VA hospital admin building

A proposal to build affordable housing for homeless veterans on the Waco veterans hospital campus has stalled.

Wacoans learned from Monday’s Tribune-Herald that not one private developer has come forward with a proposal to build affordable housing for homeless veterans on the grounds of the Doris Miller Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. How can this be? Do we not feel compassion for veterans who served their country in time of war and came back with psychic wounds that can be every bit as painful as physical wounds?

Perhaps the reason for the lack of proposals is that developers have noticed that the destruction of several historic buildings on the campus seems baked into the planning. Before we move forward in the development of any proposal, it would help to review some facts about the Veterans Administration, about the Waco hospital and about the history of historic preservation.

Often when I am returning home from points south on I-35, I take the Central Texas Marketplace flyover to Highway 6 toward Meridian. I confess that often I will take my eyes off the road for just a moment or two to admire the VA hospital campus off in the distance. With eyes safely back on the road I think about how the red brick walls and red terra cotta roofs make this charming cluster of buildings look like an Italian hill town. Which was actually the idea of the unknown VA architects who designed the buildings. They probably thought of the buildings as being in the Italian Renaissance style; today we think of the style somewhat more broadly as Mediterranean Revival.

One of the most striking things about the hospital is that it is a cohesive unit, built in two phases, first between 1931 and 1939 and then in 1944-45. These additions were very compatible in design and in scale, and later additions, though not matching the earlier work, still allow the earlier buildings to define the character of the campus.

This large-scale project was begun in the early years of the Great Depression, an era dominated by federally funded projects of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. This, however, was not a New Deal project but rather the project of a Republican president, Herbert Hoover. Hoover was greatly concerned about the welfare of veterans who had fought in World War I. There were many programs for veterans, the largest being the Pension Bureau, but these were spread across the federal government.

On July 21, 1930, President Hoover signed Executive Order 5398 unifying all these programs into the Veterans Administration. (This served as a model for President George W. Bush when he created the Department of Homeland Security after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.) President George H.W. Bush elevated the VA to the cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs in 1989.

The Waco facility was created for veterans with psychological wounds who required long-term care. In World War I these wounds were called “shell shock,” and in World War II they were called “battle fatigue.” These are early terms for what we now call “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” At the dedication of the complex, the assistant administrator of the VA, Col. George E. Ijams called it “a refuge of comfort and care that represents the last word in modern hospital construction.”

This was one of three facilities built in Texas — the others were in Amarillo and Dallas — and this one was the largest. The Waco city directory for 1932-33 described the location as being at the end of Dutton Avenue, three miles west of the city. The facility was built by the Henry B. Ryan Construction Company of Chicago; this firm built seven other veterans hospitals in other states, so they were familiar with the plans, specifications and materials for such projects.

The Veterans Administration Hospital Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994. It was the very first historic district in Waco, now joined by districts in Castle Heights and downtown Waco. The impetus for this designation came not from locals but from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Several historic veterans hospital were placed on the National Register at this time.

The nomination stated that the Waco facility was significant primarily for its architecture and design but also for its association with the dramatic expansion of the federal government’s care for veterans. The latter was relevant in terms of political history and medical history. The nomination identified 24 buildings as contributing to the historic character of the district and 15 as non-contributing. The nomination states the site was significant in the context of care for World War I veterans but also for World War II veterans, owing to the enlargement of 1944-45.

The National Register of Historic Places is largely a planning document, identifying properties that are historic and deserve preservation. The Register was created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, one of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The preservation mechanism is actually quite weak; for most private buildings it comes down to telling the owner what he or she should do but with no ability to stop demolition or damaging alterations. The only real leverage in the law is that federal projects and projects with federal funding must respect the historic integrity of buildings on the register or find ways of compensating for the damage — a process known as mitigation.

Demolition questions

Which brings us back to plans for the Waco hospital. To be clear, the map from the Department of Veterans Affairs states that the approximately three acres at the northwest corner of the campus “includes three buildings with option to be renovated or demolished,” but an earlier article in the Tribune-Herald makes clear demolition is the preferred option. Such drastic changes would likely trigger a Section 106 review to assess the damage done by any changes to the property.

The three buildings under consideration are the residence of the medical officer in charge (Building 19) and duplexes for other staff members (Buildings 20 and 21). These three buildings are among the 24 that the National Register nomination identified as contributing to the historic character of the district. They are good examples of the Mediterranean Revival style and are fairly intact on the exterior. The nomination noted that the original interiors of most buildings on the campus were utilitarian and devoid of ornamentation; this would certainly be true of these three buildings. This means that the interiors can be adapted to modern-day needs so long as the exterior is preserved.

It should also be noted that demolition is not necessary to build new apartments for homeless vets. Along Beverly Drive there is green space as large if not larger than the grounds on which these three building sit. Additional residential units were planned for this site but never built. This would seem to be an opportunity to blend restoration of historic exteriors, renovation of interiors and new construction nearby.

The Veterans Administration Hospital Historic District is significant for its architecture and as a physical manifestation of President Hoover’s concern that we give our wounded warriors the care they need. There is no reason why we cannot honor the historic legacy of care for veterans while serving our present-day veterans. Let us do both.

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Kenneth Hafertepe is professor of museum studies at Baylor University and chair of the department. A fellow of the Texas State Historical Association, he is author of the newly released “Historic Homes of Waco, Texas.” Last week he was elected to chair the city of Waco’s Historic Landmark Preservation Commission, though this column represents his opinions alone, not the commission’s.

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