This is a transcript of a presentation at the Preserving U.S. Military Heritage: World War II to the Cold War, June 4-6, 2019, held in Fredericksburg, TX. Watch a non-audio described version of the presentation on YouTube.
Rehabilitating the WWII Black Officers' Club, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri
Presenters: Stephanie Nutt, Adam Smith, and Steven D. Smith
No one at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, knew in 1992 that the evaluation of an unobtrusive World War II temporary administrative building would eventually lead to more than a decades long effort to preserve and rehabilitate a significant segment of the installation’s, and the Army’s, history. Likewise, no one knew the name of the artist who painted a mural of an African American couple at a picnic, which hung over the fireplace of the building’s addition. Today, though, Building 2101 stands as a tribute to the history and experiences of African American Officers who served during WWII and to Sergeant Samuel Countee, an African American soldier who was also a talented young artist. Also, of note at Building 2101 is a two-story cut stone chimney and interior fireplace and mantle, over which hangs the mural. The stonework was constructed by German POWs imprisoned at Fort Leonard Wood during WWII. The property also contains stonework sidewalks, retaining walls, and drainage ditches constructed by the POWs.
Fort Leonard Wood determined that the WWII-era Black Officers’ Club was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and the Missouri SHPO concurred. As such, the planning process that lead to the rehabilitation of the building required consultation with a variety of stakeholders, per the National Historic Preservation Act. There were few WWII military training centers designed to train and house African American servicemen, and of those, very few of the original facilities survive today. Building 2101 provides a unique opportunity to share its valuable WWII, African American, and POW history, making it one of the most important extant WWII temporary buildings in the Army inventory. The building now contains an exhibit dedicated to these significant themes and serves as a training facility for several Fort Leonard Wood Garrison organizations. This paper tells the story of the amazing discovery of the artist, and the evaluation, preservation, and rehabilitation of both the building and the painting. The effort involved not only the authors but also many other experts including, archivists, art specialists, architectural historians, historic architects, and the family of Samuel Countee.
Adam Smith: Good afternoon. We also have a co-author, Dr. Steven Smith, from the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Architecture, as well. He got me here today. I've been working with Fort Leonard Wood for about 18 years, I think it is. I first came on with this particular building and this particular project, in 2002. In 1988 there had been an overall survey of Fort Leonard Wood that identified World War II buildings of interest. Some interesting stonework. But since most of it was not yet 50 years of age, it was just, "Prepare yourself for this when it turns 50." The buildings were surveyed again in 1993, and the same things came about like, "The stonework is interesting. It might be eligible. Look forward to dealing with this in the future." And then we were brought in, in 2003. It turned out that the building that we're going to talk about today is a World War II temporary building, constructed as an administration building and then transformed into a Black Officers Club for the engineer's stationed there, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
The background for this building is that, the army increased in troop strength from a low of 230,000 in the middle to late 1930s to over 1.6 million by December of 1941. And so, we were preparing for war in Europe and war in the Pacific from about 1937, 1938 onwards. And it has been mentioned earlier in some of the earlier presentations, the Constructing Quartermaster Corps, and then after that the Corps of Engineers, developed a series of temporary wood building plans for the many camps that were going to be constructed across the country at that time.
Let's see. The primary distinguishing characteristics of these wood temporary buildings, and there are over 300 building types of this; bakeries, barracks, various administration buildings, hospitals, wards, chapels, so on and so forth. For instance, there were over, I think that there was 734 World War II temporary building chapels constructed across the country during this time period. The typical construction was wood stud. Exteriors were in wood, painted ivory, and these were for the 700 series. Concrete foundation piers, which was mentioned in the earlier presentation this afternoon. Doors on the narrow front gable ends, ventilators, gable end wall story, and then skirt roofs that help protect the windows and the interiors from rain and the other elements.
One of the interesting things about the plans themselves is that, they were prepared, in the sense of, easy modification. So, if you notice the... I do have a pointer, right? If you notice this break, right here, in this elevation drawing, that allowed this building to either be constructed in a small size, a medium size, a larger size and an extra-large size. So you can see that, in these variety of plans for this building type. And the, again, the Black Officers Club was an administration building, not a club originally. Construction of these World War II temporary buildings was fast paced. Some of these camps were built in two months, some of them were built in four months. It depended on how large they were. The process went with, the foundations were dug, the concrete laid, the flooring went in, the studs went up, the roof went on, siding on, windows went in. It was building after building after building. And this really can be exemplified, right here, in this photo.
