Urban spelunking: The National Soldiers Home Historic District
Over the years, stars like Bob Hope, Liberace, George Burns, Nat King Cole, Sophie Tucker, Will Rogers and Ethel Merman performed at The Ward, which across the decades staged vaudeville, variety and minstrel shows, among other events. The building also served as a place of worship, had a restaurant and a post office, and sold tickets for the rail line that ran right past it (and is now a paved path that is part of the Hank Aaron Trail).
Like The Ward, Old Main has been closed for a couple years. I was in Old Main briefly a few years back, but regret not seeing The Ward at that time. Now, both are off limits except to hard-hatted workers.
Old Main suffered a roof collapse in January 2011 and the Ward has damage, too.
"That was a lot of what spurred doing all this." says Daniels, "because it (would) stay open the rest of that winter, and all of 2012."
Work is now underway to make all three buildings watertight, and at the same time, MPA and Mueller Communications is working with the VA to spread the word about these historical and architectural treasures.
"The VA is responsible for upkeep these two buildings," says Hummitzsch. "So we've been working in partnership with them, with some groups of veterans and other stakeholders in the area to talk about how we might be able to restore these buildings, not just because they're pretty – although they are – but also to reuse them for their original purpose which was to serve veterans. That's the conversation that's going on with the VA."
"Their primary mission is veteran health care," adds McCarthy. "That is their job and so the idea of restoration ... it's sort of like, 'it's not ours to consider.'"
McCarthy and MPA have worked hard to raise awareness and have gotten some help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In June 2011, the Trust named the National Soldiers Home Historic District one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
The organization's president Stephanie Meeks said at the time that the district, "represents one of our nation's first efforts to provide veterans with the benefits they deserve. ... Today we ask that the place called home by veterans who have served in every American conflict since the Civil War receive similar respect."
Last month, the National Trust designated the Soldiers Home a national treasure, driving even more attention to these threatened buildings.
"The National Trust is involved, we're involved, the State Historic Preservation Office to commingle the VA's efforts to serve veterans and our interest to reuse existing and historic and gorgeous buildings to do so," says Daniels.
According to McCarthy, no fundraising has yet begun, but the recognition from the National Trust sets the stage for that to get underway.
"The phase that we're in right now is really trying to determine what these buildings could be used for," says Hummitzsch, "what needs are there that currently aren't being met for veterans and how might we be able to fulfill those needs in these buildings. That's a lot of the conversation that the MPA and the National Trust has been leading. So that when we get to the point of fundraising we can say, 'here's what we're fundraising for.'
"A lot of it is initial conversations and creating relationships with the VA and creating a partnership. These are their buildings; they have to be at the table. And they've stepped up to repair these buildings to make sure there's no further damage happening as we continue the conversation. So we've been really happy with these recent developments that are really starting to protect the buildings."
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