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Group Rips Care of Veterans’ Facilities

Monday, November 11, 2013

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Hundreds of historic care facilities, chapels and homes built for America's veterans are at risk of demolition due to neglect by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, a new report charges.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation accuses the V.A. of allowing about half of the 2,008 historic structures in its care to deteriorate into "unsatisfactory" condition and of not repairing, renovating or reusing its building stock.

Meanwhile, the number of veterans using V.A. healthcare services has reached 6 million, up from 3.4 million in 2000.

Battle Mountain Sanitarium
James Rosenthal, Historic America Buildings Survey / National Park Service

The Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, SD, is one of the historic treasures that is deserving of immediate attention, the National Trust reports. The V.A. has proposed closing the facility and relocating 60 miles away.

The report, released Wednesday (Nov. 6), came five days before the country honors Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

Headquartered in Washington, DC, the non-profit National Trust works to promote the preservation, re-use and restoration of the country’s landscape.

The 122-page report is available here.

Buildings at Risk

The report says the V.A. has fallen short on its care of about half of its historic treasures, classifying them as “unsatisfactory,” abandoning them and leaving them to deteriorate.

Third generation VA campus
Department of Veterans Affairs

Veterans' hospitals built in response to World War II include the Rex Robley VA Medical Center in Louisville, KY. The National Trust says the V.A. has proposed to replace this facility.

A key indication of the V.A.’s alleged mismanagement is its failure to comply with federal laws to protect historic buildings, the report suggests.

Specifically, it said, the V.A. fails to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The report notes that Section 106 requires agencies to consider the impact of their programs and projects on historic properties and evaluate alternatives to avoid, minimize or mitigate these harms; meanwhile, Section 110 requires federal stewardship of these historic buildings.

The report also criticizes the V.A.’s planning processes and alleges that officials maintain a general bias against older buildings.

Immediate Threat

The Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, SD, is one of the historic treasures deserving of immediate attention, the National Trust reports.

The report says that V.A. leadership is proposing to shutter the 1907 facility—the first and only soldiers' home built to focus on veterans' short-term medical needs (as opposed to being a retirement home)—and move those services to a new facility 60 miles away.

Battle Mountain has been recognized as a National Historic Landmark.

The National Trust is currently engaged in advocacy efforts to promote rehabilitation and preservation of the structure, as well as the Milwaukee National Soldiers Home in Wisconsin.

Figures Cited

The National Trust reports that the V.A. has disposed of hundreds of buildings in recent years.

From fiscal year 2004 to 2012, “the V.A. disposed of 898 buildings, of which 381 were demolished and another 58 were deconstructed (physical dismantling through removal of items such as doors and hardware) in anticipation of demolition or mothballing,” the report noted.

National Trust for Historic Preservation
National Trust for Historic Preservation

The 122-page report is available here.

The current plan for fiscal year 2013 through 2017 “proposes to dispose of another 535 buildings in total, including demolishing 314 buildings and deconstructing 66.”

Instead of cost-effectively restoring the historic properties it manages, the V.A. has preferred to build new, the report suggests.  

The report estimates that at least seven new replacement medical centers are currently planned or under construction, at a total cost of $10 billion.

Recommendations, Response

The preservation group recommends, among other things, that the V.A. explore opportunities to reuse and protect the buildings through private developers; revise planning processes to comply with federal preservation laws; and commit to protection of the architectural assets.

VA representatives did not return a request for comment Friday (Nov. 8).

However, in a statement provided to LA Times, a spokesperson said that the agency “takes seriously its responsibility to care for historic buildings in its custody” and that it would review the report’s recommendations.

“The VA spokeswoman said that over the last decade, the agency had entered into partnerships with the private sector to renovate nearly 5 million square feet of V.A. structures for veterans' housing,” the Times reported.

Previous Clashes

This is not the first time the National Trust has taken aim at the V.A.’s culture and management.

Logos /

The National Trust said it led a campaign against the V.A. in the early 2000s to save 39 threatened buildings at the 1886 Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, KA.

The group's blog recounts a national effort in the early 2000s to save 39 threatened historic buildings at the Dwight D. Eisenhower VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, KA, as well as failed litigation attempt to save the National Register-listed New Orleans VA Medical Center that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans site has been leveled, and new construction is planned.

The group said it intended to use the report to collaborate with the V.A.


Tagged categories: Adaptive reuse; Government; Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Maintenance + Renovation; Rehabilitation/Repair; Renovation

Comment from Tom Schwerdt, (11/12/2013, 9:33 AM)

Old buildings often have a host of hazards and needed remediation: Lead paint, asbestos, mold, decayed electrical systems, decayed plumbing systems, inefficient HVAC, no insulation, cracks and shifting in everything from the foundation to the roof. Actual historic buildings should be preserved. However, I can see the potential for cost savings in simply demolishing old (and not noteworthy) buildings.

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