A report being released Thursday by the National Trust for Historic Preservation warns that hundreds of historic buildings managed by the Department of Veterans Affairs are at risk of demolition because the department often ignores federal laws that protect such structures and overestimates the cost and feasibility of preservation.
Veterans Affairs is steward for about 2,000 historic buildings, facilities and landscapes — among them hospitals, residences, farm buildings and cemeteries — that includes important landmarks dating to the Civil War, the report notes.
“Unfortunately, the care provided to these historic treasures — places which have more than proven their worth as settings for the healing and nurturing of today’s wounded veterans — is far from adequate and has reached crisis proportion,” says the report, titled “Honoring Our Nation’s Veterans: Saving Their Places of Health Care and Healing.”
VA said in a statement that it “takes seriously its responsibility to care for historic buildings in its custody as we carry out our mission to provide the quality care and benefits Veterans have earned and deserve.” The department added that it will review the report’s recommendations.
About half of the historic facilities managed by VA are categorized by the department as “unoccupied and risk[ing] deterioration” and many are in “unsatisfactory” condition, the report says.
“Once these buildings land on the ‘unsatisfactory’ list, they have little chance of being used in the future under current VA practices,” the report says. “Funds for repair are diverted elsewhere, the buildings are left vacant, and they continue to deteriorate.”
Among the structures the National Trust says are at risk are the Battle Mountain Sanitarium in Hot Springs, S.D., and the Milwaukee National Soldiers Home in Wisconsin. Both have been designated as “National Treasures” by the National Trust, a privately funded nonprofit organization.
The Battle Mountain Sanitarium opened in 1907 for veterans with respiratory problems. According to the National Trust, the VA would like to close the campus and move medical services to a new facility 60 miles away. The VA says that the historic designation at Battle Mountain “significantly constrains” the ability to complete needed renovations, according to the report.
In Milwaukee, VA “has let several historic buildings, including the iconic Old Main – the oldest Soldiers Home building in the country — sit vacant and unmaintained for years to the point of severe deterioration,” the report says.
In its statement, VA said it “must balance its primary mission of providing safe, secure, modern facilities to care for our nation’s veterans with the responsibility to ensure the preservation of historic buildings.”
The department added that it “continues to explore ways to better utilize its existing portfolio of real estate and strives to take historic and aging infrastructure and repurpose it in support of Department programs.”
The National Trust report questions VA’s compliance with both the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The laws require VA to notify key stakeholders, such as preservation groups, veterans and veterans’ service organizations, Indian tribes and other community groups, before deciding the fate of buildings listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
In its statement, VA said it “regularly engages with community stakeholders, including the Trust, in consultation to assess effects that planned construction projects may have on those properties, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.”
But David J. Brown, the National Trust’s executive vice president and chief preservation officer, said in a statement: “With the VA, we found that notification often comes well into the planning process or even after a historic building has been demolished.”
“The Trust and our partners want to work with the VA and help them make better decisions about using and caring for historic buildings, but to do that effectively, we need to be brought into the planning process earlier.”
The report notes that VA has “done an exemplary job” compared with other government agencies in identifying and evaluating its historic buildings.
“Despite this evaluation, however, the VA is doing an inadequate job of protecting these assets,” the report adds.
The report recommends that VA leaders “strongly and unequivocally” commit to protecting historic buildings and that the department’s staff be given resources to preserve the structures. It also says the government should expand efforts to reuse and protect historic buildings through ventures with private developers and other nongovernmental entities.