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FORT MEADE | Can the old recreation hall at historic Fort Meade be saved?

The answer is likely no, because of the building's dilapidated state and projected high cost of saving the wooden structure, which was built during the early days of World War II.

The recreation hall is one of five buildings or structures proposed for removal at the former military post, now home to one of two Department of Veteran Affairs Black Hills Health Care System Medical Centers in western South Dakota.

Along with the recreation hall, the structures, all unused for many years, include:

-- a wood frame scalehouse originally built in 1904

-- a well pumphouse built in 1938

-- a bathhouse for a swimming pool built in 1940. The swimming pool was filled in several years ago.

-- a greenhouse dating to 1958.

According to Matt Erpenbach, engineering project manager at Fort Meade, the structures were identified for removal as part of a national VA project to inventory all of its buildings for possible reuse, either as clinical or administrative space for its hospitals, or an enhanced lease for other purposes, including the military.

“The final option is demolition if none of those other options work,” Erpenbach said.

Other buildings at Fort Meade are being surveyed for potential renovation to enhance the medical mission of the hospital, but officials say the VA isn't in the business of historic preservation for preservation's sake.

“Our funds for historical preservation are competing with health care, and we’re in the health care business,” Erpenbach said. “That’s a challenging thing for us to manage.”

The recreation hall, named Custer Hall, is located on the east side of the grounds and is drawing the most interest by the public, along with state and local historical groups hoping for its possible restoration.

But Erpenbach, and John Henderson, chief of facilities at Fort Meade, said the building, featuring a large central hall and two wings of rooms, has deteriorated to the point of being beyond restoration.

Erpenbach said the building, designated T274, was built as a temporary structure during the early days of World War II.

“It was built on a very makeshift foundation and wasn’t built to last,” Erpenbach said.

The front porch of the wood-frame building is pulling away from the main structure as the foundation crumbles. There are also issues with asbestos and lead throughout the building. A leaking roof has caused interior water damage.

“It’s almost unsafe,” Erpenbach said. “We don’t let people in.”

Henderson said officials tried to maintain the building, which has not seen use for several years.

“That building competed for many years for very limited funds,” said Henderson. “We divert our funds for direct patient care.”

The greenhouse was in use until about five years ago, when the employee operating it retired. A replacement was unable to be hired.

“When buildings aren’t used, they deteriorate very quickly,” Erpenback said.

Henderson said the process of removing the buildings is its early stages. No timeline has been set for any removal or demolition.

The VA must follow National Historic Preservation Act guidelines, since Fort Meade, which dates back to cavalry days in the late 1870s, was designated a National Historic District in 1973. National Environmental Protection Act standards also must be followed in any demolition.

Erpenbach said a pair of painted murals inside the rec hall will likely be salvaged and moved to another location at the Fort.

Materials from the buildings could be recycled for use in other construction, including Habitat for Humanity projects. Historical plaques could also be placed at each site, he said.

“There’s a lot we can do to preserve the history here. That’s important,” he said. 

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