On a winter’s day at Fort Snelling, it’s not hard to hear the soldiers’ ghosts.
As the wind whips through the cracks and broken windows, their voices can be heard in cavernous Building 210, the old quartermaster stables, where horses for cavalry officers were kept. Or in Building 211, with its high beams and wide doors where grease-stained GIs, most likely smoking and probably swearing, once toiled fixing tanks during World War II.
All but abandoned for decades, five military buildings on what is known as Fort Snelling’s Upper Post are scheduled to be rehabbed. The buildings, which date to the turn of the 20th century and saw service from the Spanish-American War to World War II, will be repurposed to combat one of the military’s most nagging of contemporary issues: homelessness. Plans call for 58 affordable apartments for homeless veterans and their families.
“It’s a perfect fit,” said Andrew Michaelson, who will be the project manager for the nonprofit that will run the development. “To put homeless vets in a place like this, with its military history, it’s a hand-in-glove fit.”
The Fort Snelling plan is part of a larger effort by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to address two goals: End veteran homelessness and reduce its inventory of vacant and underutilized properties.
The VA has entered into agreements to provide more than 3,000 units of permanent and transitional housing for veterans at 25 VA Medical Center campuses nationwide, and another 1,000 units are pending or underway.
The $15 million plan is to construct 58 apartments in the five buildings on 6 acres, which sit west of Hwy. 55 adjacent to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. The land and the buildings won’t be sold but will be managed and leased by a St. Paul-based nonprofit developer of housing services, CommonBond. Construction is expected to start this summer and be complete by the summer of 2014. Three-quarters of the cost will be paid for from private investment leveraged through housing and historic tax credits.
A veteran with anything other than a dishonorable discharge will be able to apply for housing. These won’t be homeless shelters, but permanent housing. Multi-bedroom units are expected to appeal to veterans with families and a growing number of female homeless veterans who may have children.
Many of the buildings were constructed at the turn of the 20th century to house infantry, cavalry and artillery units garrisoned at the post for the Spanish-American War and the Philippine-American War. During World War I, Fort Snelling became a processing center for thousands of Minnesota recruits. Once known as “the country club of the Army” for its lavish swimming pools and polo matches, Fort Snelling was officially decommissioned as an active-duty military post in 1946. The VA took over some of the properties and various other groups, including the Boy Scouts, have divvied up the rest over time.
With many windows boarded and the paint on trims blistered by weather and neglect, the buildings up for rehab look tired. But most remain structurally sound, a testament to the construction standards and the military demands of the day. The slate roof on one of the old horse stables, built in 1909 after all, was supposed to last only 100 years.
“The brick and even the roofing for its age, as an engineer, I’m impressed with how well it’s held up,” said Steve Challeen, chief engineer of the Minneapolis VA.
Building 227, which was built in 1904 and served as housing for noncommissioned officers, for instance, would certainly qualify in real estate parlance as a “fixer-upper.” Two wooden additions droop with fatigue and will be removed. A metal door has long lost its steps to the ground. But with basic upgrades, including adding an American with Disabilities Act-compliant restroom, it will become a two-bedroom duplex.
Next door, the original doors and windows of another duplex have remained square and will be refinished and reinstalled. After 106 years, there is barely a squeak when a visitor walks on the floor, but a few spent shotgun shells lay on the carpeting in a second-floor bedroom.
Keeping it historic
CommonBond plans on retaining much of the historic integrity of the structures. The design of the exterior of the one-time tank garage will have what look like garage doors. An old hayloft will be converted into office and lab space. But given its proximity to the airport, the design will include noise-mitigation measures.
There have been few objections to the plan. When the VA sought public comments, an 89-year-old man who identified himself as a onetime acting first sergeant, e-mailed that he had learned about the proposal and recalled driving Gen. Omar Bradley around the buildings in 1945 when Bradley was the head of the VA. He was elated to hear the buildings might be saved.
Representatives of the Santee Sioux Nation have asked to be consulted on the project. The Indian tribe was imprisoned on the grounds after the 1862 uprising and has asked to be able to have a ceremonial prayer when the development is completed.
Not all buildings will make the cut. A garage built in 1917 will be demolished. A quaint quartermaster’s one-room gas station built in 1932 will be mothballed but won’t be torn down.
Some of the buildings were used up until the late 1970s and early 1980s for storage by the nearby VA Medical Center. But it has been 67 years since the last soldier fixed the last tank inside Building 211.
“They haven’t come to me to talk about their experiences,” said Challeen, the VA engineer. As he spoke recently inside the darkened tank garage, an old door behind him slowly opened and then quietly closed.
It must have been the wind.