-handling systems and possible removal of asbestos floor tiles. MCC's attorney has been dealing with the insurance company about potential compensation for those items, but parsing which damages were fire-related in the timeworn property has been painstaking, Carlson says. Auto-Owners Insurance Co. could not be reached for comment.

Another meeting between MCC staff and the insurance company was to be held this week.

"It's a complex problem to solve," says Carlson.

Options

Depending on how the insurance settlement shakes out, Loth could be restored to its former state, renovated to include more or fewer rooms, or sold to a developer, with revenues plowed back into other MCC properties, says Haven McClure, an 11-year cooperative veteran and coordinating officer of MCC's board of directors.

"Right now there are just too many unknowns," McClure says. "In some ways we're in unprecedented territory."

Of the options, selling Loth would be the most controversial. Doing so would require two-thirds backing from MCC's roughly 200 members, either via referendum or at a membership meeting.

Since the fire, Carlson says several developers have inquired about the property, which is included in the Langdon Street National Historic District, an area facing increasing pressure for redevelopment. But no offers have been made, as the building is not up for sale.

Longtime Loth resident Elijah McCloskey hopes it stays that way. He says selling what is likely a multimillion-dollar property in downtown Madison would be "stupid," a move many members would "fight all out."

"It will never get less valuable," says McCloskey, who runs a bike shop and is a business student at UW. "I don't think MCC will ever be able to buy a property like Loth again for any reasonable amount."

MCC purchased the building for $175,500 in 1973. Its value isn't listed on the city assessor's website because, as part of the nonprofit MCC, it's tax exempt. MCC declined to divulge the value of an appraisal made before September's fire.

Price is right

Meanwhile, as the wait drags on, some former elves are getting antsy.

Glyphia Doulas stays in touch with many former housemates and says some have found housing while others are in limbo.

After the fire, many crashed on couches with friends or relatives or at other co-ops, she says. But that wore thin with hosts and guests alike. With Loth's future unknown, most gave up and found new apartments, including the Doulas family, who now rent part of a house on the near east side but hope to move back to Loth someday.

Part of Lothlorien's appeal is the price. Rent ranges from $380 to $415 a month, which fits with MCC's mission of providing low-cost housing to people with low to moderate incomes -- something hard to come by in Madison.

For the displaced residents, there's also a strong emotional attachment to Loth. McCloskey says the house has been an incubator for nonprofit groups that help people learn how to fix their bikes or that deliver free food to disadvantaged people. Glyphia gave birth to Zelda in the house. Others have met their future spouses there. Sure, members argue over whose turn it is to wash dishes or clean bathrooms, and residents come and go, but it's not uncommon for past members to stop by and reminisce about their time at Loth, Glyphia says.

McClure says he's "really sympathetic" to Loth members' attachment to their former home.

"Loth's history does run very deep," he says. "It is, in many ways, somewhat legendary. That could have an impact on what the membership decides."

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