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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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Thanks for this fine article calling attention to the continuing threat to
national historic landmark land at Fort Monroe, with its four centuries of
American history going back to the time of Jamestown. It’s vital to understand,
though, that the Virginia politicians claiming -- with smiley faces and in
cheery tones -- to support national park status are only supporting that status
for the parts of Fort Monroe that no one was ever going to ruin anyway. For the
first five years of this six-year struggle, despite enormous demand from Fort
Monroe’s actual citizen owners, Virginia’s leaders stayed grimly resolute in
support of the original misframing of the issue. The federal base-closure law
doesn’t distinguish a humdrum Fort Drab in a cornfield from a national treasure,
and moreover, it requires donating an abandoned base to the nearest municipality
for “redevelopment.” Now, obviously no one would “redevelop” Monticello or Mount
Vernon if they somehow fell into Virginia’s hands, but for Fort Monroe, narrow parochialism has
exploited this error in the federal law. Narrow parochialism still intends to do
so. You can tell yourself, if you like, that financial pressures require making
the land of this national historic landmark mediocre or worse, but you’d be
wrong. Just look at the aerial photo. Can you honestly say that short-term
profit from building condos, even the tasteful ones that Virignia’s leaders
claim to envision, would exceed the value of making Fort Monroe into what it
plainly ought to become? And you can lament, if you like, that sometimes you
just have to take what you can get. Maybe that will turn out to be right, but
despite the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s devastating failure to
stand up for this precious land, and despite our loss of the national
affirmation our cause would have received if NTHP had done its plain duty, many
here in Virginia still hope for national attention to shame Virginia’s leaders
into respecting their responsibility to America and to posterity. Because those
leaders have failed for six years, the best hope now is President Obama and the
Antiquities Act. Will the president be snookered by smiley faces and cheery
tones that obscure the plan to degrade or even ruin the sense of place at this
national treasure? Yes, Fort Monroe requires some development – inland, and away
from the bayfront. But its real owners are the American citizenry, not a few
powerful people in Hampton and Richmond. I hope these citizen owners stand up and protect
this precious place. History isn't over, and a national entitlements crisis is no excuse for abdicating. Thanks for the article and for this chance to comment. Steven T. Corneliussen,

Public access to Hampton Roads & Chesapeake Bay shoreline continues to disappear.  The opportunity to have a beautiful & historic shoreline available to its citizen-owners should not be squandered.  The current leading proposal for National Park/Monument status is a balkanized split of natural wetlands & beach to the north and stone fort only to the south; connected by a thread of a "right of way" through areas that will open to development. Areas that include a center portion of waterfront land. Some proposals are being floated to allow the Commonwealth to actually sell land to private ownership for development. Anyone who understands issues the National Park Service faces today knows the difficulty presented to the NPS mission by such "in holdings". The real property opportunity and value will skyrocket in Phoebus and Hampton (right outside Old Point Comfort). Those jobs and other development benefits cited as needed are still available there.  The value of Old Point Comfort as a place to teach current & future citizens National Values of the USA is not transferrable.
If you have ever visited Bunker Hill National Park in Boston you will be struck by how blocks & blocks of townhomes from the 19th & 20th century ring the small summit of Bunker Hill and it's obelisk monument. To visit the historic battlefield and understand the actions there that helped form and define our nation requires going through this private neighborhood and break out into the small patch that remains as a National Park. Those homes are filled with people living their day to day lives and all the concerns that go along with that. I figure people and leaders had different views 150 years ago on the importance of remembering our nation's formative events and places.  Now, we as a nation better understand the essential nature of educating our citizens about our nation's values and history.  Why would we create an analogous situation around the stone fort in Old Point Comfort now in the 21st century?
Why in the world will we allow our politicians to enrich their developer supporters at such a public expense?

