Fort Monroe handoff to preserve history, military housing

By Gary SheftickNovember 7, 2011

Fort Monroe to preserve history
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, May 27, 2010) -- When the Army vacates the historic casemates of Fort Monroe next year, the plan is to convert the Virginia post to a National Park, yet lease a professional office complex inside the moat-encircled walls and continue to house military families there.

Will tourists flock to the site?

Bill Armbruster believes they will. He's convinced a private-public partnership following the post's closure will be a win-win for everyone, including Soldiers who live there now.

Armbruster, executive director of the Fort Monroe Federal Area Development Authority, plans to have a private company lease the housing on post back to Soldiers who will be working at nearby Fort Eustis, Va.

His vision also has tourists visiting the Casemate Museum where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was imprisoned, walking the ramparts where Soldiers once watched the famous battle of the ironclad ships Monitor and Merrimack, then swimming or boating in Chesapeake Bay before eating at the Chamberlin Hotel or a restaurant adjacent to World War I-era coastal artillery batteries.

Armbuster's development authority will manage the installation beginning in September 2011 when the Army must turn it over under Base Realignment and Closure legislation.

Ever since the BRAC 2005 legislation was passed, the Army has been working with the state of Virginia and then the development authority to preserve the history of the fort for the public. Last month the Army and its partners were recognized with the Chairman's Award for Federal Achievement in Historic Preservation, presented by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

"In this field, it's the Olympic gold medal of historic preservation," said Tad Davis, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for the Environment, Safety and Occupational Health.

"The Army is obviously very, very proud of this achievement," he said, "and more so, we're proud of the folks who earned it ... the whole team at Fort Monroe that's worked so very hard to collaborate with the partners and really preserve the precious history of Fort Monroe for future generations to appreciate. They're the real heroes in this one."

Fort Monroe Garrison Commander Col. Anthony Reyes came with Armbruster and Virginia reps to the nation's capital last month to receive the award.

Armbruster said the history of the site extends back 400 years to when the Jamestown settlers built a fortification there. So he would like to see Monroe join the "historic triangle" of Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg in the area.

"We intend to seek legislation that will create a unit of the National Park Service here at Fort Monroe," Armbruster said. The National Park Service is already being asked by Virginia legislators to provide technical assistance with the historic properties.

"Our goal is to avoid empty buildings -- mothball buildings -- which is usually what happens when a base closes," Armbruster said.

Armbruster and Davis both said they're looking at the Presidio of San Francisco as a model for Monroe. The National Park Service took over much of the Presidio several years ago, yet historic quarters on the site have been leased out.

"We want to make this place pay for itself," Armbruster said of Fort Monroe. "Economically sustainable," was the term he used. He is working with Old Point Comfort Real Estate Services RRC to take over 118 units of Wherry housing on post, known as the Monroe Apartments, in August.

The apartments will be leased back to military families, Armbruster said. Those that are between tenants will be renovated, he said. Eventually, all 289 family quarters on post will come under the program. Military will have first preference for the privatized housing, he said.

Armbruster is no stranger to privatized housing on military installations. His last job was deputy assistant secretary of the Army for Privatization and Partnerships. In that position, he was one of the founders of the Army's Residential Communities Initiative in which private companies have partnered with the Army to run RCI family housing at most Army posts stateside. The companies usually lease quarters back to Soldiers at the same rate as their basic housing allowance.

On Fort Monroe, once the Army moves out, Armbruster will also work with companies to market office space as corporate headquarters or medical offices or other professional suites. Most of that office space is now occupied by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, which is scheduled to move to Fort Eustis, Va., in July 2011.

Earlier this month, the Accessions Command moved out of its Fort Monroe offices and headed to Fort Knox, Ky. The Cadet Command and other tenants will follow. The date set for complete turnover to the development authority is Sept. 14, 2011.

The development authority is actually an entity of the state of Virginia created by the General Assembly. The land that Fort Monroe sits on was leased by Virginia to the Army in 1819 on condition that it revert back to Virginia when the Army no longer needed it.

Considered by many as the "crown jewel" of the Army's historic properties, construction began on Fort Monroe in 1819, after the British sailed up Chesapeake Bay in 1814 and burned the nation's capitol, demonstrating the need for coastal defenses.

The unique seven-sided fort surrounded by a moat was designed by Gen. Simon Bernard, once aide to Napoleon Bonaparte. Lt. Robert E. Lee was among the young engineers who eventually worked on the project. He personally supervised construction of the moat.

Later, the fort played a prominent part in the Civil war, helping keep much of the coast under Union control. President Abraham Lincoln personally launched the Union's attack on Norfolk from inside Fort Monroe's walls.

During the course of the war, more than 10,000 escaped slaves were temporarily sheltered on Fort Monroe, and it became the site of a Freeman's Cemetery.

After the war, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held captive there for more than two years in the casemate dungeon, and for a while his wife stayed across the street in officer's quarters.

Later the post served for many years as the Army's Coast Artillery School.

Today the post contains more than 190 historic properties, including the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse and the former Chamberlin Hotel, now restored as a retirement home with a restaurant still open to the public.

"Most all of the buildings are full down here," Armbruster said. "It's kind of unique in base closure."

Armbruster said the benefit of his development authority is that the Army will not need to maintain the grounds in caretaker status once TRADOC and other tenants leave. His organization intends to preserve the historic integrity of the post while renovating the office and living space.

"There's been a tremendous amount of input and partnership from a host of entities," Davis said about the historic preservation effort at Fort Monroe. He said an unprecedented number of organizations have pitched in to "preserve the precious history of Fort Monroe for future generations to appreciate."