It’s the place where many of “the greatest generation” healed from their greatest injuries, but for preservationists, the former Charleston Naval Base’s hospital is now the one in need of care.
Plans to run a new rail line through the heart of this national historic district are chugging along, and the state agency that owns the hospital complex says no one has stepped forward with a plan to renovate and reuse it.
Meanwhile, preservationists say the agency needs to put more on the table to offset the negative impact of its new rail line — one that could run about 1,400 feet through the district and demolish five of its historic buildings.
Others, including Don Campagna, a Navy vet and member of the Naval Order of the United States, hold out hope that the rail line won’t have to be built here after all.
Campagna has been doing what he can to draw attention to the hospital property. He considers it not merely an interesting site but vital to understanding the Navy’s definitive role in the Lowcountry’s 20th century history.
“It’s not about where we put a railroad. It’s about how we value this land,” he said. “This is a statement of place and people, and it needs to be preserved.”
For almost a century, since the Charleston Naval Base was founded, the northwestern edge of the base was used for medical treatment.
Its first facilities were little more than tents, but the Navy created a series of new buildings during World War II. Thousands of wounded soldiers and sailors returned to the United States through Charleston. Many were sent to Stark General Hospital, now an industrial complex.
The more seriously wounded were kept in the hospital on base. Their story was told in newsreels at the time, as well as in the March 1945 editions of National Geographic.
“Charleston was the home port for 18 U.S. Army hospital ships during World War II,” Campagna said. “We might not now know that story well, but it was important to thousands upon thousands. At times, this port was handling as many as 4,000 wounded a month.”
The Navy base closed in 1996, and the city of North Charleston sold most of the base’s northern end to The Noisette Co. Before the company’s ambitious redevelopment plan was sidetracked, it put the former base’s shipyard, officers’ housing and hospital on the National Register of Historic Places.
That decision not only documented the history, but it would complicate plans for the property’s next owner.
Palmetto Railways, a division of the S.C. Department of Commerce, purchased the hospital property for $10 million in 2013, three years after it quietly snapped up 233 other acres at the old base.
With the State Ports Authority building a new container terminal at the south end of the base, the state wanted property on the northern end to establish a rail yard and new rail lines to serve the new shipping.
Jeff McWhorter of Palmetto Railways said the agency tried to arrange to run freight out through an existing rail line, but it could not buy the right of way from CSX, “so we went back to our original plan of taking rail through the hospital district.”
The proposed rail line would be run within about 100 feet of the main hospital building and would require demolishing a few support buildings nearby.
Because the properties are on the National Register of Historic Places, the Army Corps of Engineers must consider the rail line’s effect on their historic value as part of its permitting process.
That process is under way, said Sean McBride, a corps spokesman.
A draft of the environmental impact statement was released Friday, and the public has until June 15 to review it and offer comments. The future of the permit will depend on the issues raised.
“If there’s one comment, that’s easy. If there’s 200, that will be more difficult,” he said. “It also depends on types of comments. If there’s something brought up that we haven’t thought of or thoroughly analyzed, that will take more time to address.”
If Palmetto Railways’ plans are seen as harming the district — and that seems certain if they slice a 15- to 20-foot deep trench through it for a railroad line — then federal law requires the agency to take steps to mitigate the harmful impact.
The agency already has met with Campagna and members of Charleston’s two main preservation groups, including Winslow Hastie of the Historic Charleston Foundation, to begin that discussion.
“We know we’re going to have to play the mitigation game,” Hastie said.
McWhorter said he has not come up with a specific mitigation plan and likely won’t until he has time to read and digest the Corps of Engineers’ report.
“We have a budget for mitigation as a whole but not specifically for those buildings,” he said. “That’s something we’ll be focusing on.”
Hastie said the rail line is going to render the hospital unusable, particularly with freight trains that could extend thousands of feet in length, “so we think they need to get more serious about what that (mitigation) means.”
Will it include documentation of the buildings and a historical marker there, or should it amount to something more ambitious, such as a commitment to help restore the Power House, another Navy landmark nearby that Palmetto Railway also owns?
“I think we have to get creative,” Hastie said.
But the rail line isn’t necessarily the only threat. The buildings have stood vacant for years, and while their foundations and roofs seem largely intact, neglect has taken its toll.
The state has spent about $30,000 to clear away vegetation and board up first-floor windows, but that work hasn’t masked all the decay. Many glass panes are missing from the second-floor windows, and some of its eyelid dormers show signs of water damage.
The building was built quickly, in the rush of the war, and that may add to the challenge in renovating it.
“It was never meant to be a permanent structure on the base,” McWhorter said.
About eight to 10 different developers have talked to the state about the hospital property, he added, “but no one has been able to make the numbers work for them. It is in very, very poor condition. The number we’ve seen to renovate that building is $25 million.”
The agency also hasn’t figured out what to do with the surviving homes nearby that served hospital officials.
“We’re hoping that some of those could be relocated over to the officers’ housing district,” McWhorter said.
From the air, the hospital resembles two “H” structures stuck together. Its eight wings helped ensure each room would have natural light and ventilation.
McWhorter said he has seen some proposals to restore the main two-story entrance and get rid of the wings.
The city of North Charleston, which owns nearby properties in the Officers Quarters historic district, has been looking to preservation groups for help with the fate of the hospital district, city spokesman Ryan Johnson said.
If the rail line were built, it could result in the hospital district’s removal from the National Register of Historic Places. Properties can drop off the register — or get “de-listed” — if they lose their integrity.
That’s the concern of Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. The society has joined in talks about the harmful effects on the base.
“The concern we have is we have three historic districts up there, and the hospital district could be cut in half,” King said. “This is sort of unprecedented.”
Campagna said the best solution would not be mitigation but a shared-use agreement between CSX and Norfolk Southern that would eliminate the need for a new rail line in the first place.
“It’s a problem that can be solved if two corporations respect the history of this place,” he said.
That possibility has been explored for years, but no agreement has been struck. Gary Sease, CSX’s vice president of corporate communications, said, “CSX is willing to look at a range of options, including further cooperation with Norfolk Southern. However, specific solutions would depend on what the parties learn from the completion of the draft Environmental Impact Statement.”
Susan Terpay, a Norfolk Southern public relations director, said Norfolk Southern and CSX are open to working cooperatively to look at rail transportation service issues in Charleston.
As Campagna talked recently in front of the old hospital, a tourist from Ohio happened to drive by and ask him about the building. Campagna swore he did not arrange the visit for a reporter’s benefit.
“There’s a great story to be told here,” Campagna said, “and if we don’t save those brick and mortar monuments to those peoples’ memory, then we do them a disservice and minimize their contribution,” he said.
Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or at twitter.com/RobertFBehre.