The North Gate, 2011
No one blows Reveille at Fort Monroe any more to signal the start of the day or Taps in the evening to signal the end of the day. The parade ground is empty, the lookout towers locked up, the barracks and offices silent.
When the U.S. Army left Fort Monroe, Virginia, a few weeks ago, they not only left the history of almost two hundred years of continuous presence at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the James River, but also left a nearly perfectly maintained slice of small town American culture.
A clergyman acquaintance once told me that one of the most unpleasant parts of his job was attending to the closing of churches. Closing a church isn't just a matter of desanctifying a sanctuary. It's a formal concession that a community has lost not only population and the wherewithall to support a church, but also a vital piece of its faith, hope and charity.
I don't expect that the military has such emotional anxieties about closing a base. Fort Monroe provided important strategic service from the early 1800s up through World War II. From the top of the star-shaped walls of what was then known as Fortress Monroe, you could have watched the Monitor and the Merrimack fight their fateful sea battle. In the 1940s you would have kept your eyes on the horizon looking for German U-boats anxious to infiltrate the Hampton Roads-based U.S. Navy fleet.
In recent decades, though, Fort Monroe struggled to maintain a strategic purpose, an especially tough task in a population center that probably has more military presence and individual military bases than anywhere else in the world. Lately Fort Monroe had been the center for training and printing commands, functions that are now more efficiently handled elsewhere. Hence the closure of the base.
Fortress Walls, 2011
What the Army leaves behind looks like an idealized version of a mid-Twentieth Century American small town. Spread across almost six hundred acres and eight miles of waterfront, it’s center is the original stone fortress and moat. Outside the moat are almost two hundred sturdy brick structures housing everything a small town would need: offices, homes for personnel of all ranks, mess halls, training facilities, playing fields, a fire station, police department, child care facilities, an officer’s club, a small craft marina and a theater. There’s even an informal pet cemetery that I’ve written about before. The streets and sidewalks are lined with lives oaks and neatly trimmed shrubbery.
Now it's all empty, a living example of what we not too many years ago would have called "the neutron bomb effect." Everything looks ready to be used, but there’s no one home anymore.
Silent Halls, 2011
When the Army left they turned the keys to Fort Monroe over the Commonwealth of Virginia. A public Authority was created to plot the commercial future of Fort Monroe. It's hoped that the original fortress within the moat will be taken into the National Park System. Everything else, though, will be up for grabs.
Old Point Comfort Light, 2011
Now’s probably a good time to visit Fort Monroe. With just a few exceptions, everything’s clean, neat and freshly painted. The streets are clean and the sidewalks are edged. A visitor can go most anywhere on the old base without restriction. But over time, the grass is going to grow and paint’s going to begin to peel. It’s a labor of love and expense to maintain old buildings against the wind, the water and the salt spray of a coastal setting.
The political and social tendency of Virginians is to look backwards. We’ve a lot of American history in our roots. Fort Monroe could become static representation of a slice of history—not unlike Colonial Williamsburg—or it could become an example of the marriage of history, historic structures and modern design and technology. I wouldn’t bet on the latter. But that’s where my hopes lie.