VA makes both history, health care priorities

Turning old buildings into health-care facilities and housing for homeless veterans will a challenge.

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WALLA WALLA - If it's possible for history and quality health care to function together, local veterans officials are determined to make it work.

At a recent meeting at the Jonathan M. Wainwright Veterans Affairs Medical Center, experts in health care and in archeology united to present the community with ideas of how using - while preserving - the historic officers quarters on the VA campus might look.

The evening started with a slide show of the physical evolution of the campus, from inception as Fort Walla Walla to today. The first slide shows the map drawn by Lt. Col. Edward J. Steptoe from when a calvary post was established in its final location on March 18, 1858.

Over the decades and through the wars, the acreage grew and lost buildings. The 1887 slide shows a 24-bed hospital that would later become quarters for VA nurses, and the picture two years later included the officers quarters, which continue to stand on the campus' southeastern perimeter.

It's in those buildings that Walla Walla VA officials would like to see historical structures meet modern health needs.

The plan is for most of the quarters to undergo extensive renovation and become housing for homeless veterans. Such an endeavor, though, will require a tight partnership between preservationists, the community and those caring for veterans, said Tim Anderson, chief of facility services at the Walla Walla VA.

Besides being a place to lay heads, the refurbished structures would ideally have space for curating the numerous architectural artifacts found on the grounds from recent and past excavations.

Such a lab would help employ some homeless veterans and teach job skills, noted Brian Westfield, medical center director. "Something that would be good for our veterans and good for our campus."

A number of T's have to be crossed well ahead of that time. The public presentation was meant to be a planning tool and recognition of the historical significance of the former Fort Walla Walla space, noted Spencer Howard with Artifacts Architectural Consulting.

"It's quite a challenge to manage the variety of buildings the VA has on this campus," he noted.

Employees from the Tacoma-based architectural consulting firm have been working on the concept, pulling together goals and recommendations for historical preservation. They understand the first and foremost mission at the Walla Walla VA is to take care of wounded vets, said Mary Thompson of Artifacts. "But Fort Walla Walla is one of the most significant historic sites in the Northwest. It tells compelling stories. But the campus is not an island and because of that, planning here affects its neighbors."

That was made clear by the Community Task Force report of 2006, which highlighted the need for community inclusion in local VA campus decisions, she said. "This VA has deep connections to history and community, both emotional and cultural."

James Payne could not agree more. The executive director of Fort Walla Walla Museum has acted as chief consultant for the federally required resource management work. Discovered and reclaimed historical material fills more than 200 boxes, all stored at the Walla Walla VA. The museum employs three veterans to catalog the items. "Our work this year found lots of information in areas that were thought to be destroyed."

One structure in particular - Bldg. 24, built in 1875 to house noncommissioned officers - revealed a significant number of features and materials, Payne told the group.

That includes early Native American tools and other items the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation want eventually returned to the ground, he said.

Payne and museum staff will continue to monitor construction activities at the VA any time previously undisturbed dirt is being moved. When items are located, law requires they be documented and investigated for historical significance, he said.

While the national and local VA has a less-than-stellar record of following that law, things are beginning to change, Westfield said. "That's why we hired Steve."

Steve Roberts is the only full-time archeologist on a VA facility payroll, Westfield pointed out. "Here in Walla Walla we're dedicated to veteran care but in tandem with historic preservation."

The numerous upgrades needed to help the officers quarters serve today's soldiers are not going to make preservationists all that happy, Roberts told the audience. To meet requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, "those will have wheelchair ramps and elevators for handicap accessibility. It's a major external impact, but the state agreed this fulfilled the VA's mission for 100 percent accessibility for veterans."

In addition, the interiors will be gutted to abate lead paint, asbestos and other materials not compatible with a healthy environment, he said. "There are plans to restore some of the architectural elements not currently there, but that will be based on funding."

Catholic Housing Services, based out of Spokane, has the bid to manage the new housing for the homeless and will have to fund renovation, Anderson noted.

Not all standards of preservation are pure, cautioned Walla Walla architect Jon Campbell, attending the meeting as a concerned citizen. "And you've just justified it by quoting ADA standards."

It's quite possible to marry old and new construction in useful and aesthetic ways, Thompson replied, citing examples from other projects she's seen.

In the end, service to humans can end up being compromised for the sake of historical accuracy, Westfield said. "We've closed beds here because we could not keep up with health care in those buildings. Overall, a health-care facility does impact (historical) exteriors on occasion."

Frankly, veterans activist Don Schack told the panel, his peers could care less about aesthetics. "Vets don't care how it looks; they want to know if the building has services. We want to make sure we get that out there."

The homeless housing is another way to serve veterans, Westfield said. "And the state veterans nursing home will be a new service. The historic preservation folks understand our mission is health-care service. But we have to follow the law. We do have responsibilities. Two messages I heard tonight - don't lose track of the mission, and local preservationists are interested and want to be involved."

That works for him, said veteran Joe Waiblinger. "I feel we can make it work both ways. I get good health care up here, everybody tries to help. I want to see this place grow and prosper."

Another meeting to discuss historic preservation will be scheduled in late winter. For more information, call Linda Wondra at 525-5200, ext. 22811.

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