A Western outpost made famous by the Buffalo Soldiers and the U.S. military’s campaign to capture Geronimo is up for sale, one of a number of landmarks nationwide facing the wrecking ball amid tight budgets and a shift in Washington about what history is worth saving.
Abandoned now, Fort Bayard has become a drain on New Mexico’s coffers and the state is desperate for ideas as historic preservation has lost funding under the Obama administration.
“It’s not good. We see this as a much larger comment on how we as a country want to tell our story and reflect our priorities,” said Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
With most large-scale preservation efforts, it’s not hard for the cost to outweigh sentimentalism. It’s no different in southwestern New Mexico, where the community is split over whether some of Fort Bayard’s buildings need to be leveled to make way for fresh economic development.
“Some are pretty adamant about preserving the whole property and then there are others who ask why tax dollars are being spent to maintain it,” said state Rep. Rudy Martinez, D-Bayard. “Those are the questions coming up. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? We don’t know.”
Historic preservation was championed during the Clinton and Bush years, first with Hillary Clinton’s founding of the Save America’s Treasures program and later through Laura Bush’s support for a program focused on preserving the country’s cultural and natural heritage.
However, the Obama administration pointed to the two programs for elimination in 2010, saying the benefits were unclear.
In the last three years, Congress helped bring an end to Save America’s Treasures, which had leveraged some $377 million of private and government funding for hundreds of projects, including the restoration of the Star-Spangled Banner and Rosa Parks’ bus.
And the grants awarded annually by the National Park Service for historic preservation are a fraction of what they once were, leaving communities with little other than a patchwork of tax credits to entice developers to give historic properties a second chance.
“The need hasn’t disappeared. It’s just the money that’s available to help address it has,” said Barbara Pahl, who works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Colorado.
The trust gets dozens of applications each year for its list of endangered historic places, from rural schoolhouses in Montana and the Worldport Terminal at JFK Airport to the boyhood home of Malcom X and Houston’s Astrodome.
In Texas, voters rejected a referendum last fall that would have authorized millions of dollars in bonds to turn the Astrodome into a convention center. Many said the money could be better spent on other projects.
At Fort Bayard, the hospital’s hallways have been empty for a few years, the officers’ quarters are locked up and the parade grounds are quiet.
The fort has no asking price, but New Mexico General Services Secretary Ed Burckle is taking offers for the national historic landmark. Ads have been placed in the Wall Street Journal and New Mexico’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal.
With only four proposals submitted, Burckle said Wednesday that bids to demolish the old hospital will go out soon. Leaving it standing would have saved taxpayers more than $4 million in demolition costs, but he said getting rid of it will improve the prospects for selling the entire property.
Standing at the Gila Wilderness’ gateway, Fort Bayard was established in 1866 by the Army to protect miners and other settlers from the Apache. It was one of many outposts west of the Mississippi established by the all-black Buffalo Soldier regiments tasked with battling Native American tribes.
With the capture of Geronimo in the 1880s, the Apache threat subsided and the fort transitioned to a research center and hospital for tuberculosis patients. During World War II, it was home to German prisoners of war.
The state estimates that the 145,000-square-foot hospital costs about $100,000 annually to maintain. The officers’ quarters, historic theater and other buildings are also in need of repair.
“We understand that right now, it may not look as if it’s got any real dollar value to the state, but it definitely has some historical significance,” said Scott Terry, head of the Silver City/Grant County Chamber of Commerce.
A study commissioned by the state includes a long list of opportunities for Fort Bayard: a treatment center for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, a workforce development center, a business and industrial park and mixed housing.
Others have suggested it as a place for homeless veterans, a private military academy and even a ghost-hunting hotspot.
State officials know the challenges of trying to sell a campus as complex as Fort Bayard, with its rich history and more than 400 acres. Aside from the tens of millions of dollars it would take to bring Fort Bayard’s buildings up to code, there’s the location.
“We’re not kind of off the beaten path. We are off the beaten path,” Terry said of Silver City, a town of about 11,000.
Fort Bayard is not alone when it comes to remoteness. Other historic properties in rural areas of Colorado and South Dakota are on the chopping block, but experts say finding new uses can result in an economic boon for communities that are struggling to attract new businesses and jobs.
“It’s not just about saving a historic place or a landscape for the sake of saving it. It’s very important to tell our story and to connect with our past,” Wiedower said.