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Remarkable counterpoints in American with Palmerston forts at Portsmouth
From Times Online
by: Marcus Binney
The Palmerston forts defending Portsmouth from attack by land and sea have a remarkable counterpart in the US. This is a line of coastal forts running from the Florida Keys and Fort Sumter in South Carolina to Fort Adams near Newport Rhode Island and Fort Gorges in Maine, prompted by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814. The most remarkable of them all is Fort Monroe at Hampton, Virginia — 63 acres of rus-in-urbe set within moated walls inset with casements or massive gun batteries.
Fort Monroe was built between 1819 and 1834, but a fort had been erected here as early as 1609 by Captain John Smith, leader of the Virginia colonists, to protect the colony at nearby Jamestown. Though in the Confederate South, it was held throughout the civil war by the Yankees, too strong to attack. President Lincoln stayed here for four nights at the height of the conflict and it was off Hampton Roads that the famous first battle of the ironclads took place in 1862 between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.
As war raged, Fort Monroe became a haven for escaping slaves and by the end of the war 20,000 had taken refuge and found freedom here, fed thanks to the superior strength of the Union navy. The fort was then chosen as the site of the army’s new artillery school and armed with massive 32-pounder guns with a range of a mile — enough to cover the main shipping channel. Since the Second World War the fort has been responsible for training soldiers for war.
Now the army is due to move by 2011 to nearby bases and the complex will be vacated. The fort is in two parts — intra muros where pleasant houses and apartment blocks are set round a large green, and the surrounding peninsula lapped by the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Here there are more handsome military buildings as well as a resort hotel now being converted into a condominium (freehold flats), as well as a series of First World War gun batteries. The entire 500 acres have the highest level of protection as a National Historic Landmark.
Under the lease the whole property will revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia as soon as it ceases to be used for defence purposes. Inevitably there have been fears that the City of Hampton, seeking to replace lost tax revenues and jobs, will favour development. But if this takes the form of shops, restaurants and places to stay established within existing buildings, the interests of historic preservation could be served very well.
The state government in Virginia is able to compile a condition survey and ensure that the military pass over buildings in a good state. In fact, no more than a handful of buildings are seriously neglected and overall the whole place has been well looked after. Better still, there has been little infilling with ugly huts and sheds. Along the bay waterfront is a large marina, which adds greatly to the appeal of the place.
All in all, it is a not-so-small town waiting to fill up again with new residents, some permanent, some seasonal. The handback to Virginia allows the opportunity for a master plan that can consider the needs of tourism, community and the monumental landmark structures. In the US, with its strong tradition of national parks and historic sites, there is also a call for the place to become a museum site with education and conference facilities. Both of these there should certainly be, but there could be nothing worse than for it to become a gated site. It cries out for residents who will love it and keep the buildings in good order. Despite the water lapping the walls, the ramparts above these are dry and well ventilated. Other casemates could make excellent apartments — as the museum shows that they were in the past.
Fort Monroe will be a fascinating place to watch after all the vicissitudes which beset the Royal William Victualling Yard in Plymouth. There, the whole glorious parade of handsome stone buildings languished while absurd proposals were canvassed for turning it into a discount retail centre. Finally it became apparent it would be a wonderful place to live. The critical point at Fort Monroe is for the State of Virginia and the local government to institute the necessary level of planning controls over both historic buildings and open spaces and then set abut peopling the place as fast as possible.