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Update: As Historic Fort Monroe Moves Rapidly Toward National Park Status, Questions Cloud the Push for Preservation


This sandy spit projecting into Chesapeake Bay contains some of Tidewater Virginia's most valuable waterfront land, and therein lies the rub. 

Political support for preserving Virginia's historic Fort Monroe within the National Park System has reached a critical mass, and the recent deactivation of the military installation  has removed one of the campaign's last remaining obstacles. While this progress is to be applauded, a serious issue remains unresolved and underpublicized. If too little of the former military installation is preserved, bayfront land near the historic fort itself will surely be developed in ways very harmful to the historic site's viewscape and sense of place.

Speaking at the September 15 deactivation ceremonies for Fort Monroe, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar highlighted strong local and state support for historic preservation and affirmed that the National Park Service is "quickly" studying the site's potential for inclusion in the National Park System.  “We have heard loud and clear from the local community, Commonwealth and federal officials, and stakeholders everywhere that Fort Monroe is a place of unique historical and cultural significance that merits protection – and we agree,” said Salazar.  “Fort Monroe helps tell the compelling story of our nation’s arc from the Civil War to Civil Rights.  With such a rich history, it’s no wonder that so many feel passionately about ensuring the site is preserved for future generations."

Support for preservation and national park status for the National Historic Landmark property in Hampton, Virginia, has been building ever since the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission recommended the deactivation of Fort Monroe.  Public meetings in Virginia have confirmed that the idea has strong grassroots backing. The proposal has also been endorsed by many key elected officials and community leaders, including Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner, Congressmen Scott Rigell, Bobby Scott, Rob Wittman, J. Randy Forbes and Gerry Connolly, and Hampton Mayor Molly Ward.

With the necessary local, state, and Congressional support in place, and with the fort no longer on the active military installation rolls, momentum for national park status now seems unstoppable. However, as the push for national park status is fast-tracked into its final stages, some proponents of national park status for Fort Monroe caution that a golden opportunity will be lost if only the old fort itself is preserved and almost 90% of the 546-acre former military installation is left exposed to development that can severely degrade the historic site's viewscape and sense of place.

The threat is very real. As soon as the Army completes its responsibilities under the base realignment and closure process, the ownership and control of the great majority of the land in the former military installation -- all but the part on which the moated fort and some related historic structures are situated -- will revert to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Since this Chesapeake Bay waterfront property is immensely valuable, the pressure to make it available for development, presumably pricey condos, is tremendous.  Virginia's leading media outlets have editorialized that this is virtually inevitable.  

Science writer Steven T. Corneliussen is perhaps the most vocal of the historic preservation advocates who believe it would be an absolute travesty to allow the old moated citadel to become immersed in an overdeveloped, condo-dominated landscape.  In a recent (August, 11, 2011)  op-ed article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch , Corneliussen highlighted the long-term economic benefits of preserving the Fort Monroe property in its entirety and likened condo development there to building a Walmart next to the hallowed ground of a battlefield or constructing a residential subdivision cheek-by-jowl with Monticello.    

In a comment posted here in the Traveler, Corneliussen added that "Fort Monroe needs to become a revenue-generating, taxpayer-minimally-burdening Grand Public Place built on a substantial national park -- a national park embracing the former Army post’s entire sense-of-place-defining bayfront shoreline."

Whether this viewpoint can prevail in the face of a veritable hurricane-force headwind remains to be seen, but the odds seem very long. The economic downturn, deep distrust of the federal government, the machinations of  campaign politics, and various other factors have bolstered pro-development arguments and eroded public support for preservation.  If it's true that building all those condos on the Fort Monroe property would irreparably harm a treasured historic site, it's also true that it would quickly deliver jobs and tax revenues, not to mention votes.

It speaks volumes that Preservation Virginia and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, two influential organizations that pick their fights carefully, have decided to stay out of this one. Nor do we see powerful state and federal leaders willing to spend political capital arguing that development should be pushed away from this attractive waterfront land in order to protect historic Fort Monroe's "entire sense-of-place-defining bayfront shoreline."

