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Nevada preservationists try to save Depression-era hospital from the wrecking ball

Nevada preservationists try to save Depression-era hospital from the wrecking ball
Keegan Strouse, an architectural graduate student, is leading an effort to save the historic Boulder City Hospital from demolition. The now-abandoned hospital, built in 1931, was purchased by a developer who wants to build houses on the site. (John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)

Growing up in the shadow of the Hoover Dam, Keegan Strouse has always been captivated by the history of the Depression-era buildings that once served the mammoth government project erected nearby.

At night, he and a friend would sneak into the Boulder Dam Hotel, scouting for ghosts in the basement of the inn that for decades had played host to the likes of billionaire Howard Hughes and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

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Then, this July, the 27-year-old graduate architecture student at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas read an Internet post that rocked those boyhood memories: the Boulder City Hospital, where injured dam workers were long treated, was facing the wrecking ball.

A developer and city planning commissioner, Randolph Schams, had purchased the abandoned hospital for $550,000. Citing its disrepair, Schams announced plans to demolish the 15,000-square-foot facility and build a dozen new homes on a site with views of majestic Lake Mead.

Strouse stared into his computer screen: The cornerstone of Boulder City's historic district, a site listed on the National Register of Historic Places, could soon be a pile of rubble.

"It was heartbreaking to see that a piece of history would soon be demolished out of simple greed, to make way for a bunch of houses," he said. "I had to do something about it."

Within weeks, he scrambled to create a social media page, founded a historic preservation nonprofit, researched real estate law and led a group of fellow volunteers to collect thousands of signatures on a petition against the project.

Strouse has plans for the old hospital: create a museum chronicling the Depression in a city he says worked hard to escape its grip. He's sought private philanthropy and government grants and lobbied city officials to intervene in the hospital demolition, even though they have no legal control over the project.

He's become an unlikely David — his slingshot his determination and energy — taking on an imposing local personality in a battle most residents have given up for lost.

"Keegan is exactly what Boulder City needs," said Christina Frausto, president of the local historic preservation committee. "He's inspired us to fight for this important piece of history. He's young, knows the importance of social media, and won't be downtrodden by anybody. I get messages from him at 3 a.m."

Even Schams is impressed with the youthful Strouse. "He went to school with my daughter. I love his energy and think he's got great ideas, but not all of them have substance," he said, pointing out that Boulder City struggles to support the one history museum it already has.

The developer, who has applied for demolition permits, says he'll sell the property for $1.6 million if the buyer has another $2 million he says are needed for building renovations.

"I'm not shutting the door," he said. "If someone wants to buy this building and has money to restore it, I'm more than receptive. Otherwise, we'll preserve what history as we can."

He added: "We'll save the windows and bricks. Maybe people in town will want to buy a brick of old hospital memorabilia."

Strouse, who still lives in Boulder City, has experience in public organizing. A few years ago, he joined an unsuccessful fight to save the historic 95-year-old Inisfada mansion, a onetime Jesuit-owned retreat on Long Island, N.Y.

Just maybe, he hoped, Boulder City would be different.

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The hospital, the city's first, was built in 1931 to care for dam workers. The Spanish colonial-style building, where many local residents were born, closed its doors to patients in 1977. It later served as a retreat for the Episcopal Sisters of Charity before being purchased for use as a drug rehab center.

Legend claims the hospital is haunted by the ghosts of dam workers who died there. A cable television ghost-hunters show visited the site to interview a building manager who reported lights turning on, doors opening and new flashlights that stopped working.

Schams, who says many residents are tired of living next door to a boarded-up relic, bought the building in 2014 from LGS Holdings.

Strouse's research has taught residents the vigilance needed to preserve local history: Even though the hospital is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he discovered, it still was not legally protected against the sale and demolition. That protection would have had to come from the city, which did not act to save the building.

"It's been a wake-up call for the community — what can happen if you're not paying attention," Frausto said. "People here just figured the building was protected. But this developer has the legal right to do what he's doing; there's no way we can stop him."

Strouse also founded the Historic Boulder City Foundation, which now counts 40 members. In mid-July, hospital-preservation supporters packed a City Council meeting and openly criticized Schams.

"Things got out of hand, and that's not good for the city," Strouse said. "This isn't 'Game of Thrones.' If you want to enact real change, you can't go to meetings with pitchforks."

Strouse later introduced himself to Schams. The developer and the young organizer soon took a tour of the hospital together.

"He wanted me to see the vandalism done there over the years, but I looked past all that," Strouse said. "In the scheme of things, a little broken drywall is like a cracked fingernail."

Though he knows the wrecking ball is likely to fall soon, Strouse still hopes for a last-minute benefactor. In September, he will present the City Council with construction plans for his proposed museum.

As a budding young architect, he drew them up himself.

Twitter: @jglionna

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