And then, this is a completed company area at Fort Leonard Wood. One of the interesting things construction-wise and architectural-wise and urban planning wise for the World War II temporary buildings is that, this type of construction, as the men came back from World War II in the late 1940s, is what basically every suburban development followed, in the sense of construction. And so, these buildings contained central heating, screens. It was one of the first cases, many of them coming into these army forts, where they had central heat or air was blowing heat in the winter through the building. Now, there's still certainly gaps in the walls and stuff like that still, but they had central heat.
The Fort Leonard Wood cantonment. Fort Leonard Wood is in the south central Ozarks of Missouri. It's hilly, getting towards mountainous. And the cantonment, here is very large, six square miles. And we have a hospital, an admission area on the North end. Company areas, on either side of the parade ground. An airfield, down here. And then more company areas on the southern end. Fort Leonard Wood was not originally scheduled to have African American soldiers, there at the fort. And as the cantonment was being designed, it was modified for that. The army was segregated at this time. The war department was, same with the department of the navy. The first African American marines were in the late 1930s. And the army had had African American soldiers throughout most of the war department's history, but they were typically in the service positions, stewards. Positions like that.
When the engineer-training center moved from Belvoir in Virginia out to Fort Leonard Wood in the Ozarks, the contingent of African American soldiers increased greatly at Fort Leonard Wood. One of the most interesting postcards I always think of is this one right here showing the African American soldiers outside one of the temporary barracks. This aerial here, is looking from the northeast towards the southwest. So again, this is the post-hospital, this is the warehouse for commissary, quartermaster, things like that. You can notice the large parade field in the middle. And then this area right up here, sort of separated off from the rest of the cantonment, as most segregated army posts were, is where the African American soldiers were stationed.
And then, a detail of this area. So, this was one company for the engineers. And then the building in question is, this one right here. Again, it started off life as an administration building for this unit. And there were no black officers at the beginning here, at Fort Leonard Wood. And then the story goes, and we never did find proof of this. The story goes that, as the black officers were trained and moved in to Fort Leonard Wood, again, this was not designed as a segregated post, there was not a Black Officers Club. And so, the African American officers went to the officers club. It was not the white officers club. It was just the officers club. And they were turned away. And so the commanding general is the one that authorized this building. That's not my phone.
So, the commanding general authorized this admin building to be transformed into an officer’s club for the black officers here at Fort Leonard Wood. Then, we have another story here. And this is what makes this building just architecturally and historically so intriguing and important to the history of the segregated army and German POWs. Fort Leonard Wood did have an enemy alien internment camp. It was activated in December 1942. It has 3000 POWs and you can see the plan of the POW camp, down here. This area has been investigated archeologically. And it is an archeological site with the Missouri SHPO's office. And Stephanie can tell a little bit more when she gets up and talks about the other portion.
But, for this building in particular, what's interesting is that these German POWs, and again, the story goes, there's never any proof of these things. They did head out to the rest of Missouri, and they worked in the great fields around central Missouri. They worked in fields and they worked in the laundry. But they also, throughout the cantonment of Fort Leonard Wood, built hundreds of stone structures, fireplaces, chimneys, sidewalks, retaining walls, bridges, patios, so on and so forth, across the cantonment. And as far as we know, it's the largest concentration of German POW stonework in the country.
That is the commander’s house from World War II, and they built a chimney and a fireplace for the officer’s quarters. And this is the back, the rear of the Black Officers Club. And I just wanted to point off, so the large chimney here was added to the building by the German POWs. And then, this large stone embankment, is all German POW stonework. And so, there's a whole series of World War II buildings at Leonard Wood that are associated with the German POW stonework that are eligible. And then there's a river creek, historic district as well, where they modified with bridges, culverts, weirs, and stuff like that.
