A his­tory of vet­er­ans in build­ings for sale

Sites too costly to re­pair, too his­toric to de­mol­ish.

The Palm Beach Post - - HURRICANE IRMA -

MIL­WAU­KEE — When the tow­ers of the Na­tional Home for Dis­abled Vol­un­teer Sol­diers be­gan ris­ing af­ter the Civil War, they were seen as soar­ing mon­u­ments to the na­tion’s benev­o­lence. But af­ter more than a cen­tury of use, they be­came more of an al­ba­tross.

The roof leaked. The wards were sheathed in lead paint and as­bestos. The old wiring was a fire wait­ing to hap­pen.

The home was too an­ti­quated to use, too grand to de­mol­ish. So a new vet­er­ans hos­pi­tal was built next door at a frac­tion of the cost of ren­o­va­tion. The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, see­ing no rea­son to waste money on hir­ing a wreck­ing ball, sim­ply locked the doors of the sol­diers home, which vet­er­ans had fondly re­ferred to as Old Main, let­ting it slowly crum­ble away through what one lo­cal preser­va­tion­ist called “de­mo­li­tion by ne­glect.”

The home has been sealed for 28 years.

The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has 430 va­cant build­ings, in­clud­ing 200 that are more than 90 years old. Up­keep on this moth­balled fleet costs at least $7 mil­lion a year. The sec­re­tary of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, Dr. David Shulkin, bent on stream­lin­ing the mas­sive health care sys­tem, re­cently an­nounced a push to get rid of the build­ings within two years, either by leas­ing, sell­ing or de­mo­li­tion. But the story of Mil­wau­kee’s old sol­diers’ home, and the vet­er­ans the­ater next door, shows that it will be far from sim­ple.

The vet­er­ans health care sys­tem is an at­tic of the na­tion’s good in­ten­tions, clut­tered with Vic­to­rian sur­geons quar­ters and tu­ber­cu­lo­sis wards, World War I shell shock asy­lums, New Deal li­braries, Cold War bowl­ing al­leys and even a mon­key house built to keep dis­il­lu­sioned Union vet­er­ans en­ter­tained.

For many build­ings, there is no easy makeover, and few ob­vi­ous buy­ers. Pay­ing for up­keep is hard to jus­tify at a time of soar­ing pa­tient de­mand. So is pay­ing for de­mo­li­tion. So hun­dreds of build­ings stand pre­served, at least for now, in a bu­reau­cratic amber of in­de­ci­sion.

“We be­lieve in hon­or­ing the VA’s his­tory, but the best way to do that is to pro­vide the best care to­day,” said Gary Ku­nich, a spokesman for the Mil­wau­kee Vet­er­ans Af­fairs med­i­cal cen­ter. He was giv­ing a tour of a new, state-of-the-art spinal in­jury clinic built near Old Main that cost $27 mil­lion. Ren­o­vat­ing the old sol­diers home would have cost nearly twice that, he said, adding that knock­ing it down would also cost mil­lions.

“We’d rather spend the money here,” he said.

Old Main was a model of moder­nity when it was au­tho­rized in 1865 by one of the last of­fi­cial acts of Pres­i­dent Abra­ham Lin­coln. It be­came home to about 1,000 for­mer sol­diers who rose at reveille each morn­ing and dressed in blue uni­forms, then filed into com­pa­nies or­ga­nized by dis­abil­ity. One vis­i­tor at the time praised the wards as “large and cheer­ful: well ven­ti­lated and well lighted.”

As the build­ing aged into ob­so­les­cence, though, it stub­bornly re­sisted so­lu­tions. A pro­posed lease to the city of Mil­wau­kee for of­fices and apart­ments fell apart a decade ago amid protests from lo­cal vet­er­ans groups.

As Old Main and the the­ater next door de­te­ri­o­rated, the depart­ment con­sid­ered call­ing in the bull­doz­ers. But that plan stopped in 2011 when lo­cal preser­va­tion­ists got Old Main pro­tected as a na­tional his­toric land­mark.

Then, in re­cent years, preser­va­tion­ists work­ing with lo­cal vet­er­ans and the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs de­vised a 75-year lease that will al­low a de­vel­oper who spe­cial­izes in his­toric preser­va­tion, the Alexan­der Co., to ren­o­vate Old Main and five other his­toric build­ings on the cam­pus as apart­ments for home­less vet­er­ans.

“The bones of this build­ing are great. You could never preser­va­tion grants and pri­vate do­na­tions, he said. Cost to the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs: noth­ing.

But the same ap­proach has not worked on ar­chi­tec­tural odd­i­ties like the Ward the­ater next door, which can­not qual­ify for the same grants and tax in­cen­tives aimed at solv­ing home­less­ness. Closed since the 1980s, the ele­gant brick and stone the­ater has hardly changed for gen­er­a­tions. Tan­gles of old film and manila rope haunt the area be­neath he stage. Cen­tury-old vaudeville and min­strel posters plas­ter walls in the light booth. The 800 wooden seats, still fit­ted with wire hat racks, wait un­der a thick layer of dust.

Over the decades, re­peated ef­forts to re­vive the the­ater failed, in­clud­ing one fundrais­ing plan aimed at land­ing a big do­na­tion from the neigh­bor­hood kid turned celebrity Lib­er­ace, who made some of his first ap­pear­ances at the the­ater’s pi­ano.

Over the decades, re­peated ef­forts to re­vive the the­ater failed, in­clud­ing one fundrais­ing plan aimed at land­ing a big do­na­tion from the neigh­bor­hood kid turned celebrity Lib­er­ace, who made some of his first ap­pear­ances at the the­ater’s pi­ano.

The cost of sim­ply keep­ing it locked re­cently be­came ap­par­ent a few years ago when the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs had to spend $3 mil­lion to re­pair leak­ing roofs and win­dows. At that time, a life-size stained glass por­trait of Pres­i­dent Ulysses S. Grant that once graced the east wall was de­camped to stor­age. It is un­clear if it will ever re­turn.

Plenty of other build­ings are stuck in a sim­i­lar pur­ga­tory. In Tuskegee, Ala., a cam­pus erected to serve African-Amer­i­can vet­er­ans from the Civil War and World War I has been closed for more than 30 years. The depart­ment said a ru­ral lo­ca­tion and poor re­pair have kept buy­ers away. The same is true of the cam­pus in tiny Knoxville, Iowa, (pop­u­la­tion 7,200) which has 34 empty build­ings, in­clud­ing a dairy barn.

Beck, who worked for Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion be­fore put­ting to­gether the fi­nanc­ing to save Old Main, said a num­ber of other depart­ment prop­er­ties have po­ten­tial as hous­ing for the home­less, and Old Main could serve as a model.

“But peo­ple will have to act,” he said. “If th­ese places get too far gone, it’s too ex­pen­sive. Then there are no good op­tions.”

DAVID KASNIC PHOTOS / THE NEW YORK TIMES

The stage inside Ward Memo­rial Hall on Mil­wau­kee’s Vet­er­ans Af­fairs cam­pus. The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs has 430 va­cant build­ings, in­clud­ing 200 that are more than 90 years old.

A room of posters inside Ward Memo­rial Hall. The VA sec­re­tary an­nounced a push to get rid of the build­ings within two years, either by leas­ing, sell­ing or de­mo­li­tion.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.