Historic VA Buildings In Danger Of Demolition

Milwaukee is site of the oldest Soldier Home in the country, now standing vacant and in need of repair. The Veterans Administration owns and manages more than 2,000 such historic buildings across the country. A new report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation says the VA has been too quick to tear down buildings rather than renovate them.

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Preservationists in Wisconsin are trying to save some architectural military history. A recent report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation says the Veterans Administration has been opting to build new facilities instead of renovating the historic buildings it already owns. VA officials say their primary mission is to provide world-class care at the best price, and that's easier to do in new buildings. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis brings us this story.

LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of Old Main. It's part of Milwaukee's Soldiers Home. This place was critical 150 years ago for disabled vets returning from the Civil War. They lived here, they ate here, they worshipped here. But these days, this place is empty. No-trespassing signs are posted on a barbed-wire fence that surrounds the building, and there's this black net on a portion of the front of the building that looks like it's supposed to keep pieces of it from falling.

MEGAN DANIELS: There's concern for the future of this building 'cause it is so iconic.

DENNIS: That's Megan Daniels, with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance.

DANIELS: There are so many wonderful veterans' service organizations and various other things that could be put here. And I think it would really just be wonderful to see it kind of go back to that original use.

DENNIS: Veteran Affairs officials have long faced criticism for embracing new buildings instead of rehabbing historic ones the VA already owns. But they argue their goal is to render top-notch health care and to do that, new facilities are often needed. In April of last year, Milwaukee's VA opened a newly constructed spinal cord injury clinic. VA official Gary Kunich says while restoring historic buildings is important, it often just comes down to money.

GARY KUNICH: Old Main alone, I've heard $20 million to $80 million to bring it up to modern standards there. The spinal cord injury center was built from the ground up, state-of-the-art facility, for $27.5 million.

DENNIS: Jenny Buddenborg is the field official with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She says new construction isn't always cheaper.

JENNY BUDDENBORG: Here in Hot Springs, S.D., at the Battle Mountain Sanitarium, we had hired a preservation architect to come out to see what the cost of rehabilitation would be here versus the new construction in Rapid City, S.D. And the costs were about 30 percent less than the new construction. [POST BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: Depending on the level of rehabilitation – total, medium or light – rehabbing could be anywhere from 14 to 70 percent less expensive than new construction.]

DENNIS: Between 2004 and 2012, the VA disposed of 900 buildings. As of today, it plans to demolish or deconstruct 535 more in the next four years. Still, preservationists vow to continue fighting to get the VA to rehab historic buildings, instead of allowing them to sit vacant for years on end.

For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee.

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