Mr. Janiskee's update on Fort Monroe paints a much darker picture of Fort Monroe's future than my group, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, sees. We don't think that "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 Fort Monroe Authority—the state agency in charge of Fort Monroe—has worked hard to expand the size of a national park unit at Fort Monroe from the fortress area (all that the NPS was initially interested in) to considerable park space beginning at the north tip of Old Point Comfort and going all the way down past the old Walker Air Field. This would amount to about 324 acres out of the 565 in the National Monument area, more than 240 acres in fee and most of the rest in easement. The FMA has also been joined in its efforts to secure a larger unit by a number of state and national organizations, including the two Mr. Janiskee mentioned: Preservation Virginia and National Trust for Historic Preservation, both of which have endorsed an expanded park and a National Monument designation. (Indeed, the two groups joined my group and others in unsuccessfully seeking an outer boundary for the national park unit that included all 565 acres of Fort Monroe.)  A more accurate picture of the current state of affairs is suggested by the Sept 21, 2011 AP article, "Salazar eyes 'monument' status for Fort Monroe." The article states, "Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Wednesday he is pushing ahead with Fort Monroe's preservation as a national monument, an approach welcomed by Virginia advocates of a Chesapeake Bay outpost that has seen the sweep of the nation's history. … The Fort Monroe Authority's executive director, Glenn Oder, said approximately 40 percent of the fort and its grounds would initially be part of the Park Service. The 200 acres is primarily open space. The state is also seeking additional park status for other significant portions of the fort, including the parade grounds and the quarters where Lincoln and Lee had spent time." Moreover, despite a contentious Congress, the push to create a national park at Fort Monroe has been a bipartisan effort involving all Congressional representatives from the region, both senators, and Governor McDonnell of Virginia. This is perhaps the most hopeful sign. Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park is quite optimistic about the prospect of a substantial national park at Fort Monroe, one that will preserve and celebrate its history and natural resources. That doesn't mean we aren't still concerned about development and other issues in the state-owned portions, particularly in the area between the fortress and park space. But it does mean we believe that the NPS will play a big role in the future of Fort Monroe.  Scott Butler, Board Member, Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park

Dear Mr. Janiskee:


Your September 22nd article regarding the preservation of historic Fort Monroe incorrectly states that the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia “have decided to stay out” of the fight to protect Fort Monroe.  In fact, since 2005 both of our organizations have been directly engaged in the land-use planning for the future preservation of Fort Monroe.  For example, the National Trust served on the master plan steering committee and the historic preservation advisory group for the Fort Monroe Authority, the agency charged with managing Fort Monroe after its reversion to the Commonwealth of Virginia.   Both Preservation Virginia and the National Trust also are “consulting parties” to the ongoing review process triggered by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. 


Perhaps more importantly, your article also fails to report that the National Park Service, Virginia Department of Historic Resources, Fort Monroe Authority, and others have established a set of legally binding protections to ensure preservation and avoid over-development of Fort Monroe.   Indeed the National Parks Conservation Association, a sponsor of National Parks Traveler, played a role in developing the protections and planning for the future of Fort Monroe.  Instead, your article cites “some proponents” of National Park status to mistakenly assert that “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.”  This is flatly wrong.   The entire National Historic Landmark is protected against inappropriate development. 


Finally, your readers should know that the current proposal for an innovative partnership park is strongly supported by the Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, National Parks Conservation Association, Preservation Virginia, Civil War Trust, National Trust for Historic Preservation, The Conservation Fund, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Trust for Public Lands, and many others.   The National Park Service is a key part of the proposed partnership, and the National Trust and many others have asked President Obama to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to establish a new National Monument at Fort Monroe, as a unit of the National Park System. 


Robert Nieweg

Director, Southern Field Office

National Trust for Historic Preservation

[size= 12pt]Scott Butler, who commented today,
represents a self-appointed citizens group of about a dozen people, maybe six
or so of whom are regularly active. I co-founded that group in 2006, but I
respectfully disagree with its recent strategic choice. That committee now
makes the case for a bifurcated, token national park in the hope that somehow,
some way, the future will patch what will then have been broken from the start.
In my view, the key line in Dr. Butler's comment is: "That doesn't mean we
aren't still concerned about development and other issues in the state-owned
portions, particularly in the area between the fortress and park space."
The fortress, in other words, is to be disconnected from the rest of the
national park. Can you believe that? This is the site of what Edward L. Ayers,
the slavery-era historian, recently called "the greatest moment in
American history." Yet here we are having to beg not for the whole site to
be treated right, but just for the sense-of-place-conferring bayfront to be
treated right. It's absurd. It's an indictment of Virginia's leaders'
irresponsibility. Dr. Butler's committee, while it disagrees with my strategy
of stating simply that the emperor is naked, knows too that he's naked -- as
shown in the sentence that I quoted. Virginia is planning the wrong future for
Fort Monroe. There's now a frightful chance that Washington will be snookered
about it. In my view, we should all say so. Thanks. Steven T. Corneliussen,[/size]

Robert Nieweg’s comment on behalf of both the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Preservation Virginia requires me to submit another comment myself.

