An unclear outlook for site with a view

An unclear outlook for Fort Howard

Fort Howard: The veterans hospital has closed, and plans are being formed about what will become of the site, which overlooks the bay.

September 19, 2002|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

If you walk along the well-kept grounds of the old Fort Howard veterans hospital on North Point peninsula on a clear day, you can see the Bay Bridge near Annapolis in the distance 14 miles away.

It's one of the striking sights at the southeastern tip of Baltimore County, where thousands of the Baltimore region's military veterans have received medical care at the Veterans Affairs Fort Howard Medical Center.

The large brick and concrete hospital was once the busy centerpiece of the 95-acre expanse of lawn, tall, old trees and century-old officers' houses that dot land surrounded by the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay.

"It's a gorgeous site," said historian Walter F. Mathers, 53, of Anne Arundel County -- a veteran who recently escorted a family to Fort Howard to watch the sunset over the water. "The grounds are nicely manicured and the buildings speak of a grander age. You know it's a community unto itself."

But now the hospital is closed with the last patients and equipment moved last week to other Veterans Affairs hospitals. It's not clear what will happen to the property, which has, over the past few centuries, been a plantation, a ferry landing, the place where British troops landed before the Battle of North Point in 1814, a harbor lookout station, a military base and hospital.

One plan, pushed by officials at the VA Maryland Health Care System, which oversees veterans hospitals and clinics, calls for leasing most of the Fort Howard land to a private developer who would construct independent living, assisted living and nursing homes, while keeping an outpatient clinic.

VA officials said they have also offered about 10 acres to Maryland to build a new state veterans home, but they haven't received an answer from the state.

And whatever is done with the land, the VA needs to obtain approval from Congress as well as support from the state and the nearby Fort Howard and Edgemere communities.

"Veterans need a state home in the Baltimore area," said Dennis H. Smith, director of the state's veterans health care system. "The VA would pay for about two-thirds the cost of building a new state home and we've offered them the land."

"We want to maintain that campus for veterans. Our plan would assure that veterans would get priority placement and discounts to live at Fort Howard," Smith said.

Melvin Quick, 76, of Jessup, who has volunteered for 14 years at Fort Howard, agreed. "The veterans could look out each day and see the water and the boats," said Quick, who does odd jobs around the campus. "The view here is worth the price of admission."

A majority of the state's more than 500,000 veterans live in Baltimore County, VA officials said, but the only veterans home, in Charlotte Hall in St. Mary's County, is more than a two-hour drive from Baltimore.

Economics forced the closing of the hospital. The 59-year-old facility has no central air conditioning and has small rooms and narrow corridors, dormitory-style bathrooms and showers, and no privacy.

"The best thing was to move the veterans to more modern facilities," Smith said.

Inside the old hospital, it is eerily quiet on the floors where nurses and doctors once tended patients. The building will probably be razed.

Fort Howard's history dates to the late 1600s, when it was a plantation. It became a military reservation in 1900 and remained a military post until 1940, when the property was transferred to the then-Veterans Administration and a 377-bed hospital was opened in 1943.

The Army removed about 80 buildings before transferring the land, but there are at least a dozen buildings standing from the early 1900s.

Several remaining are historically significant, including a building known as MacArthur Headquarters. It is named for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was stationed at Fort Howard from 1925 to 1928 as commander of a civilian manpower training program.

The Mine Building, constructed in 1903, sits by itself, at the southern edge of the property. There the military stored mines that were floated out into the Patapsco to help defend the post, said Michael B. McNeil, associate chief of engineering at Fort Howard.

Several large clapboard-sided houses overlook the Patapsco River, built in 1901 for Army officers and their families. Renovating them could be costly since the old homes are filled with lead paint and possibly asbestos, McNeil said.

An old brick theater, built in the 1930s, is shut and used for storage. Nearby are several more turn-of-the-century buildings, believed to have been housing for enlisted men, a nurses' headquarters and dormitories.

Not everyone is happy about the VA hospital closing.

Andrew West, whose farm and produce stand on North Point Road are a few miles from Fort Howard, thinks it is a shame.

"They couldn't find a better spot than that one," he said.

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