By Sandra Lea Dickenson, AIA Emeritus
Besides being an architect, I am also a military brat and a military wife and have spent most of my life crisscrossing this country. With 170 Veterans Affairs hospitals out there, we would often come across them. Usually they were hulking wedding cake style complexes, often on a hill or backed up to a high spot. They were not known to be lovely in design. In fact, early in my career I was in the room with a VA committee reviewing a hospital design. My company was asked to redesign because it “looked too good” and the public might think we were spending too much money! That was fifty years ago and I have noticed that they are doing better now but they still don’t always look like they fit their surroundings or the community.
Given my experience, I was delighted to come across a gem of a VA hospital high on a hill overlooking Hot Springs, South Dakota. The Battle Mountain Sanitarium was built in 1907 and was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2011. The Landmark designation is significant because it denotes sites of exceptional cultural and historic importance instead of the architectural designation of The National Register of Historic Places. In fact, few National Historic Landmarks are buildings. Most are archeological sites or battlefields, like the one at Wounded Knee.
Battle Mountain Sanitarium (now part of the Veterans Affairs Black Hills Health Care System) was part of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers which predates the current Veterans Affairs. It was the first and only National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers built solely as a short-term sanitarium. It was built for treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, lung disease or respiratory problems, not as a long-term home. Unlike the other National Home branches, veterans went to Battle Mountain Sanitarium for brief, intensive treatment and were then returned to other residential facilities if long term care was needed. It is important to note that the facility has had few modifications and is still being used for its designed purpose.
Hot Springs, South Dakota was selected because of the mineral springs and the dry air. Hot Springs was being developed as a mineral water resort and sported many fine buildings built of local sandstone in the style known as Richardson Romanesque. Battle Mountain was named after a fierce battle between Sioux and Cheyenne tribes in 1869. Local citizens helped raise money to purchase the land for the facility.
Thomas Richard Kimball from Omaha NE was selected as the architect. He had training both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in France. He was a prominent architect and served as the President of the American Institute of Architects in 1918. The building was built in a star pattern with wards radiating from the central building. This allowed for more sun and air in the rooms and separated patients based on disease to avoid contamination. The wards featured a sophisticated ventilation system, ramps instead of stairways and expansive open porches. The style selected was a very attractive combination of Mission/Spanish Colonial Revival and Romanesque Revival fashioned of local Fall River pink sandstone. The administration building, with its low dome, is a beautifully detailed welcome to the facility. The architect borrowed Romanesque elements from the architecture of Hot Springs. Later, many of the buildings in town were given Mission details.
The site planning and landscaping was done by George E Kessler of Kansas City, MO. Kessler complemented Kimball’s design with a flowing road system. He successfully hid utility buildings from view. He also laid out the staff quarters, which are also significant, and the cemetery.
The Battle Mountain Sanitarium is a well-designed facility, beautifully sited, overlooking the town. It incorporates local materials and design elements and has had few additions or offending modifications. It marks a change in the treatment of veterans moving from residential care to medical care. Hot Springs has great architecture and attractions but the sanitarium on Battle Mountain is the crown jewel.
Sandra Lea Dickenson, AIA Emeritus, has been a licensed architect since 1972 when women only represented 2% of the profession. She was AIA South Dakota president in 2007 and served on the national AIA Strategic Council from 2016-18. Sandy keeps trying to retire in Vermillon, but isn’t finding it easy. Traveling is her passion. She has visited all 50 states and 30 countries. She and her retired Army husband have three grown daughters and three grandchildren.