RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Preservationists in Wisconsin are trying to save some architectural military history. A recent report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation says the Veteran's Administration has been opting to build new facilities instead of renovating the historic buildings it already owns. VA officials say their primary mission is to provide world-class care at the best price, and that's easier to do in new buildings. From member station WUWM in Milwaukee, LaToya Dennis brings us this story.
LATOYA DENNIS, BYLINE: I'm standing in front of Old Main. It's part of Milwaukee's Soldiers Home. This place was critical 150 years ago for disabled vets returning from the Civil War. They lived here, they ate here, they worshipped here. But these days, this place is empty. No trespassing signs are posted on a barbed wire fence surrounding the building, and there's this black net on a portion of the front of the building that looks like it's supposed to keep pieces of it from falling.
MEGAN DANIELS: There's concern for the future of this building 'cause it is so iconic.
DENNIS: That's Megan Daniels who's with the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance. Right now, there are no plans to demolish any of these historic buildings even though four of them are currently uninhabitable. But Daniels and the National Trust report say these buildings have long been neglected, and it's time for them to be restored.
DANIELS: There are so many wonderful veterans' service organizations and other things that could be put here. And I think it would really just be wonderful to see it kind of go back to that original use.
DENNIS: Veteran Affairs officials have long faced criticism for embracing new buildings instead of rehabbing historic ones the VA already owns. But they argue their goal is to render top-notch health care, and that to do that new facilities are often needed. In April of last year, Milwaukee's VA opened a newly constructed spinal cord injury clinic. VA official Gary Kunich says while restoring historic buildings is important, it often just comes down to money.
GARY KUNICH: Old Main alone, I've heard $20 million to $80 million to bring it up to modern standards there. The spinal cord injury center was built from the ground up state-of-the-art facility for $27.5 million.
DENNIS: Jenny Buddenborg is a field official with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She says new construction isn't always cheaper.
JENNY BUDDENBORG: Here in Hot Springs, South Dakota at the Battle Mountain Sanitarium we had hired a preservation architect to come out to see what the cost of rehabilitation would be here versus the new construction in Rapid City, South Dakota, and the cost were about 30 percent less than the new construction.
DENNIS: Between 2004 and 2012 the VA disposed of 900 buildings. As of today, it plans to demolish or deconstruct 535 more in the next four years. Still, preservationists vow to continue fighting to get the VA to rehab historic buildings instead of allowing them to sit vacant for years on end. For NPR News, I'm LaToya Dennis in Milwaukee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.