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Fort Monroe's Fate Pondered As Base Closing Date Approaches

Deborah Fitts

- (July 2007) HAMPTON, Va. - Developers and preservationists are squaring off over the future of Fort Monroe, a huge and historic stone fort on Chesapeake Bay.

The army plans to pull out of the facility in 2011 as part of its ongoing base-closing operations. What will happen to the 570-acre property after that is the subject of wildly differing opinions.

"The future of Fort Monroe is very much up in the air," said Mark Perreault, vice president of the Citizens for Fort Monroe National Park. The all-volunteer organization formed in June 2006 to pursue a preservation agenda.

Meanwhile, said Perreault, "The developers are working 24-7 to turn the fort largely into an affluent residential community by the sea."

A new state board, the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, was created by the General Assembly to study what to do. It replaces a small Hampton board that drafted a plan for housing and office development.

Fort Monroe was completed in 1834 at Old Point Comfort, the southern tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Completely surrounded by moat, with seven sides, it is more than a mile in circumference and is the largest stone fortification ever built in this country. The fort itself comprises 63 acres.

As a young officer Robert E. Lee was stationed at the fort in 1831-34, working to construct it and its companion a mile away across the water, Fort Calhoun (now Fort Wool). The forts were intended to protect Hampton Roads, Norfolk, and even the cities of Washington and Baltimore.

Perrault said developers would threaten the beaches, sand dunes and live oaks that now front Chesapeake Bay, and jeopardize the 150 historic buildings inside and outside the fort.

"We have very little open space along the water," he said. "It's absolutely critical to keep it and preserve the context of the fort." The entire 570-acre tract was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960, though the acreage was later reduced to 460 to remove wetlands and beaches.

Much of the property will revert to the state after the army leaves. Perreault hailed Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine's leadership, saying Kaine "cares about open space."

On the other hand, he said, "The developers are constantly talking about deadlines. They feel if they can create a sense of emergency it will help their ends."

The Civil War Preservation Trust has endorsed a national park at Fort Monroe, according to Perreault. The National Parks Conservation Association is talking up a study to determine whether the park is a good idea, and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities declared the fort one of 11 "most endangered" sites in the commonwealth.

Confederate forces never attempted to take the "Gibraltar of the Chesapeake" because it was considered impregnable. After Union Gen. Benjamin Butler refused to hand back three escaped slaves who sought shelter at the fort in 1861, word got out. Eventually more than 10,000 slaves would come to the fort to find their freedom.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held prisoner at Fort Monroe. The Casemate Museum, highlighting the fort's history, opened in 1951.

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