 With a good bit of merely technical justice, Mr. Nieweg argues that it’s not only false but extensively false to say that those organizations “‘have decided to stay out’ of the fight to protect Fort Monroe.” But what does protecting Fort Monroe mean? Does it begin with the National Trust’s unquestioning, even kowtowing, acceptance of the original misframing in 2005? 

As I said above, the federal base-closure law doesn’t distinguish a national treasure from a humdrum Fort Drab in a cornfield, and moreover, it requires donating an abandoned base to the nearest municipality for what the law extols as “redevelopment.” (Would we “redevelop” Monticello if it somehow came into Virginia’s possession?) Unless people who should know better stand up and do something about it, what this misframing means for the nation -- the nation alluded to in the National Trust’s name -- is narrow, parochial control of the national treasure. And in this case, the national treasure at risk is the site of what the slavery-era historian Edward L. Ayers, according to a June Chronicle of Higher Education article, has called “the greatest moment in American history." 

Ayers means the actions of self-emancipators who, shortly after Fort Sumter, stood up, escaped enslavement, made their way to Fort Monroe -- the profoundly symbolic Union bastion in Confederate Virginia -- and in effect challenged America finally to begin at least trying to live up to its founding principles. If he’s even close to correct, Fort Monroe not only requires national park status, but is a candidate World Heritage Site too. 

Yet Virginia’s leaders not only accepted but outright sought to exploit the narrow, parochial misframing. And the National Trust not only failed in its plain duty to question the misframing, it plunged ahead in full support. In late 2006, a special committee in Hampton, stacked to exclude democratic representation for Fort Monroe’s citizen-owners, took a vote on a plan to blanket Fort Monroe with condos. With astonishing mendacity, Hampton presented this plan as the consensus of the citizen-owners. It’s a matter of public record that Mr. Nieweg served on that committee and voted for that condo blanketing. 

Now, it’s probably true -- not certainly, but probably -- that only a less odious form of overdevelopment threatens Fort Monroe today. And everybody agrees that we need some development, even though the land in question is almost all a national historic landmark. And yes, it’s indeed nice, in a cold comfort way, if classy standards apply in the vision for what the editors of the Richmond Times Dispatch called "swanky condos." 

But it is self-evidently preposterous to defend planning that -- in its grim determination to import development just for the sake of development, and not for the sake of the national treasure -- severs the moated fortress from its setting on the national historic landmark land. Newcomers to this debate, please just look at the aerial photo above. No one opposes some sensible development on the fat part to the left. The National Trust countenances development on the shoreline on the right. 

Yes, a coalition of preservation groups has indeed joined the National Trust in support of that official planning. I can’t speak for them, but I’m confident that -- like the self-appointed citizens committee Citizens for a Fort Monroe National Park, a committee of about a dozen, which I co-founded -- they’ve simply made a strategic choice that aligns with the final line of the article that we’re all discussing: “Sometimes you just have to take what you can get.” They’ve decided that even though the emperor is naked, it’s prudent not to say so. 

Well, tens of thousands of Virginians who have been following this debate would disagree. Their desire for a national park of some sort has been trumpeted by the authorities. Their demand for decent treatment for Fort Monroe overall is being ignored. 

The National Trust has led the civic folly of supporting the plan for a token national park that is split on the shorefront -- split for the intrusion of culturally and, ironically, financially counterproductive overdevelopment. The National Trust hasn’t just lost its way on this national question. It never even knew its way. Concerning Fort Monroe, the National Trust has failed to live up to its very name. 

But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us can’t ultimately get Fort Monroe right. And you can’t get Fort Monroe right by disconnecting the moated fortress from its setting, no matter how careful your architectural planning, or how tasteful your swanky condos.