Although most land in the former military installation seems destined for development, it's not yet a done deal.  The national park-in-the-making at Fort Monroe still might include all or most of the land in the former military installation, not just the old moated fort. But given the present circumstances, we wouldn't bet the farm on a last-minute reprieve. Sometimes you just have to take what you can get.

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Class, please take out your pencils for a pop quiz. First question. (Q) One hundred and fifty years from now will your descendants know that the ideal of "freedom for all" as articulated in 1776 was ultimately realized in 1861 at Fort Monroe? (A) In 1861 before the Civil War three Black men were put on the path to citizenship by one of Lincoln's generals through a legal term known as "Contrabands of War."

Next question. (Q) Will future Americans understand the importance of documentation on the beginnings of the Black middle class that started when almost two dozen men and women arrived on the shores of Hampton, VA from Angola, Africa in 1619? (A) This group of immigrants who worked as indentured servants like many of their European peers evolved into the class of Free Blacks whose existence was more like a parolee than actual prisoner, and so not too much better.

Final question. (Q) How important is it to understand why the 1831 Nat Turner Insurrection that took place in the Southampton County town of Jerusalem, VA was the first battle of the Civil War? (A)Extra points to those who provide a short essay about the militia unit based at Fort Monroe that was sent to nearby Southampton County to help quell the Nat Turner Insurrection.

Lincoln managed to keep united a bucking Union 150 years ago, but his enemies killed him before he could guide the country through Reconstruction. Today President Obama is riding that same bucking bronco. Swanky condo developlers versus hysterical history lovers is how it gets stereotyped, but it is truly a battle being waged between those who believe that the American Dream should be available to all citizens and those who do not. President Obama can redo history by [using his Antiquities Act authority] immediately. Turning Fort Monroe into a grand national park is this nation's opportunity to finally heal America from the legacy of slavery and the value to be gained from that success will be priceless.

Sheri Bailey

I am happy to join Mr. Niewig in calling for President Obama to declare a National Monument at Old Point Comfort with the additional caution to the President's staff to fully brief Mr. Obama on the option proposed by professionals, developers and politicians. Mr. Obama must have a clear understanding of what the vast majority of citizens are calling for. Citizens want a Grand Public Place that preserves access to all the shorefront for the public and fully protects the entire former Army site.  Mr. Niewig neglects to state the clear basic fact that the current proposal is just to be a National Park at the wetlands/dunes area to the north and the stone fort itself, connected the a single thread of a "right of way". This splits the shorefront access for the NPS and public use.  This isolates the fort and severely compromises sense of place for the historical interpretations that can teach our national values for centuries to come.
All of the economic benefits called upon to attempt to justify this denial of a national significant place to it's true owners are available just outside the significant National Park/Grand Public Place that citizens want. There is no need to have new private residences on Old Point Comfort. That would lead to conflict and all the problems NPS currently has with such "inholdings" and many current locations.
I call on President Obama to act, but to act in the stated and documented interest of the majority of citizens.  Establish a significant NP and do not fall for this sub-optimization of such a unique national treasure.

In my earlier posting I mentioned Mr. Nieweg.  That resulted in my receiving a very lengthy letter from him which was written either in defense of his comments above or in defense against what I said in my comments.    At this point none of that really matters.   The main question for all of us today, particularly for Mr. Nieweg, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the current CFMNP Board, is simply what Steve Corneiliussen boils down above in his posting:  " Is it, or is it not, self-evidently preposterous to disconnect the moated fortress from its national park setting so that "redevelopment" -- no matter how tasteful and allegedly "compatible" -- can proceed in the national park's shorefront gap on this national historic landmark 's bayfront? " 

If what Mr. Nieweg claimed in his letter to me is fact,  and if his view of all that has happened is valid,  then why today are we having to beg for the decision makers not to split the moated fortress off from the rest of the national park?    Why are we having to beg for a national park that is big enough and in keeping with the original vision set out by thousands of citizens and the grassroots CFMNP beginning in 2006?   My personal belief is Dr. H. O. Malone, who founded the grassroots CFMNP,  would be rolling over in his grave today at how his grassroots CFMNP has morphed into their original opposition.

