O P I N I O N
Stand up. Speak up. It’s your turn.
On this Veterans Day 2019, it’s important to think about the history and legacy of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Manchester.
On Sunday, July 2, 1950, an enthusiastic crowd of 4,000 people gathered for the formal dedication of the new Veterans Administration Hospital in Manchester. The completion of this massive $5,000,000 project was a triumph for the State of New Hampshire and for the City of Manchester. But, today, a key part of that beautiful historic campus, the only VA medical center in New Hampshire, is about to be needlessly destroyed.
The creation of this important hospital facility had been a labor of love for countless people beginning right after World War I. For decades New Hampshire politicos, veterans organizations, and business leaders tried to convince the federal government to build a veterans hospital in the state. In 1938 plans were under way to move what few services were being provided to New Hampshire’s vets to the VA facility in White River Junction, Vermont.
That year, urged on by the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion, the state launched an all-out lobbying effort in Washington led by Governor Francis P. Murphy of Nashua; future Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan of Manchester; business leaders; and the state’s congressional delegation. The Veterans Administration Hospital Board seriously considered their request, but no funding was available. Finally, in 1945, at the end of WWII, Senator H. Styles Bridges received word that a full-service veterans hospital would be built in New Hampshire.
The VA decided to build the hospital in Manchester. The city had the largest population of veterans in the state; the local government had the capacity to supply water, sewers, and other city services needed; good transportation was available including bus and train services; and Manchester was close to hospitals and medical schools in the Boston area. Through the efforts of a local committee, a 30+ acre wooded site was made available on a tall hill in the northeastern part of the city.
Construction took two years, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers building the 150-bed hospital, and a local company, Davison Construction, building several smaller buildings to house nurses and other staff. Among these was a fine brick house for the facility’s first Manager, Dr. George O. Pratt, and his family.
Five of the original residential structures will soon be demolished to make way for construction projects (if they had not already been destroyed). And, there are plans to demolish a sixth historical structure, but this one does not need to be torn down as it does not stand in the way of a building project. This is the Manager’s Residence — a solid and handsome building, inspired by the Prairie Style of famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. This house is prominently situated at the southeastern entrance to the VA campus near Smyth Road. From all evidence, the building is solid and could be rehabilitated and reused for a purpose that would benefit veterans. There are several possible options, including providing a residence for homeless vets, or offices for one or more veterans-oriented nonprofits. The potential exists for the VA to work with the City of Manchester and with private agencies to find a way to rehab and reuse the building.
Over the past 2½ years the Manchester Heritage Commission, as a consulting party in the federally-mandated Section 106 review process, has consistently advocated for saving the Manager’s Residence while looking for alternative uses. Through the Section 106 process the VA is required to carry out a mitigation plan to make up for the loss of historic structures. In this case, the Heritage Commission requested that, to mitigate the loss of the other five historic buildings, the VA save the Manager’s Residence. The New Hampshire Preservation Alliance and the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners, also consulting parties, support the Heritage Commission on this issue.
The Heritage Commission recently learned that the VA ended the Section 106 process, and that the mitigation will not include saving the Manager’s Residence. The VA is no longer being required to consult with the local community regarding the future of the Manager’s Residence, and efforts to open up a dialogue have been rebuffed.
The option remains for the VA to save the Manager’s Residence. This could become a showcase project for the VA that could lead to wonderful public relations benefits — and, of course, also would lead to reusing a historical building to benefit veterans and the general public. There are many great examples of VA medical centers across the country that work with the local community to save historical structures. These successful projects could be used as models for how the local VA could proceed in this situation.
In the big picture of the planned multi-million-dollar construction projects that the VA will be undertaking on the Manchester campus, saving this one structure is certainly doable. With a sincere effort on the part of the VA to work with nonprofits providing veterans services, and with other constituents, creative solutions can be found that would benefit veterans and the general public.
The new leadership at the Manchester VA could open the door and begin a truly meaningful open dialogue that could lead to a positive outcome. This would be of great benefit to all parties involved, as cooperation and collaboration is undoubtedly the best way to go.
Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center. If you care about this venerable institution and its legacy, please speak out and let the VA and elected officials know that you want to see the Manager’s Residence saved. Let’s hope we can celebrate the preservation and creative reuse of this historic building in 2020, and not be faced with mourning its unnecessary demise. It belongs to all of us.
Aurore Eaton is a member of the Manchester Heritage Commission. The ideas expressed are her own.