Next week, on November 11, Americans will celebrate Veterans Day, the federal holiday that honors the millions of heroic men and women who have served our country in the armed forces. More than 150 years ago, the U.S. Congress took action on behalf of these veterans by establishing the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers to serve the physical, mental, and reincorporation needs of veteran soldiers following the Civil War. It was the precursor to the modern-day Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and resulted in 11 medical facilities scattered across the country which included everything from hospitals to residential quarters to farm buildings to cemeteries. Today, five of those campuses are National Historic Landmarks (NHL) and all of them represent the crown jewels of a vast and diverse collection of historic buildings and landscapes that reflect America’s care for its veterans.
Unfortunately, many of these historic assets are threatened because of the VA’s stewardship practices. That is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation named two of the NHL campuses—the Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, S.D., and Milwaukee Soldiers Home in Wisconsin—as National Treasures and is working to save them. Part of the Trust’s advocacy to protect these iconic places was to conduct a study of the VA’s preservation practices of its more than 2,000 historic properties that provide care to our nation’s veterans. The result of that study is a report entitled Honoring Our Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing.
The Trust is no stranger to the VA’s deficient management practices of its cultural resources. In the early 2000s it became engaged in the preservation and reuse of 39 threatened historic buildings at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kans. Like the Hot Springs and Milwaukee sites, this NHL campus is a branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. An intensive local and national advocacy campaign resulted in a save at Leavenworth.
The same cannot be said of the National Register-listed New Orleans VA Medical Center. Damaged by flooding from Hurricane Katrina, the VA slated the entire campus for abandonment and demolition. Here, the Trust pursued litigation, arguing that the VA circumvented the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). Unfortunately, the litigation was unsuccessful, and the historic campus now sits vacant and more than 150 National Register-listed homes have been bulldozed to make way for a new VA medical campus.
The VA has an internal agency culture that does not favor maintaining and continuing to use its historic assets--the very assets that were designed and built in tribute to the men and women who served our country in the armed services. The report documents how this bias manifests itself in the department’s stewardship practices. One example is the VA’s preference for new construction over rehabilitation of existing building stock. Dated arguments, such as the inability to achieve ADA compliance in a historic building, are routinely cited as obstacles to historic building rehabilitation. As the report shows, there are many examples of historic hospitals that have been renovated to serve modern medical needs, like the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Mich.
The VA also often chooses to ignore or circumvent its requirement to comply with NEPA and NHPA. Astoundingly, the report details that the VA has issued just two Environmental Impact Statements for medical center projects over the past 45 years. Consider that over a four-year period of time alone, from fiscal year 2008 to 2012, the VA disposed of 898 buildings (15 percent of its building stock), of which 381 were demolished and 58 were deconstructed in anticipation of demolition or mothballing. It is not clear how many of these are historic assets, but of the 2,008 historic buildings managed by the VA, approximately one-half of these have been categorized as unsatisfactory, a label that gives them little chance of being used in the future.
The time to reverse this trend is now. The VA needs to be held accountable for its actions that lead to the irreversible loss of our nation’s cultural legacy. The Trust’s report identifies the following four recommendations to improve the Department’s care of its historic properties:
- Top management of the VA must strongly and unequivocally commit to and support the protection of historic VA facilities—in order to comply with federal historic preservation laws and to ensure the best care possible for our nation’s veterans.
- VA staff should be encouraged to support—and resources must be allocated for—the preservation of the historic buildings with which they have been entrusted. The planning process for VA facilities needs to be revised to include assessment of historic resources before fixed plans for new buildings, and sometimes even congressional authorization, make it difficult to change decisions that have become set in stone.
- Opportunities to reuse and protect the VA’s historic buildings through private developers and other non-governmental parties should be expanded and actively promoted.
- Preservationists and other advocates must help the VA recognize the value of historic buildings to the mission and work of the agency and the communities in which they exist.
Ultimately, the Trust will use the report as a tool to collaborate with the VA and assist it in making better decisions about using and caring for its remarkable collection of architecture and landscapes. Congress can help us with this charge, and so can local preservationists. The preservation and continued use of the VA’s medical facilities would honor not just living veterans, but all veterans, for whom the historically significant buildings and landscapes were designed and built.
Look for more information next week on the PreservationNation blog when “10 on Tuesday” brings you 10 tips for protecting historic VA facilities.