Steven T. Corneliussen, 

.In wading through the long and detailed comments above, it became very clear the organizations being defended by Mr. Nieweg and Mr. Butler want only two small pieces of Historic Fort Monroe protected as a new National Monument and unit of the National Park system.
It also became clear that the article's writer, Mr. Janiskee, and Mr. Corneiliussen and Mr. Lee have a much better grasp of what this country will lose forever if only those two small pieces of Historic Fort Monroe are protected.
This country is in wars all the time trying to defend freedoms in other countries....and yet back here at home, in Virginia, we are being betrayed by our City and State leaders who want residential and commercial development on historic Fort Monroe property between the moated Fort and the north beach area.   These two small parts of Fort Monroe were not up for development anyway.  
Development throughout the remaining parts of Fort Monroe will block views, take away public access, and ruin historic integrity.
Development would create inholdings, i.e., private property within a national park, which the Park Service itself says decrease visitor enjoyment and make Park management more difficult.
Fort Monroe, at 540-acres, is tiny compared to many other National Monuments, i.e., Sonoran Desert National Monument, 500,000-acres; Crater of the Moon National Monument, 661,000-acres.  The list of National Monuments goes on and on, and rightly so. They not only protect America's smaller national treasures like the Washington Monument, they also protect our deserts, rivers, rocks, and sandstone outcrops from development and destruction..
Fort Monroe's place in American history is much broader than that of many national monuments and certainly broader than just a moated Fort and a little park space on the north end.   Fort Monroe's history touches the lives of every American, be their ancestors white colonists, black slaves, American Indians, northeners or southeners.  Throughout its history, military troops and runaway slaves worked, camped and played on its 540-acres,  and when people speak of Fort Monroe today, they are speaking of the entire site.    
Fort Monroe is the site which Edward L. Ayers, the slavery-era historian, recently called "the greatest moment in American history." Yet here we are having to beg for the site to be treated right.
Fort Algernourne was built on the site in 1609 by the first English colonists of the Virginia Company. It is home to 339 live oaks including the 471-year-old Algernourne Oak, believed to have germinated in 1540.
In additional Fort Monroe has miles of Chesapeake Bay beach.
The National Park's Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail passes right around the Fort. A National Park on the entire site could tie into this historic water trail with its unique smart buoys.
A Fort Monroe National Park would be the only National Park in the United States with public beach on the Chesapeake Bay and would be significant in restoration and preservation of the Chesapeake Bay as well as tie in with the President's Great Outdoor Initiative.   If Presidents establish National Monuments to protect deserts, rivers, rocks, and craters, certainly a National Monument to protect the only public beach on the Chesapeake Bay deserves the same consideration and protection. 

Fort Monroe should have no storefront gap along its shoreline for the "swanky condos" which a Richmond paper reported developers hoped to build between the two small pieces of its property which is all Mr. Nieweg, Mr. Butler and their ilk want saved for National Monument/Park protection.  That said, even Mr. Butler admits above he is still concerned about development and other issues in the area between the fortress and park space
Right now, these gentlemen, their organizations and Virginia are planning the wrong future for Fort Monroe. Sadly, as Mr. Corneilliussen points out, there is a frightful chance Washington will be snookered about it.
Please write your legislators and President Obama and explain why much, much more of Fort Monroe, hopefully all of it, should be designated as a National Monument.
Our American troops are not fighting and dying for freedoms in other countries just so a 400-year old national historic landmark and unique site in America's own fight for freedom can be destroyed by irresponsible leaders.


From what I read from above the key issue is that a portion of Fort Monroe be designated as a National Park or a National Monument.  Whether that figure is 40 or 90 percent we all must work together to make it happen. Criticizing one groups plan over another will only delay the process. Fort Monroe is an American Treasure not just because of General Butlers Contrabands of War decision as Edward L. Ayers describes as the greatest moment in American History. We must not forget that the first Africans from Angola to arrive on British occupied land in America came ashore at Point Comfort, today’s Fort Monroe. The land was later changed to Old Point Comfort upon which Fort Monroe sits. The majority of the first 20 and odd Negroes who arrived the end of August 1619 became the first slaves in America. To many their arrival is one of the greatest moments in American history.  If their slave ship had not been pirated at sea by the White Lion and the Africans brought to Point Comfort there may not have been a slavery era in the America that last for 244 years. There may not have been a reason for a Civil War. There may not have been a need for a group of people to seek asylum at Freedoms Fortress. So when we debate the need to make Fort Monroe a National Park or Monument, remember 1607, 1609, 1619, and 1861 as some of the greatest moments in America’s history. I represent Project 1619 Inc. located in Hampton, Virginia and our goal is to erect a monument at Fort Monroe to honor those first Africans who landed their in 1619.      

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