At every official public meeting, gathering or petition signing since 2006 up through 2011, thousands upon thousands said they wanted all of Fort Monroe to be a Grand Public Place, all enhanced for public, not private, benefits.  That means a substantial national park, not a token one, and certainly not a a blanket of condos anywhere along the national park's bayfront shoreline, and book-ended by two small parks, albeit national parks or not!!.  .I have suggested to Mr. Nieweg that he also post his September 28th letter to me on the National Parks Traveler site where others can respond to it as well.

Mr. Janiskee, respectfully --


For years, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Preservation Virginia, and Civil War Trust together have lobbied the Fort Monroe Authority and other decision-makers for the highest level of stewardship for Fort Monroe -- the entire 565-acre National Historic Landmark.  


We wrote in April 2008, for example: “The keystone of any redevelopment concept for Fort Monroe must be the preservation, productive use, adaptive reuse, and maintenance of the historic structures, features, and cultural landscapes of the National Historic Landmark. … Great care must be taken to preserve and enhance the other character-defining features of Fort Monroe, including its context, setting, open space, landscapes, and view-sheds.  Open space, for example, should be conserved for public use and benefit, particularly along the waterfront, in areas of sensitive ecology, where needed for protection from flooding or sea level rise, and to protect views and other character-defining qualities.  …  Accordingly, a limited amount of new construction would be appropriate at Fort Monroe, but only in selected locations and in strict compliance with design standards to ensure compatibility with the historic character of Fort Monroe, as provided in the programmatic agreement.  ...  However, the irreplaceable qualities of Fort Monroe should not be sacrificed, as some fear, to allow incompatible new growth in an attempt to remedy the anticipated economic setback [to the economy of Hampton and the region]." (Joint letter to FMA, April 18, 2008.)


A few days later, the local Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, advocating for a “self-sustaining, innovatively structured National Park,” concurred with the four established preservation organizations, writing to the Fort Monroe Authority that: "We agree with the four nationally respected preservation organizations that recently adopted our view that Fort Monroe should become ‘a vibrant and economically self-sustaining, publicly accessible place where people live, work, and visit.’" A grand public place.  (CFMNP to FMA, May 28, 2008.)


Today, the Fort Monroe Authority and National Park Service support a National Park unit and innovative working partnership -- advocated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, National Parks Conservation Association, Preservation Virginia, Civil War Trust, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, as well as thousands and thousands of Americans -- to honor, preserve, and protect historic Fort Monroe.  Nobody responsible proposes the long-discredited so-called "blanket of swanky condos" at Fort Monroe.  Most stakeholders and observers acknowledge the hard-won quilt (!) of legally binding protections, plans, and standards that will preserve historic resources throughout Fort Monroe in the future.  (The federal Advisory Council on Historic Preservation honored the U.S. Army, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and Fort Monroe Authority for “exemplary actions to preserve and protect into the future the richly historic and irreplaceable Fort Monroe.”)


The time is right and a consensus solution is ready.  Please, President Obama, use your authority under the Antiquities Act to designate a new National Monument at historic Fort Monroe.


Robert Nieweg

Director, Southern Field Office

National Trust for Historic Preservation

I know absolutely nothing about this issue and will probably never have a chance to visit Fort Monroe.  But as I read through all the comments above I was struck by the fact that even though there are some rather significant disagreements, the commentors remained civil and polite with one another.

Sure wish we could get our Congresscritters to do the same.  If that could happen, we might even be able to find some reasonable solutions to other challenges.

Ron Saunders's comment includes this: "There are those that want to develop everything they can and there are those that don't want anybody to develop anything."