So, back to our club. So again, 43, the extension was added, the chimney was added, and the building mostly took shape as we see it today. One of the most interesting things, again, about this building, and in the last sentence there, is, there is a large mural over the fireplace and what we call the dance hall, the ballroom. And it's a large mural, African American couple. And, not much was known in that 1988 survey or the 1993 survey about that mural at all until... Oh, I messed up. So, after World War II, training ended in 1946. Fort Leonard Wood was inactivated and was rented off to a rancher and cows were roaming over the entire cantonment, is reactivated in 1950 for Korea. My father was stationed there for Korea. And the club turned back into office space. And you can see here, from this photo, it's used as a conference educational center. And you can see the fireplace there, in the far, with the mural above it.
And then, the floor plan was heavily modified and divided up into office space somewhere in the 1950s, 1960s. And at some point, that dance hall, that ballroom, was divided up into several spaces as well. When I first encountered it in 2002, it looked like this. The original wood siding had been covered over by steel painted siding. All of the windows had been replaced. The doors had all been replaced. The green asphalt roof shingles that should have been on here, were these dull, gray shingles. And it still sat lonely there, at the northern end of the cantonment. And here's another view of it in 2003, with that German POW chimney on the rear extension that included the dance hall. And then we come to the story of the mural, and Stephanie will take care of this one.
Stephanie Nutt: So, our colleague and co-author, Steve Smith, was able to through a variety of research lanes, including his wife prodding him on certain places to go, to identify the artist. But it took quite awhile. He was brought in in 1998 to develop a historic context statement for the building, which included researching the mural. All that was visible at that time of the artist's signature was his rank, which was staff sergeant, a couple of letters in his first name, and an N-T-E-E at the end of his last name.
He researched for about a year, wasn't able to identify the artist, couldn't find anything in the army art program records, and so eventually finalized his report. But he wasn't, as a good historian, he wasn't really ready to give up on it. And so he kept looking into things. His wife suggested looking into African American artists indices in the university library there. And so, he did that and he found a very brief entry to an artist named, Samuel Countee. So, the N-T-E-E at the end was a big red flag for him. He was able to find additional information about him and eventually... he found a mention of a work that he had painted in 1933, which is one of the boys sitting here, that you see, and it is entitled, Little Brown Boy. He was able to compare the signatures.
They looked very similar. And so, he felt like he had found the artist, did some more research, couldn't really learn much more about him. His wife again intervened and said, "You saw some mention of him living in New York. Why don't you check the New York Times obituaries?" Found an obituary for him also listing his wife's name and their place of residence at the time of his death. On a whim, he looked in the New York phone books. This is 1998, so, he passed away in 1959. So, a lot of time has passed. He looked in New York phone books, found his wife, Mary Countee listed, picked up the phone and gave them a call. She had passed away. Her second husband, however, was still living. He had answered the phone and he said, "Oh yes, I knew Sam Countee. That was my wife's first husband," gave him some information and put him in touch with living family members. And so from there we learned lots and lots and lots about Samuel Countee's life.
He was born in Marshall, Texas in 1909. He studied at Bishop College. His grandfather had actually founded Bishop College. He grew up in Houston, graduated from Bishop in 1934, was already displaying some of his works in local exhibitions and different places around the country. He went on to study at the Boston Museum school, and also at Harvard for several years. The other painting that you see here is a work of his from 1940 entitled, The Longshoreman. He eventually is drafted in 1942, and he enters into the military. He does his military training at Fort Leonard Wood. He was a dump truck driver with the 436th Engineer General Service Dump Truck Company. He was deployed to Iran, in support of the Persian Gulf command there. They were maintaining supply routes to the Soviet Union, overland supply routes. While there he was selected to paint and restore some murals in the Shah of Iran’s palace. And there is some documentation of that, that the family had.
He eventually comes back to Fort Leonard Wood after they're sent back to the US, and in August of 1945, paints the mural in the Black Officers Club. The clipping there at the top, is a clipping from Our Post paper at the time, showing him standing next to it and mentioning that it had been recently finished. You can see the fireplace underneath there. And If you noticed, in the pictures Adam showed, that it was painted red. Originally it was not red. It was a natural stone. After his military service, he moved to New York. He continued his art career. But the war seems to have gotten him off track a little bit on his art career. He wasn't really ever able to pick up speed and get back to where he was, but he did continue painting. He painted a lot of portraits and he also was a teacher at a public school and had several volunteer teaching positions as well. He marries, and is living in New Hempstead, New York. Oh God. Okay. Alright. Can I skip your character-define? Okay, we're going to skip Adam's other part.
