The Charles George Veterans Administration Medical Center marks its 100th anniversary this year.
A more than favorable outcome has at last been realized for the twin Colonial Revival nurses dormitory buildings on Riceville Road at the western edge of the campus. Designed by the Veterans Bureau in 1929 and completed in 1932, they had badly deteriorated over several decades, their magnificent frames recalcitrantly resisting collapse.
The western office of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources moved into the first building in 2011 after it was restored, and restoration of the second structure, the 27,478 square foot Building Nine has also now been completed. It opened in October as the Veterans Hope and Recovery Center. At a ribbon cutting ceremony Dr. Laura Tugman, Assistant Chief of Mental Health Services at the VA in Asheville, said the new facility’s purpose is to serve the men and women who seek its services.
Charles George Medical Center Director Stephanie Young said, “a century ago our country was in the throws of World War I, and these very grounds were established by the army to serve soldiers training for battle. U.S. hospital number 19 was named ‘Oteen,’ and American Indian word meaning ‘chief aim,’ as it was the chief aim of every patient that walked through these doors to get well. Fast forward one hundred years to today and we can probably say that Oteen has not changed its mission.”
Young said the healing legacy of its grounds has endured the test of time, and the new Hope and Recovery Center will insure future veterans will benefit from the care and services it offers. “Although the building has maintained its historic façade, its internal makeup has been fitted to meet the evolving technilogical and healthcare needs of our veterans. It is our pleasure and our honor to serve you.”
Network director for Mid-Atlantic VA Health Care DeAnne Seekins said, “As we heard about this building being abandoned and pushed aside, think about the transformation it’s gone through, that’s one of the amazing things about VA. We can transform a building so we can transform lives because our veterans sacrificed for us, and we need to be there as a beacon of hope.
Seekins noted that we were not only celebrating the opening of Building Nine, but also the VA campus’ 100 years of service. “We think about what this campus looked like during World War I. We think about how our soldiers fought. I think about how this campus grew up almost overnight. On 400 acres, 200 buildings came to life and began providing services. Fifty million people died 100 years ago from the flu, and we don’t have to do that anymore. That’s a little public service announcement to remind you to get your flu shot.”
Seekins said that 100 years ago we were modernizing our postal service, “It’s when the first Air Mail was attempted, and failed. Now you can get on Amazon, and how quickly can you get that? It’s hard to believe, but there were many women in the workforce because of the war, so women came together and organized to support the army and the navy. Women too have come a long way.”
Network Director at VA MIdSouth Healthcare Network, Cynthia Breyfogle said Building Nine is the epitomy of a comeback story. “In 1930 it was a nursing dormatory filled with young women with a passion for healing. In 1967 the nurses moved out and the building slowly but inevitably decayed. Over the years many things occurred which I can neither confirm nor deny, perhaps such things as the main character in some ghost stories, it might have been a sought out destination for historians, maybe some paranormal investigators, a few horror film directors, maybe some thrillseekers, or maybe the Jaycee haunted house with a few trick-or-treaters. It could have been a local party house for some of the fine upstanding youth of Asheville,” Breyfogle said.
“Sadly, by 2015 nature had reclaimed Building Nine, and she was condemned, but here’s the comeback part where the story gets really good,” Breyfogle continued. “Our team decided to mitigate Building Nine and the former administrative quarters here on Riceville Road, and turn this into our outpatient mental health campus. I am very proud of the outcome, and happy to see the vision materialized. I am also pleased to see this once haunted house restored to its former glory and usefulness. Truly, this place will promote healing and wellbeing for many, many years to come.”
Members of the Cherokee performed a ceremonial dance to honor their war hero Charles George, the U.S. Army soldier for whom the medical center was named. George was fatally wounded during the Korean War when he threw himself on a grenade to protect the fellow soldiers in his company.
Sonny Ledford, an official ambassador for the Eastern Band of Cherokee in the North Carolina Qualla Boundary said Durham was originally Cherokee territory. “We stretched over nine states on 160,000 miles of Cherokee land. A lot of people don’t know that.” He said his family served from World War I through Vietnam, so he has seen how veterans suffer when they return and understands how they need help.
Ledford he and his associates are inclined to honor those warriors, and all warriors, with their dance, but he said they are more than performers. “We try to help, and to educate. Being a very spiritual people that don’t have religion, we have a spirituality for everyday to live it as your last.”
He said a lot of people think that Cherokee culture has faded and become lost, “but we’re holding on to it now more than ever. We try to work with a lot of the Veterans of Foreign Wars that come to visit us. We’re trying to get what we call the Warrior House going. It’s where Cherokee warriors went before battle to call in this black being, and return until the healer that was with them thought they were ready. After battle they returned to the Warrior House to release that black being that bothers and hurts them.”
North Carolina Depertment of Natural and Cultural Resources restoration specialist Jennifer Cathey said the western office is located next door in the former VA African American nurses quarters. “Our office is home to the western regional archives, which is a repository for regional history with some material related to the VA campus. We also serve Western North Carolina with representatives of the State Historic Preservation Office, the Office of State Archeology, Government Records Assistance Program, Recreation Resource Service, and Land and Water Stewardship Programs.”
On behalf of the western office manager Jeff Futch, Cathey invited the public to visit their facility and view an exhibit on the VA developed by staff, volunteers, and interns, directed by lead archivist Heather South. “We’re learning today about the invaluable services to American veterans made by the Charles George VA Center and this new facility. In addition to providing resources to veterans, this project is remarkable for the preservation and adaptation of an historic building.”