Critics say State is letting historic Searcy buildings decay beyond repair

Investigations

News 5 gets exclusive look inside the walls of the old Mt. Vernon Arsenal

As The State of Alabama celebrates its bicentennial, critics claim it is letting almost 200 years of history rot away at the former Searcy Hospital site in Mt. Vernon.

“We are running out of time quickly,” said Tommy Stonecypher of the Mt. Vernon Historic Preservation Society. “There are a lot of buildings that are already beyond saving.”

Stonecypher and Mt. Vernon’s Mayor Terry Williams recently gave a tour of the property to News 5. It’s the first time news cameras have been inside the walls of the property since the State Department of Mental Health shut the facility in 2012. Buildings are in various stages of decay. The property is overrun with kudzu and weeds. 

Stonecypher and Williams hope Searcy can be developed into a historic tourist attraction and possibly a state park. But they see opportunity literally rotting away.

“In 1988, it would have been extremely easy to come in here and save this place,” Stonecypher said. “But for the last 30 years, the State of Alabama has been reluctant to lift a finger to save 200 years of Alabama history.”

The property was originally one of 14 Army arsenals commissioned by then-President Andrew Jackson in 1830. Twelve original structures exist, but most are in bad shape with leaking roofs.

“The first thing that needs to happen is to identify the structures that are still viable and still worth saving and get those roofs in the dry,” Stonecypher said. He’s calling on the State Department of Mental Health to do at least that while a campaign is mounted to raise private and public funds to restore and repurpose the property. 

Of the 14 arsenals built under President Jackson, only two exist – the one in Mt Vernon and one in Kennebec, Maine. The Searcy property was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. This year, the National Trust for Preservation listed it among “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.”

“Out of 300 places over the last 30 years to be named to that list, only 5-percent have been lost,” said Stonecypher. “So, we are very hopeful that we’ll see some results from the national exposure.”

First, however, he says the state needs to shore up the property or turn it over to some entity that will.

Mayor Williams says Mt. Vernon has not recovered from the loss of jobs when Searcy was closed in 2012. He says the property is perfect for a museum and/or a state park. 

“The Indians, Civil War history, national history, black american history,” he says. “Why is it being left to ruin like this? Nobody understands it. Why is the State letting us down like this?

The Mt. Vernon Arsenal was taken over by the Confederates during the Civil War and afterwards remained an Army post until 1895. From 1887 to 1894, about 400 Apache natives, who were designated as prisoners of war but who were never charged with crimes, were housed there, including Geronimo.  U.S. Army physician Walter Reed worked there in the 1890’s.

In 1895, the property was decommissioned  and transferred to the State of Alabama which opened the Mount Vernon Hospital for the Colored Insane five years later. In 1919 the facility was renamed Searcy Hospital after Dr. J.T. Searcy who was the first superintendent at Mount Vernon. The hospital was desegregated in 1969.

“This is going to take a massive infusion of money and time and blood, sweat, and tears to rehabilitate this property, but this is 200 years of Alabama history”

A spokesperson for The Alabama Department of Mental Health says agency spends about $125,000 a year on security and basic maintenance on the property and is working with the Mt. Vernon Historical Committee, the Town of Mount Vernon, the Alabama Historical Commission, and the Alabama Department of Archives and History on a long term plan for the site.

“We always welcome any partners who are willing to work towards making repairs to these historic buildings,” said Malissa Valdes-Hubert, Public Information Officer

for Alabama Department of Mental Health in an email to News-5.

Here is the Department’s full statement:

“We are very attentive to the significant legacy of Searcy Hospital and the history found on its grounds. For that reason, the Alabama Department of Mental Health continues to work with the Mt. Vernon Historical Committee and the Town of Mount Vernon to achieve mutually beneficial land uses of the campus. We also receive input and guidance from the Alabama Historical Commission, the Alabama Department of Archives and History and other interested agencies regarding the preservation and disposition of this historic site. 

Regarding repairs and use of the buildings on the grounds:

Since the closure of the facility in 2012, we have stationed 24/7 security at the facility to prevent vandalism and theft.  Permissive use agreements are in place for the McCafferty House, the old Administration building, the Fire Department building and the Mechanics building. In addition, there is a permissive use agreement for the town to use the pistol range.  Recently, we received a grant from the Alabama Historical Commission to stabilize the old arsenal. 

In addition, the department, partners and private citizens, are in the planning stages of applying for grants that could assist in making additional repairs to the historic buildings on the Searcy campus that are “inside the walls.”  We always welcome any partners who are willing to work towards making repairs to these historic buildings. For example, the Mt Vernon Historic Preservation Society, a non-profit group, continuously raises money and makes repairs to the historic part of the campus.  The Preservation Society has done an outstanding job renovating and preserving the historic McCafferty House; and, the Preservation Society is working to restore the historic Administration Building. 

Conversely, over the last three years, the department has participated in many discussions regarding the possible use of some of the newer buildings “outside the walls” of the historic area on the campus.  While we are supportive of the effort to bring business back to Mt. Vernon, the biggest challenge is the large cost to make these buildings operational. A significant amount of money would need to be invested to stand up power, sewer services and other resources to address infrastructure issues. In addition, the Town of Mount Vernon recently engaged a professional to assess the “newer buildings,” and it was determined that the cost to renovate these structures would be substantial. 

The Alabama Department of Mental Health expends approximately $125,000 annually to maintain the grounds, provide security, and make repairs to damage caused by trespassers. Regarding the transferring of the property to another organization: No entity has expressed interest in acquiring the property, and any transfer would be subject to the provisions of the Land Sales Act.

Malissa Valdes-Hubert

Public Information Officer

Alabama Department of Mental Health

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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