Fort Boise, one of the oldest historic sites in the State of Idaho and the historical reason for the founding of the City of Boise, faces significant challenges as the federal agency to which its care has been entrusted struggles with choices of how to best balance the physical requirements of the historic site with the healthcare needs of veterans.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the VA Medical Center (VAMC), in Boise, is working towards incorporating historic resources into its master growth plan. Without such an effort, the VAMC could incrementally obscure one of the most important National Register-listed historic districts in the western United States.
History of Fort Boise
Located at the northern edge of downtown Boise and abutting the foothills of the Boise Front, Fort Boise’s entrance is situated at the intersection of 5th and Fort streets. The district has seen several changes in both use and infrastructure since its founding as a cavalry fort by the U.S. Army in 1863 during the middle of the Civil War. The fort was originally intended to protect miners and the interests of the United States government in the gold of the Boise Basin to the north and the silver of the Owyhee Mountains to the south. Through World War I, the fort specialized in the training of horses for cavalry troops. By 1919, when horse-mounted soldiers no longer proved an effective military force, the site was acquired by the U.S. Public Health Service for use as a tuberculosis hospital. The campus was transferred to the control of the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) in 1938 and took on its present role as the Boise VA Medical Center. Both Fort Boise and the City of Boise celebrate their 150th birthdays in 2013.
About the Campus
The large campus has been listed in the National Register of Historic Places and features dozens of historic structures related to both the military and medical history of the site. Large, brick residences from the turn of the Twentieth Century line the upper drive known as Officer’s Row, and several historic, brick service structures—a laundry, bakery, gymnasium, garages, and stables—populate a site complimented by historic landscaping and lawns. Three sandstone structures from 1863-64 date to the founding of the fort and embody a collection of architecture older than almost any other in Idaho. Amongst these historic and architectural landmarks are scattered the necessary elements of modern medical facilities, office buildings, and surface parking lots (see additional photos of the Fort Boise campus at Flickr).
A Challenging Opportunity - Update on Fort Boise/VAMC
For some time, Preservation Idaho has been concerned about the incremental degradation of historic structures at the Boise VAMC. In 2004, and again in 2008, contextually incongruous new structures, from a historic perspective, were added to the VAMC campus. Some of these construction projects appear to have occurred without adherence to the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966. More recently, the federal funding provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009 resulted in the implementation of several new projects without NHPA compliance including the construction of a new loading dock on the National Register-listed horse barn. Some projects have been completed in correct observance of the Section 106 process; however, this observable trend has been troubling to Preservation Idaho for some time.
Additionally, the continued neglect of other historic buildings within the complex has been of concern. Of particular note is the Surgeon's Quarters, sometimes known as Building 4. Constructed of sandstone in 1864 along with a brick addition in the 1970s, this structure is one of the oldest buildings in the State of Idaho. For nearly two decades, the building sat vacant without the routine maintenance necessary for on-going preservation of the structure. As a result, the roof is in poor repair, and more recently, gutters were removed from the building compromising the drainage system. Without proper roofing and drainage, the long-term structural stability of the building is at risk.
The VAMC had stated their interest in looking at how this building, and others on the VA campus, could be restored and returned to good use for the benefit of veterans. In 2013, the head of the Boise VAMC responded to a request for a meeting from Preservation Idaho. We are very happy to report that, as a result of multiple meetings, a plan has been developed and approved that will restore Building 4 to “active duty”. This project had to receive approval and support from the Secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC. We appreciate the interest and support of the Boise VAMC in securing that approval. Preservation Idaho has accepted responsibility for rehabilitating and restoring the exterior of the building including rebuilding the front porch. We will also restore the front fireplace room to include period furnishing (1870-80s) and interpretive exhibits. The room will be open to the public as well as serving as administrative offices for the VAMC and will be available for special events and presentations.
This is a great example of the positive power of collaboration and we are grateful to the Boise VAMC and its leadership for working with us to bring this project to fruition. There is much to do and many opportunities for community participation. We are having several clean-up days and we need to secure funding for Preservation Idaho’s part of the restoration/rehabilitation project. Please consider a donation!
Fort Boise celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. Now is the perfect time for the VAMC to continue to enhance its historic resources. A comprehensive preservation plan of the campus, evaluating potential sites for enhancement, redevelopment, and structures for reuse and renovation, would be an ideal undertaking that would support both near-term and long-term plans.
How you can help
Make your voice heard and help Preservation Idaho advocate for the preservation of the Fort Boise Historic District. Express your support for the Building 4 project and encourage the VAMC to consider additional projects that are focused on preserving and maintaining the historically sensitive assets on the Fort Boise/VAMC campus. Community involvement and feedback is a crucial part of historic preservation.