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Park Service sees Fort Monroe core as historic site
By Kate Wiltrout
The National Park Service supports establishing a park unit at Fort Monroe after the Army vacates the historic post next year, according to a letter sent this week to Virginia's senior U.S. senator, Jim Webb. And it's calling for careful protection of the fort's historic assets and a stronger plan to present parts of its history to the public.
The park service's primary interest is in 65 acres enclosed by the stone fort and circled by another 35 acres outside the moat. That is the part of the base "most likely to attract future visitors and (that) contains Fort Monroe's most historic resources," according to the letter from Dennis Reidenbach, director of the service's northeast region.
It's critical to protect the buildings in that area "in perpetuity through appropriate easements," he wrote. Those easements wouldn't preclude the state-appointed Fort Monroe Authority from leasing or reusing the buildings but would guarantee that the area "maintains its integrity without the potential threat of future demolitions, exterior alterations, or development of modern intrusions."
The Army, which has occupied the waterfront base since the early 1800s, will vacate the 570-acre property next September, when most personnel move to Joint Base Eustis in Newport News.
The base, including 170 historic buildings and the largest moated stone fort in the United States, was slated for closure by the federal government in 2005 as part of a round of base closings intended to save money.
The park service team that visited in July does not think it should get involved in managing the fort's natural resources, including beaches and marshes and grassy open areas that "are not of national significance" and would be better suited for recreational uses, Reidenbach added.
The government cautioned that two areas near the core 100 acres, North Gate and the Wherry quarter, must be treated carefully to make sure that any new development there is compatible with the fort's historic character. Preliminary re-use plans call for mixed-use development in North Gate, which occupies land between Mill Creek and the fort, while future land use in Wherry quarter, home to post-World War II housing for enlisted soldiers, was left undetermined in the 2008 re-use plan.
The analysts had little praise for the recent draft interpretive plan drawn up by consultants on how to present the fort's assets in exhibits and programming.
The plan "does not meet NPS standards," the letter said. "It is imperative that visitors to this nationally significant fort experience cohesive interpretive programming similar to that offered at national parks."
Reidenbach cited four aspects of the fort's history that should be emphasized: the string of fortifications built at "Old Point Comfort," as the land was known, from Colonial times through the War of 1812; the fort's development and use in coastal defense and as an artillery training center; its role in the Civil War, including as a haven for those escaping slavery; and people and events associated with the fort that contributed to its and the nation's history.
"We are encouraged by their response," Bill Armbruster, executive director of the state-appointed authority, said Friday. Last year, the authority's board unanimously supported an expanded park service presence on the property, as long as the fort's next incarnation seeks to be economically sustainable, open to the public and maintains open space.
The input from the park service is a change from 2008, when it concluded that although Fort Monroe's historic resources were nationally significant, the site didn't necessarily require federal management.
One group has advocated tirelessly for a national park presence: Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park.
"We think it's a great day for Fort Monroe," said Mark Perreault, the group's president. One thing disappointed him, though: the team's conclusion that the fort's natural resources aren't nationally significant. He noted that Congress establishes national parks and could redefine the parameters of the park service's involvement.
Armbruster said the next step is for the park service to assist the Hampton Roads congressional delegation in drafting legislation.
With less than a year until the Army leaves the property, he's glad the park service acted quickly to survey the fort. Some properties take years - decades, even - to earn park status. "Clearly we're on a fast track," Armbruster said. "They recognize the uniqueness of this one, and there is precedent for taking the fast track."