For years, North Charleston resident and Navy veteran Don Campagna has fought to preserve the Charleston Naval Hospital Historic District, a collection of 32 buildings built mostly to treat wounded servicemen during World War II.
He is losing the fight.
Campagna visited the district Friday to call attention to one building that's gone, marked only by its former slab foundation and a little rubble. He pointed to three others where initial demolition work is underway.
Each of the three is surrounded by red tape that warns of asbestos, and some have piles of rubble visible inside. Removing hazards such as asbestos is a necessary step before a building can be torn down.
The properties are owned by Palmetto Railways, an arm of the state Department of Commerce that acquired them as part of its planned train and cargo transfer hub on the former base. The demolition work began about two months after the agency got a key Army Corps of Engineers permit.
The agency has plans to demolish about 17 of the 32 surviving buildings in the district. In its Army Corps permit, it agreed to mitigate damage from that loss by forming a new nonprofit, the Charleston Navy Base Historic Trust, and provide $2 million in seed money. The deal also includes favorable leases for the old hospital building and the Marine Barracks, two historic but vacant and deteriorating properties, as well as ensuring the restoration of both the Power House and two major warehouses.
But Campagna said despite the corps' decision, the demolition still is premature.
"Just because they got a permit saying they weren't going to pollute the water doesn't mean they can come in here and tear down these buildings on the National Register," he said. "There's no reason to rush in here and tear them down."
But the agency noted the buildings that have been demolished and those where remediation is taking place are old officers' housing units.
"All the work that is occurring is consistent with our NEPA permit and the MOU (memorandum of understanding) that was executed between us, SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office), Historic Charleston, The Preservation Society and the Naval Order," Palmetto Railways President and CEO Jeff McWhorter said. "As I recall, Mr. Campagna is a signatory to that."
Campagna said he hopes to rally Gov. Henry McMaster, the general public and even interested lawyers to his side. After hearing of the demolition work this week, he planted 13 American flags in the ground and placed some others on buildings.
"If we can get enough people to come out here and put up flags, it will get serious attention," he said. "This is as serious as it gets. We're going to lose an entire district."
The Historic Charleston Foundation and other preservationists have been working to try to strike the best outcome for preservation as Palmetto Railways proceeds with its project.
Winslow Hastie, the foundation's president, said the recent demolition was "news to us."
"I thought the environmental review process was still ongoing," he said. "From Historic Charleston's standpoint, we're opposed to anything happening until this gets final review and approval from the State Historic Preservation Office and the Army Corps."
Hastie said he has reached out to both those agencies but has not heard back.
Campagna helped get the district listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered list in 2016, but that hasn't turned the tide.
The most significant building in the district, the main hospital (which was built before the vacant Navy hospital owned by Charleston County at 3600 Rivers Ave.) continues to deteriorate significantly, with missing windows, holes in the roof and other problems.
Palmetto Railways has said it's tried to find a developer interested in restoring and reusing the sprawling two-story building with no luck.
The old hospital is not among the buildings targeted for demolition for the new rail line, but preservationists fear the new line will erode its historic context and make it even less likely that anyone would try to restore it.
Even the marker in front of the hospital, installed recently to explain the district's significance, is deteriorating and mostly illegible.
Campagna works as city archivist for North Charleston's Cultural Arts Department, but he is waging this fight not on the city's behalf, but on his own as a member of the Naval Order of the United States.
"We still have choices here," he said.
Palmetto Railways has its environmental permit for the $291 million transit hub project, which would cover 118 acres near Hobson Avenue and Viaduct Road, but it still doesn’t have all its funding and is awaiting approval from the Federal Railroad Administration.