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Mouse House : Long-Term Experiment Short-Lived

Times Staff Writer

Cal State Northridge biology professor George Fisler gave up his dream house long before the wrecking ball swept it away.

Fisler’s “house,” a 500-square-foot cement block building, was built three years ago on the CSUN campus so the professor could conduct a long-term animal behavior experiment.

It was to hold hundreds of wild mice, which over several generations were to provide some missing pieces to the nature-versus-nurture puzzle. It was to be a researcher’s dream, with elaborate lighting and temperature controls to simulate night and day, winter and summer; stainless steel everywhere. “A substantial investment,” Fisler said.

But 10 years after plans for the building were first made and two years after it was built, the never-used, three-room structure was demolished in November after CSUN officials discovered that it was in the path of a $15-million, 75,000-square-foot science building under construction.

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Little Comment

University administrators, always willing to talk about the school’s capacity enrollment and its ambitious $300-million expansion, have little to say about why they built Fisler’s house and tore it down. In the grand scheme of things, the little block building was pretty insignificant, administrators said.

Fisler’s colleagues, ecstatic over the new science building, are sympathetic but reluctant to make much of his loss.

“You have to break some eggs to make the omelet,” said Ken Jones, one of Fisler’s colleagues and the biology department’s former chairman. “But for me, not being involved, I can be philosophical about it.”

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Only Fisler, still reluctant to say much about the whole episode, is disappointed. Not until after the building was finished in 1986 was he told that it would be torn down in two to three years to make way for the new science building, he said. He needed at least six years to complete the research he had planned there.

Scrapped Plans

“When it became apparent that there would be no other building available, I just said screw it,” said Fisler, 57. He said he dropped all plans to pursue the wild mice research that had been in the back of his mind for most of his 24 years at CSUN.

Fisler had hoped that his research would show whether traits such as aggressiveness continued to appear in mice after they were removed from the wild and raised in captivity for several generations. The research would help explain whether those traits were learned or inherited, he said. The block building was to house that experiment.

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But because there are no written records of how much the building cost or who paid for it, the history of Fisler’s house depends on whom you talk to. Plans for the building burned in a 1987 fire.

“Everything was done verbally,” said Don Bianchi, dean of the university’s School of Science and Mathematics.

Property Swap

Fisler and Jones recall that campus administrators offered to build the block house on the condition that the biology department relinquish control of a quarter-acre campus-owned property at Etiwanda Avenue and Halsted Street. Department professors had used a deteriorating frame house on that property for wild animal research until campus administrators made their offer.

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“They said we could build a temporary block building if you want to trade,” Jones said. “But the net effect is that we didn’t get any building . . . and Fisler’s out in the cold.”

After the biology department gave up its old biology house, the former residence was used to store books and equipment for other departments. It is now boarded up and will be demolished soon to make way for a 700-space parking lot, university officials said.

Bill Chatham, associate vice president for facilities and operations, whose department controls the former biology property, said he could not comment on whether there was any trade. “I’m tired of talking about it,” he said.

Bianchi said the transfer of the property from the biology department to Chatham’s office had nothing to do with the offer to build a new block house for Fisler. He said he pushed for the building so that biologists would have a place to conduct their wild animal experiments.

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Rather, Bianchi said the department relinquished control of the property simply because it stopped using it. He said he knew all along that the replacement building was going to be torn down to make way for the science building. “I just didn’t know when,” he said.

Bianchi also said he has no idea how much Fisler’s block building cost or who paid for it. Margaret L. Steiner, the biology department’s program administrator in charge of expenditures at the time, said she cannot recall anything about the project.

Marty Holzman, director of plant operations for the campus, said that because the building was constructed by the university’s own workers and probably with spare materials, there is no record of how much it cost. “I know that the cost was pretty insignificant,” he said.

Holzman’s former boss, Jack Hupp, said the building probably cost about $20,000. But he doesn’t recall exactly when it was built. “But there should be records of it somewhere,” said Hupp, now head of plant operations at UC San Diego. Holzman said the only records burned in a drafting room fire nearly two years ago.

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“There’s no way to figure out even where last year’s cement went,” Holzman said. “We keep track of what is spent but not whether a yard of cement went to a sidewalk or a driveway.”

The stainless steel sinks and other high-cost accessories from Fisler’s building were salvaged and are in storage, Holzman said. They are all that is left of the building, he said.

The last surviving set of blueprints for the block house are buried somewhere on Fisler’s desk, he said. On a recent day, he made a half-hearted attempt to dig them out and stopped. “I’ve blocked a lot of this out,” he said.

But then he recalled how he was told about plans to demolish the block building.

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“I was asked where I would want another facility,” Fisler said. “That was two years ago and I haven’t heard a word since.”


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