I've been working for six years to see Fort Monroe saved from culturally and also financially counterproductive overdevelopment by "those who want to develop everything they can." And in that time, I've indeed seen a handful of people call for not developing anything there. But I've never seen a single soul stick to that prescription once she or he began to study the actual complexities.

That's an important clarification for those of us who advocate a revenue-generating, taxpayer-minimally-burdening Grand Public Place built on the foundation of a substantial national park. We're often misportrayed as opponents of all development. We're not.

But I agree with the immediately preceding sentence in Mr. Saunders's comment: "This deal going on at Fort Monroe is really very simple." I'd phrase that simple deal as what I believe is this self-answering question:

"Can we actually create a real national park with a vivid sense of place -- as opposed to a token, fake national park with no sense of place -- if we disconnect the moated fortress from a substantial portion of its adjacent bayfront setting, and if we then sacrifice the resulting gap to development?"

Well, I've been away from this forum for awhile and thought I'd visit to see what was going on. Kinda figured Fort Monroe would be on the table. I can remember spying that Fort as I rode the ferry across from Norfolk as a youngster with my uncle Lannie Hogue (formally "Hog", but my Aunt would not marry him unless he changed his name). I was probably about six. We were on our way to Waterview (that's in Middlesex County) to go hunting and fishing with his six brothers and one sister. Those were good times for a city kid like me. Remember it well, stayed in an old farm house with no electricity, no running water, no nothing come to think of it, except love, lots of love. Got to know that old Fort well. It was a landmark to me back then. It was the beginning of a great adventure, every time. I guess it still is. 
Like everyone, I grew up. Took my kids to the Fort and we learned it's history together. Being in construction, I had the pleasure of working on the old Fort a time or two. Sailed past it in a regata and was treated to a view only sailers get to enjoy. Read some history about it from time to time. I know a little about that old Fort.
Now, I admit, I have some issues with the National Park Service. I don't think they control everything in the best way all the time. I think you have to be carefull how you give them things to look after for you. Not that they don't do a lot of good, mind you. I'm just sayin, you need to be carefull, that's all.
I read Mr. Janiskee's article. Not bad. Pretty well covered the situation. Then I read the comments. Let me say one thing here. If some of you that comment would use smaller words and ones us normal folks understand, I think you would probably get more folks in your corner. If you are trying to impress somebody, you probably missed a few. This deal going on at Fort Monroe is really very simple. There are those that want to develop everything they can and there are those that don't want anybody to develop anything. There are even those that, truth be known, would like to turn the whole island into a wildlife refuge (had to stick that in there). Now, that being said, it is questionable as to just how much of the island should be preserved for historical purposes. the NPS will be hard pressed to obtain funds to maintain, much less improve the entire island. So, how do you develope the surroundings to compliment the Old Fort while keeping it citizen friendly. Therein lies the question.
Before anyone will ever be able to realistically address that question, a lot of people are going to have to change some attitude or a lot of folks are going to be unhappy. I don't think the two sides have it within themselves to do what has to be done. So I am betting on a lot of unhappy people. Look around, it's happening everywhere, this will be no different. Should be interesting to see who comes out on top. I'm For the Old Fort with some neat stuff around it to support it culturally and financially. The local and visiting folks  should also be beneficiaries. Just watch out for restrictions (bad word). Some are good and some are bad. One thing for sure, you will inevitably getwhich both. 
Ron (obxguys)

The example described above about modern development encroaching and slowly encircling Bunker Hill and other similarly enveloped historic landmarks can NOT be understated. The citizens of this country, and especially citizens that call Hampton Roads home, have been given a 565 acre time capsule--the presence of the military prevented encroachment into this historic site and preserved it all these years.

Now that the time capsule is about to be opened, the debate isn't about how to treasure and preserve the contents of the entire capsule; the debate is between short-sighted government officials and greedy developers about how to best carve up and profit from the unblemished beachfront and historic lands.

Sacrificing any part of this historic 565 acre site that has fortuitously landed in laps of the citizens on a real estate venture of any kind (no matter how "swanky") is an offensive and depressing thought.

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