Noisette Ends, Commerce Begins at Navy Base

The former base headquarters, which originally housed the base hospital, sits at the heart of the historic hospital district threatened by plans for a new rail line. Wade Spees/file 

Those fighting to protect the former Charleston Naval Base’s historic hospital district have a new big gun on their side, as the National Trust for Historic Preservation added the district to its 11 Most Endangered Places list.

The listing will bring new, national attention to the largely quiet battle being waged to protect 32 historic buildings from negative impacts from a planned rail line that would run about 1,400 feet through the base’s hospital area.

Don Campagna, a Navy veteran and member of the Naval Order of the United States, has been among those working hardest to draw attention to the former base’s history.

“This is important not just for Charleston or South Carolina but for the country — and for the future, so people will have a place where they can come to and see where history happened,” he said. “This is that place. This is a lot more than a local story.”

The endangered listing also comes as Palmetto Railways, the state agency looking to build the new rail line, is negotiating with preservationists and other authorities about what mitigation should be done to offset any damage to the base’s hospital district, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places several years ago. A crucial Army Corps of Engineers permit for the Navy Base Intermodal Facility is still pending.

A storied past,

uncertain future

The hospital district covers several acres on the northern end of the former base, and it was busiest during World War II, when many seriously wounded soldiers in the European theater were shipped there to heal.

The base itself dates back to 1900, and its hospital complex had more than 200 beds as World War I came to a close, but it was President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature on a 1940 bill that led to its significant expansion as one of the nation’s nine new Navy hospitals and most of the buildings that survive today.

Charleston was the home port for 18 Army hospital ships during World War II. “It was important to thousands upon thousands,” Campagna said. “At times, this port was handling as many as 4,000 wounded a month.”

The hospital complex continued to treat patients until 1972, when the Navy opened a new high-rise hospital about a half-mile away, at Rivers and MacMillan avenues.

In 2013, South Carolina’s railway division paid $10 million to acquire the former hospital property. Its planned new rail line would demolish five of the district’s historic buildings, and the line itself would come close to the main hospital, The line’s construction would include a 15- to 20-foot-deep trench through which trains would pass.

The trench and proximity of the new rail line would reduce the interest in the eventual renovation of the old Charleston Navy Hospital, but that’s not the only problem facing the building, which from the air resembles two “H” structures stuck together. Its eight wings were designed to provide natural light and ventilation to each room.

It currently suffers from deteriorating dormers, as well as missing roof tiles and windowpanes. Jeff McWhorter of Palmetto Railways has said the agency has spent about $30,000 to clear away vegetation and board up first-floor windows, but that work hasn’t masked all the decay.

McWhorter also has said the hospital was built quickly, in the rush of war, and that makes it more challenging to renovate. Several developers have inquired about the hospital property, but none has been able to make the numbers work. One estimate placed the renovation costs at $25 million.

Meanwhile, the agency has done other preservation work, including helping with the renovations of Quarters H & I and with the relocation of the base’s chapel as well as assessments of other historic buildings, such as the Power House.

Winslow Hastie, preservation officer with the Historic Charleston Foundation, has worked with McWhorter, Campagna and others on the rail line’s effect on the base, which Hastie said would extend beyond the hospital district to neighboring historic districts there. He said the endangered listing will help draw attention to a complex issue.

“We just think there’s a lot of good work going on to revitalize the area and make it kind of like the downtown that North Charleston never had and give it a unique sense of place,” Hastie said. “We want to make sure this rail project doesn’t prevent any of that from happening.

An elusive fix

The state would not have to run a new rail line through the hospital district if it, CSX and Norfolk Southern could agree to terms for joint use of an existing CSX line nearby.

Palmetto Railways tried to buy that line from CSX, but Campagna said he still hopes such a deal can be struck. “That’s all it’s going to take to fix it,” he said. “This is the last place that should be desecrated. This is where those who served and sacrificed were treated, healed and restored to life.”

Meanwhile, the Corps of Engineers is waiting on an official application from Palmetto Railways for the intermodal project, and the permitting agency also is working to incorporate public comments it received earlier this year into its final environmental impact statement, corps spokesman Sean McBride said Tuesday. There’s no timetable for when that final statement will be done, he added.

One draft plan calls for Palmetto Railways to create a new trust that would govern future preservation work on the base’s northern end. The trust would receive at least $1 million — and possibly up to $500,000 more — from the agency. McWhorter said he is waiting on feedback from the preservation community on the draft.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771 or via Twitter @RobertFBehre.

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