By Mrs. Melissa K Buckley (Leonard Wood)May 8, 2014
Priceless art, the Black Officers' Club, World War II barracks and stonework laid by prisoners of war are historic icons on Fort Leonard Wood, dating back to the installation's beginning in 1941.
The installation's rich history means there is no shortage of past military sites to visit during May -- National Preservation Month.
"Preservation Month helps to raise awareness about saving historic places. It is important to learn about historic places and help to preserve them for future generations to learn from and enjoy," said Stephanie Nutt, Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands Directorate of Public Works Environmental Division, Cultural Resources Program coordinator.
"Historic preservation is about maintaining, upgrading and reusing historic places so they will last for years to come," Nutt said.
"Many people are not aware that the Department of the Army preserves hundreds of historic properties on their installations across the country for a variety of uses, including Family housing and administrative functions," she added.
Fort Leonard Wood's beginning was in the middle of World War II, therefore many of the historic sites are from that era.
"It was constructed to serve as one of the Army's Engineer Replacement Training Centers during World War II. Construction of the installation began in 1941, and by 1943 hundreds of temporary buildings, built to standardized Army plans, were in place," Nutt said.
Some of the most recognizable structures are at the John B. Mahaffey Museum World War II Complex. The 12 buildings at the museum complex comprise an historic district that is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
"They are historically significant, because they retain many of their original architectural features and represent what a World War II era company complex would have looked like at Fort Leonard Wood. The Engineer Museum manages the buildings and many contain exhibits interpreting military life during the World War II era," Nutt said.
The historic district includes mess halls, a day room, administrative buildings, barracks and a chapel.
Originally erected as a storehouse and company administration building, the interior of Bldg. 1318 was recently renovated to create public rest rooms for use by visitors to the historic district and the memorial groves.
"This is an excellent example of historic preservation in action -- the exterior of the building maintains its historical appearance, while the interior has been renovated for a necessary function. The building remains viable, because it has been modified and continues to be used," Nutt said.
While identical to the other structures in the historic district, Bldg. 1319 is a reconstruction. It was completely destroyed by the 2010 tornado that hit Fort Leonard Wood on New Year's Eve.
Because the building was integral to the museum's interpretation of the historic district, it was rebuilt to the original World War II era specifications, according to Nutt.
One of the most noticeable buildings on the complex is the chapel. It was one of the later designs added to the cantonment construction and provided general religious services for all denominations.
The chapel was originally in the reception area of Fort Leonard Wood. It was moved to its present location in 1999, as an effort to retain a regimental chapel from World War II.
The buildings in the complex are open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday, to Saturday.
On the other side of the cantonment area stands the Black Officers' Club. It served as the Black Officers' Club during World War II, when the Army was segregated.
Located on the corner of East 2nd Street and Replacement Avenue, the club sat within a larger segregated area of the installation, which included barracks, administrative buildings and a chapel.
"Originally built in 1941, it was converted to an officers' club annex in 1943 when, according to accounts of the day, black officers attempted to enter a service club on post and were turned away by white officers. The then commanding general determined the black officers needed a club of their own and ordered an administrative building in the segregated portion of the installation to be converted to a service club," Nutt said.
An addition was added to the rear of the building, expanding its size and giving the building its t-shaped appearance. A wide range of social and recreational functions likely took place in the building, after it was converted to a service club, according to Nutt.
The club is believed to be one of only two surviving World War II era Black Officers' Clubs in the Army system, according to Nutt. The other is located at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
"Building 2101 is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places for its association with events that have made a significant contribution to our nation's history, specifically under the categories of social and military history," Nutt said.
"The physical structure itself has been modified and renovated over the years; however, the building is not historically significant for its appearance or architecture. Building 2101 is significant because it is a tangible piece of the segregated Army experience -- it tells the story of that period in our history," she added.
Not only is the club historic, but it contains a valuable piece of artwork.
Samuel Albert Countee, an artist and contributor to the national New Negro Movement, was drafted into the Army in 1942. While serving with a dump truck company, he was commissioned by the military to paint a mural in the Black Officers' Club.
"According to a post newspaper article from August of 1945, shortly after the mural was completed, Countee had dozens of murals and paintings to his credit at military installations both at home and abroad. The mural in Building 2101 is thought to be the only surviving example of Countee's military art career, however there are many fine examples from his civilian art career in museums and private collections across the country," Nutt said.
The 4-by-10-foot painting, portrays a young African-American couple enjoying each other's company while picnicking; the piece has been called a subliminal portrait of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Currently, the fate of Bldg. 2101 and the mural inside it is unknown. It has been vacant for a few years, and its future is undecided, according to Nutt.
The property also includes a number of stonework features that were built by German prisoners of war interned at Fort Leonard Wood between 1943 and 1946.
(Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series that explores the preservation efforts of Fort Leonard Wood historic sites. Next week's story will focus on the German POW stonework located around Fort Leonard Wood. Also next week, Nutt highlights the installation's Cold War era structures.)