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Volunteers, New and Old, Pitch In to Save the Fort Boise Surgeon Quarters

Although I've lived in Boise for over twenty five years, I'd never been to the V.A. medical Center until a recent Saturday morning. I'd never had a reason to go. I wasn't a patient, and I didn't know anyone who was. Besides, I make a point of steering clear of hospitals and doctors when I can.

So when my neighbor invited me to come out to the V.A. on May 17th to help Preservation Idaho with their project to renovate the old Surgeon's Quarters at Fort Boise, I was surprised to find out that the entire VA Medical Center is on the National Register for Historic Places. The site's not like some other historic districts in Boise, like Harrison Boulevard or Warms Springs, where the historic nature of the architecture is visibly obvious from the street. The funny thing about the VA Medical Center complex is that I pass by it all the time, at least once or twice a week since I've lived here, by car and by bike. And unlike the some of the other historical sites in Boise, like the Idaho Botanical Garden or the Old Penitentiary, there haven't been any concerts or events to draw me there. So I'd never seen a reason to seek the complex out. Until now.

It turns out that this sandstone building was built between 1863 to 1864 as part of a calvary fort complex. So by Idaho standards, the building is old and historic. The original purpose of the complex at Fort Boise was to protect US Government interests of the day: the Oregon Trail Pioneers coming west, and the silver and gold that were being mined in Silver City and the Boise Basin respectively.

As time progressed the protective function of the fort became unnecessary, so in 1919 the complex was repurposed by the US Public Health Service. Since then, it has functioned as a hospital, and in 1938 the property rights were transferred to the Veterans Administration to transform it into the entity we now recognize as the Boise VA Medical Center.

Since the weather was beautiful, I decided to ride my bike out to the VA that morning. Once inside the V.A. complex, I rode along the Hospital loop road where I passed by some new construction projects in progress. These new facilities were being built with what I assume to be the most appropriate contemporary building technology, replete with the I-beams and other metal structures that seem to be part and parcel of modern-day industrial building. Although the building technology and machinery I saw there were impressive, and no doubt necessary,  I think it's also important to preserve historical structures like the old Surgeon's Quarters and whenever possible, renovate them utilizing historical construction materials to match the period. Luckily the V.A. site has plenty of room for both contemporary and historical structures. Since I'm not in the construction industry, I've decided to include a picture of one of the new construction projects to illustrate the difference in size, scale and construction methods – just for comparison (See image 1).

After admiring the new construction, I continued along the VA Hospital loop road, until the road wound to the left and up a small hill. There on the corner was a sign indicating that the brick building before me was the one I was looking for (See images 2-5).

From the outside, it was clear that the building was sorely in need of repair, but if its potential is anything like the two story brick building just beside it, it seemed worthy of repair. All it takes is a little vision, enough funding and labor, some skilled, and even not so skilled, labor. I knew I'd come to the right place.

Inside the building, my camera found a combination of neglect and treasures, along with a planning room where architectural plans, and reproductions of the original building plans and photos were taped to the wall for inspiration (See images 6-7).

Within an hour of my arrival, the volunteers were assembled and directed to their tasks. The volunteers, were diverse. Some were experienced in construction and renovation, while others less so. There were even several high school students involved with the Boise Architecture Project that came out to help. But regardless of skill, everyone helped out with tasks assigned commensurate to ability and enthusiasm (See images 8-13).

To give you an idea, here's a selection from the list of tasks volunteers helped out with between 10:00 to 3:00 on May 17th.

  1. Remove screen from front porch (use pry shingle to avoid damage to five-chamfer columns)
  2. Scrape over-painting on interior and exterior windows and clean
  3. Carefully steam off wallpaper in fireplace room, while trying to save 18”x18” of each layer
  4. Clean broken plaster out of attic and vacuum between floor joists (accessible via ladder)
  5. Make observations about building condition and needs
  6. Identify potential donors, labor, and/or materials for next projects

You'll notice that last item… Let us know if you'd like to help out as we continue with the restoration.

Thanks to all the Preservation Idaho volunteers that contributed, the V.A. Surgeon's Quarters/Building 4 is on its way to renewal.

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