Okay. Sorry. We'll go back to that. So, Countee passed away in 1959, as I had mentioned. So, we have been in touch constantly. One of his nieces has visited Fort Leonard Wood, definitively identified the painting as his works, and she has been one of our constant consulting parties and friends throughout the process. Her name is Sammie Whiting Ellis. She was named after him. So, that brings us to the Section 106 Consultation Process. 2011, the building is vacated. It is eligible for the National Register. The environmental division moved out and there was no identified use for the building and no intended disposition.
For those of you that are familiar with Section 106 Process, that's a big no, no. You have to have a plan for what you're going to do with these buildings. Our internal command and senior leaders decided they were going to demolish it. That it would be demolished, the mural would be moved to the museum and the POW stonework would just be left in place at the site. There were others at Fort Leonard Wood and within the army that were very concerned about that course of action. But that's what our senior leaders wanted to proceed with. So, we entered into consultation in 2012 with the advisory council in the Missouri SHPO, stating that the building was going to be demolished.
Several other consulting parties were added. And so, our core consulting parties where the National Trust, the Missouri Preservation, two local chapters of the NAACP, the Countee family members, in addition to the SHPO and the ACHP. It was a long, complex and contentious consultation process. We were in consultation from 2012 to 2015, on the ultimate disposition of this building. As you might imagine, our consulting parties urged the army to preserve the building. We had several changes of command and changes of attitude within our installation senior leaders, and that really turned things around for us. So, we went from a very unpleasant adverse effect to a no adverse effect to the historic property. We were able to develop a rehabilitation plan through a design charrette that our consulting parties participated very heavily in. So, this was the new floor plan. There were going to be classroom facilities on the north and south wings.
A new central entrance to the building was added to create a central lobby area with bathrooms and kitchen space. And then the mural room would be used for more meetings and a conference space and things like that. Even though it was a significant change to the exterior facade of the building and to the interior, it was still felt to be a no adverse effect. It preserved the stonework at the other entrances to the facility. It provided us with a fully ADA compliant entrance to the building. And, the consulting parties were very happy with the way things were going at this point. It took us a little while to get to rehabilitation, but we did. And, we kicked that off in earnest, in early 2018. There were several surprises along the way. Most of them were pretty good. We did find the original 1940s era flooring underneath the modern carpet and sub floor and were able to preserve that.
We also, this is just a picture showing some of the new framing going in while still preserving many of the original features of the building. The POW stonework around the exterior of the property was also repaired and maintained throughout the rehab process as well, had historic masonry professionals come in from NCPTT to do some analysis for us. They did analysis of the mortar and also not just here, but at some of our other POW stonework sites, and developed some guidelines for maintenance and repair of those. And that's what was provided to the masonry contractors when they did this work. Another big surprise, we found a section of one of the interior walls. It was being demoed, had this war Bonds poster and... I know. I'm sorry. And then, a signature of a gentleman, whose name was Harold Gruelle.
I tracked him down. He was pretty easy to track down. It's a unique name. He had served. He was not African American, but he had served at Fort Leonard Wood early in 1941. He was an engineer and probably did some training there before he was deployed. Probably helped with the final construction of the building itself. And he signed his name and his birth place, to that. As a nod to him, we repeated that wall signing effort with our then garrison commander and all of the other people that were involved in the rehabilitation, and then sheet rocked over that. So, there's a nice little time capsule there if anybody ever tears that wall down. And that chunk of wall is now on display in the building. So, during this process, leading up to the rehabilitation, we're also doing some things just with the mural. We had it appraised.
It was valued at $371,000. At that time, we had not started the building. The building was still vacant. We quickly installed a security system on the building. A conservator was brought in and made some recommendations, which included... he felt the best way to conserve it was to remove it from the wall, take it to his conservation lab. The mural is three panels of plywood attached right to the wall. So, we were concerned about that. He assured us it would be fine, and it was. He did a great job, cleaned it, put a protective varnish on it, attached the three panels together, mounted it on to two layers of birch plywood and returned it to us. So it is now on display again in the building. It was re-installed in March of 2019. It's beautiful.
