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Mark Hayward's City Matters: VA director's house could become a parking lot

By MARK HAYWARD
March 02. 2018 10:35PM
The Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center director's house, at left, may be torn down. It is not in use at the moment. The main building is in the background. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)
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Al Montoya has a new job — running the Manchester VA Medical Center.

Moving from the VA’s medical center in Vermont, he’s looking for a new home.

He doesn’t have to look far.

On the southern edge of the parking lot at the VA is a 68-year-old manager’s residence, a two-story brick house, a gem in architectural circles, where Montoya could hang his hat.

At present, the house is vacant. The VA said it is used for storage, and wouldn’t open it up for me and a photographer to have a peek.

That’s because the VA has already drawn up plans to demolish the building, which it terms as “functionally obsolete.” Nothing’s going to happen soon, and in the end a lot will depend on what officials decide to do with the Manchester VA.

“One thing is clear, every dollar we spend on preserving buildings we don’t use is a dollar that can’t be spent on veterans’ care,” said Kristin Pressly, spokesman for Manchester VA. (And just to be very clear, the VA wants to tear down the building for a parking lot.)

The manager’s house represents more than an obsolete building, it is a symbol of an obsolete idea — the idea that the government can accomplish something.

Back in 1950, the year the Manchester VA opened, scorn toward government wasn’t widespread. The United States had won World War II and was getting into another war. The GI Bill was educating millions of veterans, and they were building the world’s first modern economy.

Chains secure the front doors of the director’s house at the Manchester Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which hasn’t been occupied since 2012. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

In Manchester, the VA opened a hospital at the crest of a hill in the North End. Its centerpiece was an imposing six-story brick building with strong vertical features. The message: The government was competent enough to handle the health care of its war heroes.

“The Manager’s Residence is architecturally styled in the manner of the so-called indigenous Prairie Style popularized by Frank Lloyd Wright during the early 20th Century and then continually adopted in a variety of eclectic forms,” reads a narrative provided by the New Hampshire Division of Historical Resources.

It goes on to give elaborate descriptions: low hip with gabled roofs; an asymmetrical facade; large square windows; an exterior with horizontal brick and limestone bands; a two-story entrance pavilion.

In other words, an architectural standout in a region where 19th century Victorians are the ideal.

The Manchester Heritage Commission wants to see the manager’s residence remain.

“There are not a lot of them left, especially of that design,” said Kevin McCue, chairman of the commission. The Heritage Commission has proposed a compromise: Demolish the dormitory-style residences built for doctors and nurses and preserve the manager’s residence.

If Montoya isn’t interested, McCue has a few suggestions: A post for local American Legion or VFW. A VA museum. Or a space where Montoya could host meetings with VIPs.

(My suggestion: a home where a struggling veteran and his family could get on their feet.)

The last Manchester VA director to actually live there was Marc Levenson, according to Dr. Stewart Levenson (no relation), the recently retired VA doctor who is running for Congress after blowing the whistle on problems at the Manchester VA.

Marc Levenson retired in 2012.

“You’d see him walking around the campus on his off time. He could go home for lunch,” Stewart Levenson said.

He said it’s no longer necessary to have a director on-site. To my boss’ delight, cellphones and modern technology make us all available at a moment’s notice.

Levenson thinks the building needs to go. It’s not up to code. Government buildings were poorly built back then. And it could very well be filled with asbestos and other hazardous building materials.

“He (Marc Levenson) probably has mesothelioma by now,” Levenson said, referring to the lung cancer associated with asbestos. “God knows what’s in there.”

City and state preservation officials said they have no real power to prevent demolition. McCue said the best chance to preserve it is to find a use for it.

“The big problem we have right now is it’s the government. There’s a lot of tentacles to tie together to make it work,” he said.

Currently, Montoya is living in a Manchester hotel on the VA’s dime. He plans to relocate to New Hampshire from Vermont, Pressly said. How about 718 Smyth Road?

“He has no intention of taking up residence in what is known as the former manager’s quarters,” Pressly said.

Prospects for preservation actually improved this week, when a task force said a full-service VA hospital isn’t necessary in New Hampshire. That would mean no flood of Washington money to demolish and rebuild the Manchester VA.

But powerful people — including the state’s congressional delegation — want to see a full-service hospital in New Hampshire.

So we have two aspects of history now working at cross purposes: preservation of a modest building vs. preservation of the VA’s Cold War model.

I wonder which is the more outdated?

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the Union Leader and on UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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