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Ala. retirement home tries second renovation to remove swastika shape

Saturday, March 15, 2008

DECATUR, Ala. -- From the ground, the Wesley Acres Methodist retirement home looks like any other building. But fly over in an airplane, and the outline is unmistakable: It's one big swastika.

Prompted by complaints from a Jewish activist, the agency that owns the government-funded building is planning to alter its shape to disguise the Nazi symbol. The move comes just a few years after a $1 million design modification meant to quiet similar complaints from a U.S. senator.

"The difficulty is there are a limited number of options for fixing a building that has been there for some time," said Mike Giles, counsel for the Methodist Homes Corp. of Alabama and Northwest Florida. "We have to come up with a way to fix an appearance that we want solved and not hurt our residents."

Wesley Acres provides government-subsidized housing for 117 low-income people ages 62 and above. Most have no reason to suspect their hallways take on a sinister shape.

The one-story building, designed in the mid-1970s and completed in 1980, underwent a $1 million alteration in 2001 with funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development following complaints by Democratic Sen. Howell Heflin, who has since died. But the addition of two wings did little to hide the offensive shape, and in some ways accentuates it.

Options for the new renovations include the addition of covered porches or other outdoor areas.

The latest push to rid the landscape of the broken cross shape follows complaints from Avrahaum Segol, the same Israeli-American researcher who last fall helped publicize a swastika-shaped barracks at Naval Base Coronado in San Diego. The Navy said it would spend about $600,000 to alter the building, which opened in the 1960s, but the work has not yet been done.

Segol calls the Alabama retirement home a "sister swastika" to the building in California and says they were both part of a tangled, government-funded conspiracy to honor Nazis.

Segol claims the swastika shape of Wesley Acres in Decatur pays homage to the German scientists who came to nearby Huntsville after World War II and designed the rockets that put Americans on the moon.

Methodist Homes' Giles said Segol's conspiracy claims are ridiculous. The building was originally designed to be much larger, he said, and cutbacks resulted in a shape that resembled the four-armed swastika used as the symbol of German Nazis during World War II.

"It was certainly not intentional," Giles said.

The shape of the retirement center is evident in satellite photos available on the Internet. But it is located in a residential section in a city with few tall buildings, and many in Decatur have no idea Wesley Acres resembles a swastika.

Giles said any changes to the building must be relatively inexpensive since the agency lacks money for an elaborate solution. Planners are considering modifications, he said, "so that from the air it takes your eye away from what was originally there."


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