We also had the opportunity to do some interpretation. We have interior and exterior panels at the building. So something that we wanted to do. But also our consultant parties were very adamant that this needed to be an important part of the facility to tell that story for us. There are some introductory panels in the outside of the building in the hallway, and then when you enter into the mural room, there are seven panels that flank either side of the wall that focus on the three main themes, which is the segregated army during World War II, our POWs and Samuel Countee and his life and works, that lead up to the mural at the end of the building with a glass enclosure around it. Now we're able to maintain the humidity inside of that.
We've been given some recent accolades, which we're pretty proud of. We won a Missouri Preservation Honor award. So, that's our current garrison commander, up there, accepting the award. I think the one that we are the most proud of is that, we were also selected as a Section 106 success story for this year. So, those of you that work with the Advisory Council are familiar with that. It's featured on their website. But I think that is the real takeaway from this whole thing. We went from a very dismal outlook for this very important and historically significant building, and a sad adverse effect from the demolition of it, through very meaningful and lengthy consultation, turned that around to the point where we had a no adverse effect. We have provided a facility for our installation that meets our mission and training needs, but still preserves that important history and tells that story to the public. Everyone who comes through there to take a class or to tour the building will be able to see how the army is able to make an investment in their history. Sorry.
Speaker 1: You mentioned that there was a change of command. Was that the turning point? Was it slated for demolition up until then? Was it a change of attitude, like you educated the incoming command?
Stephanie Nutt: A little bit of all of those things. So, since this project started we've had three commanding generals and we're now on our fourth garrison commander. So, there's been quite a lot of turnover. Honestly, I will say the real turning point was when a civilian senior leader took a position elsewhere. And that was the real turning point. Not all over the right information was necessarily getting to our commanders. And so, we were able to really see a big change in attitudes at that point. Also, the army's deputy federal preservation officer made a phone call to our commanding general and that didn't hurt us any.
Adam Smith: I would like to add to that. I mean, it's really Stephanie. I mean, this is a really long and involved [inaudible 00:30:43].
Stephanie Nutt: And Connie and... So, there are folks in the audience who were also involved with it. Pam is over here, from New [Salsch 00:30:52] . They were instrumental in developing our interpretive panels. Connie Barnett's back there, she used to work at Army Environmental Command. She was very involved in this as well. So, I don't want to take all the credit.
Adam Smith: But we were [inaudible 00:31:03] because, one of my daughter, I think, was a junior in high school when we started all of this and she just graduated college. But Stephanie was the one that [inaudible 00:31:15].
Stephanie Nutt: We're very proud of what the army has accomplished here. There's not always a lot of good news stories about the army in historic preservation, and this is definitely one of them. And so, we're very, very proud to share that with people.
Stephanie Nutt is an historical archaeologist and cultural resources specialist at the US Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. She has worked at Fort Leonard Wood for sixteen years. Her primary duties include ensuring installation compliance with historic preservation laws and regulations, coordination of cultural resources survey and evaluation, and Native American consultation efforts. She has taught anthropology and archaeology courses at Drury University and East Central College in Missouri. Stephanie holds a BA in Anthropology from Texas A&M University and a MA in Anthropology from East Carolina University.
Adam Smith is an architectural historian and project manager at USACE-ERDC-CERL, Champaign, Illinois. He has worked for CERL for over twenty years managing cultural resources projects covering military installations across the DoD. Some of his major projects have included Arlington National Cemetery’s nomination to the NRHP, the Merchant Marine Academy nomination to the NRHP, and a historic context on Vietnam and the Home-Front. Prior to working at CERL, he taught cultural geography and architectural history at Parkland College, Illinois. Adam holds a BARCH from the University of Southern California, and a MARCH in architectural history from the University of Illinois.
Steven D. Smith, Ph.D., is the Director of the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology and Research Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina. He has over 30 years experience in historical archaeology and specializes in military sites archaeology. Prior to his appointment as Director he worked in Cultural Resource Management. He currently teaches Conflict Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology and has taught African American Military History, the Evolution of Warfare, and the Anthropology of War.