Officers' club has an iffy future

WWII building for blacks at Ft. Huachuca 'endangered'
2013-06-20T00:00:00Z Officers' club has an iffy futureVeronica M. Cruz Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 20, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The fate of a Fort Huachuca building that preservationists say is significant to honoring the contributions of African-American military personnel during World War II is still uncertain despite attempts to preserve it and add it to the National Register of Historic Places.

On Wednesday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Mountain View Officers' Club, built in 1942 for black officers, as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Places. Others on the national list include the Houston Astrodome, the old Pan Am Worldport Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York and Montana's one-room schoolhouses.

The designation is purely "honorific," said Demion Clinco, president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation, the organization that nominated the club for the endangered-places list. But he hoped it would bring exposure to the issue of its possible destruction.

The Army has threatened to add the building to an active disposal list, according to a news release from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

"I really hope the Army would reconsider their plans to demolish this piece of American society and instead seek opportunities to bring this building back into active use," Clinco said.

The Army has not made a decision on what it will do with the building, Angela Camara, a Fort Huachuca public affairs spokesman, said by email. "We continue to explore all options for Building 66050 that balance our commitment to historic preservation with very real budget constraints we currently face," she wrote.

For several years, the Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers, a volunteer organization, leased the building from the Army and was committed to fixing up the club to display memorabilia and house a research center.

In March 2011, the group was told to cease work on the building, and the Army did not renew the lease when it ended in September 2011, said Edward Sheller, the current president of the Sierra Vista-based group.

The Army said the group did not complete progress reports and crucial repairs on time and did not have enough funds to complete the work, according to Star archives.

Sheller said the Army hindered the group's progress on several occasions.

For example, as terms of the lease, the group was not allowed to nominate the building to the historic register until it was ready to be occupied, Sheller said. That stipulation hampered the group's fundraising efforts because the Army could have decided at any moment it was going to tear it down, Sheller said.

During World War II, Fort Huachuca housed 20,000 black troops, the largest black encampment in history, according to Star archives. Singer Lena Horne once performed at the officers' club, and boxer Joe Louis visited it when he was stationed at Fort Huachuca during the war.

It's also the only building in the country specifically built as a club for black officers, Clinco said. Typically existing buildings were repurposed as black officers' clubs, he said.

"The building, what it really represents is the really remarkable and extraordinary contributions of African-American men and women who served the Constitution of this country at a time when segregation actually segregated the military system," Clinco said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study to evaluate the building's structural and historical integrity, which was completed in 2012. The study found the building was not eligible for a recommendation to the National Register of Historic Places, citing a complete redesign of the interior floor plan and the removal of original artwork, windows and openings. Restoring the building would cost up to $4.3 million, the study found.

Despite the study's findings, the Tucson preservation organization forwarded the nomination to the keeper of the National Register, which found the building does meet criteria for a nomination to the register.

Sheller said he wrote to Carol Shull, the keeper of the national register, when she was considering the building's eligibility and said, "If this building gets torn down, that's just like pushing blacks to the back of the bus again."

"Nobody has ever explained to us why they want that building torn down so bad unless it's the stigma of segregation and they want to hide it," Sheller said.

It is "improbable" the Army will move forward with a nomination to the National Register, Camara, the Fort Huachuca spokeswoman, said.

11 most endangered places

1. Astrodome (below) in Houston.

2. Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport, N.Y.

3. Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland, Maine.

4. San Jose Church, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

5. Mountain View Officers' Club, Fort Huachuca.

6. Rural schoolhouses, Montana.

7. Kake Cannery, Kake, Alaska.

8. Gay Head Lighthouse, Aquinnah, Mass.

9. Chinatown House, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

10. James River, Virginia.

11. Village of Mariemont, Ohio.

Contact reporter Veronica Cruz at vcruz@azstarnet.com or at 573-4224.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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