Update: State Historians find historic value in VA buildings

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Following a recent tour of the former Knoxville VA campus, members of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) have concluded that there is still historic value to the buildings on the land.

“The SHPO staff’s recent walk-through confirmed that the property still shows physical evidence of the design changes for neuro-psychiatric veteran hospitals of that period and retains characteristics of the Colonial Revival and Classical Revival architectural styles,” Michael Morain, Communications Manager for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs told the Tribune. “During the walk-through, SHPO staff could see that the buildings are still structurally sound. Even though they would require some hazardous-material remediation or abatement, the buildings still show the characteristics that made them eligible for (National Register of Historic Places) designation in 2012.”

An application to be placed on the National Register was submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior – National Park Service on March 16, 2012. The application was prepared by Cultural Resource Analysts of Lexington, Ky., at the behest of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The application included 86 acres of the campus, encompassing all buildings. The designated period of historic significance for the campus – identified in the documents as the Knoxville Veterans Administration Hospital Historic District – was from 1923-1950. Though the district encompasses buildings constructed later, they are listed as non-contributing buildings in the application.

Because the campus is on the National Register, federal law requires SHPO to assist the General Services Agency (GSA) in reviewing the historical significance of the property before it is transferred to new ownership. Steps in this process include initiating a study, identifying the historic assets, assessing the effects of selling the property and resolving those effects.

“It’s worth noting, however, that neither the National Register nor the boarder National Historic Preservation Act automatically protects properties from demolition,” Jeff Morgan, Public Information Officer for the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs said. “In Knoxville, both the GSA and the Iowa SHPO agree that even though the VA property’s abandonment has made it unfit to be occupied, at least for now, it still retains the historic characteristics that made them eligible for the National Register seven years ago.”

“We have been having conversations with SHPO, though to this point we don’t necessarily see eye to eye,” Knoxville City Manager Aaron Adams said. “We will continue to try to get an outcome everyone can at least live with.”

Negotiations are underway between the GSA and SHPO to find a compromise that would preserve the historic significance of the campus, while allowing Knoxville to navigate a future for the real estate. Though the district covers 86 acres, the campus is 163. If there is undeveloped land on the campus – outside of the designated district – there is potential for that to be developed sooner than the rest.

Morain added that there has been discussion between SHPO and GSA about the potential of dividing the campus. A result of this may include having a portion of the district remain as the designated historic area, while allowing remaining buildings and land to be developed into something else. Funding any renovation would likely require assistance. SHPO operates largely in tax credits, because grants available for such purposes are difficult to win.

Adams and Morain both indicate that the negotiation process between SHPO and GSA will likely drag on for months. SHPO has been requesting information about the campus from GSA.

According to Morain, the GSA and SHPO shared a conference call in February, a conference call in April and an on-site visit on May 7. At this point, no further meetings are scheduled, but Morain is confident they’ll get together again this summer.