Fort Snelling: A Confluence of Plans

B&W photo of a brick building with a road running in front.
HABS No. MN-88-H: Fort Snelling, Department of Dakota, Building 18.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

A collection of stately yellow brick buildings, their formality frayed by utilitarian stabilization measures, face a swath of overgrown grasses. Across this former parade ground is a collection of red brick officers‘ residences designed in a variety of late 19th century styles. They, too, reflect the same challenges of limited funds and underutilization. For the past decade, these and other historic re-sources of Fort Snelling National Historic Landmark‘s Upper Bluff have faced an uncertain fate as various government agencies, pres-ervation organizations and individuals searched for means of revitalizing the former military grounds.

Yet today, what appears to be abandonment is in fact evidence of a confluence of efforts to finally bring life and vitality back to one of this country‘s most significant forts. In the past few years, thousands of dollars have been expended on stabilization of 28 buildings, thanks largely in part to the efforts of Hennepin County, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR)—the property owner, the State of Minnesota, the National Park Service‘s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area unit and Midwest Regional Office, the Minnesota State Historic Preser-vation Office, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota, and numerous other interested agencies, organizations, and individuals.

In 2006 --the same year that Fort Snelling was listed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation‘s "11 Most Endangered Historic Places"-- stabilization efforts on the Upper Bluff began with the financial assistance of a $150,000 Save America‘s Treasures grant from the National Park Service. This had been secured by Hennepin County, augmented by money from the county and the DNR. Under the guidance of a qualified historical architect, "Sentence to Serve" (STS) crews patched holes in roofs, stabilized failing roof rafters, patched soffits and fascias, repaired downspouts and gutters, protected deteriorated masonry, secured windows, and re-graded around buildings. The STS crews were composed of sentenced, court ordered, non-violent offenders who gained valuable construc-tion training in the process. Hennepin County secured additional Save America's Treasures funding of $300,000 in 2007, and $500,000 in state capital bond funds. The same year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation also awarded the county a Johanna Favrot grant to study the fort‘s cultural landscape and buildings, and develop design guidelines for new construction.
This work was just a portent of the possibilities to come, as this area of the former military reservation offers enticing development and investment opportunities on the last unincorporated portion of Hennepin County. After the fort was decommissioned in 1946, various parcels were deeded to other government agencies. To the north and west, the Veterans Administration, the Army, Air Force, and Navy Reserves own portions of the former fort. Once standing in isolation atop a commanding bluff overlooking the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, Fort Snelling is now bounded by the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and bisected by two highways. A portion of the fort designated in the early 20th century as an air field for the first federally recognized Air National Guard Unit is now a much-expanded Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. A light rail transit system connecting the airport to downtown Minneapolis passes through the property.

During the last few years, an interagency stakeholders and landholders group has met to discuss development strategies that address the various agencies and ownerships involved. With the stabilization work allowing the planning process to move forward, the key agency players have explored other redevelopment models, and worked to revise certain use restrictions on the deed that transferred ownership from the federal government. Consultation with Native American Tribes with cultural ties to the area has been a part of the discussion.

More recently, the Minnesota legislature included $1.2 million in their bond bill this year to stabilize the hospital building, and Governor Tim Pawlenty signed into law a historic rehabilitation tax credit. The Boy Scouts‘ Northern Star Council is at work rehabilitating the former hippodrome for use as a base camp, scheduled to open this fall. A Master Plan is under development for reuse of the Upper Bluff and the area around the light rail transit stop, and the Minnesota Air and Space Museum is interested in developing a new museum and education center on fort land close to the airport; development that would include rehabilitation of some of the historic fort buildings.

Fort Snelling played a long and significant role in the transformation of the US Army from a small frontier force in the 1820s to that of a major modern army of the 20th century. As part of that evolution, the property itself has undergone a number of transformations. At the time it was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL) in 1960, the military reservation had already undergone much change and suffered a loss of numerous fort buildings. A portion of the NHL, the historic stone "Old Fort Snelling", had been built in the 1820s and demolished by the turn of the 20th century. It was reconstructed by the Minnesota Historical Society in the 1950s. The Upper Bluff area, built to support the operations of the Department of the Dakota in the late 19th century, later found new service to meet Army induction needs in the early 20th century. Following its decommission, a number of government agencies identified new uses for many of the buildings, and tore others down. Today, the roughly 300-acre NHL is poised for another rebirth in its ongoing story of use and reuse, one that respects and utilizes those nationally significant resources that remain.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 5, 2010, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Dena Sanford.

(Sources: NPS files, Minneapolis Star Tribune June 7, 2010, "Things Looking Up for Fort Snelling Post", and the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, "11 Most Endangered" listings, 2008 update).

Last updated: June 26, 2018