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Still deteriorating Ft. Hancock elicits passion, controversy

January 23, 2011

Betsy Barrett, Sandy Hook Foundation president, joins Lou Venuto, Chief of Interpretation, in the recently restored lightkeeper's house.

Betsy Barrett, President of the of the Sandy Hook Foundation and a passionate advocate for the preservation of Ft. Hancock, says the National Historic Landmark former military installation on Sandy Hook “needs fresh perspectives.”  In light of the decade-long battle over the future of the Fort Hancock and Sandy Hook Proving Ground Historic District, she couldn’t be closer to the truth.

Barrett leads the nonprofit foundation that serves as the “friends” group for Sandy Hook, part of the larger Gateway National Recreation unit of the National Park Service (NPS).  The Foundation  supports programs and projects of environmental, historic, and cultural importance on the Hook, and has long been vociferously calling for the Park Service to stabilize the deteriorating fort buildings and make them watertight.

Fort Hancock was a vital defense installation guarding New York City from 1895 until 1974. The Proving Ground, established in 1874, played a key role in the development of advanced weaponry and radar. It includes the nation’s oldest lighthouse, dating to 1764, and over 270 contributing buildings and features, including 16 gun batteries dating from the late 19th century. The Fort Hancock Historic District has  100 buildings, some in use by the NPS, while 20 house non-profit or education entities and/or are open to visitors.  However, at least 40 contributing historic buildings in the district, all of which date to the earliest years of the installation (pre-1910), are deteriorating and vacant, having been left unoccupied since the military’s occupation at Fort Hancock ended in 1974. The significant threatened buildings include the 1873 Fort Hancock Officer’s Club, the oldest military building in the park, and Officer’s Row, a group of 10 former Lieutenants’ quarters and the Fort’s most recognized and defining feature.

Based on over 20 years of deterioration and neglect by the National Park Service, the 40 vacant buildings of the Fort Hancock Historic District were listed on Preservation New Jersey’s 10 Most Endangered Historic Places list in 1995. At that time, the lack of a plan for these buildings and the NPS’ poor stewardship and lack of funds for proper maintenance of the prevention of vandalism comprised the imminent threat.  Not much has changed 15 years later.

Local opposition to a leasing plan that would have afforded private sector investment in managed rehabilitation of 36 of the decaying Ft. Hancock buildings brought that plan to its knees in 2010.  Lawsuits and political pressure prevented any reasonable opportunity for an investor to make prudent business decisions.  And so the buildings continue to slowly fall apart.

Barrett appears cautiously optimistic about a recent NPS announcement that a small group of unbiased experts will convene to look for fresh ideas.  The Foundation leader says, as quoted in the Asbury Park Press, “There should be no predisposed thoughts, no agendas here. There’s nobody on this panel who has a preconceived notion of what to do out there.”  She reports that an Army colonel, a scientist, a financier and a builder with restoration experience are expected to be among the participants.  Meanwhile a Park Service official acknowledges that one participant has ties to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area while another has ties to Lowell National Historical Park.

Historic Ft Baker on Cavallo Point, in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is a beautiful and successful historic adaptive use offering lodging, environmental education programs and a variety of outdoor activities. It is popular among both nearby residents and visitors.

It’s time for a “time out” at Ft. Hancock.  Reasonable and knowledgeable people with experience and exposure to creative stewardship programs as found at both Lowell and Golden Gate need to be given time and space to help sort out and recommend realistic and acheivable goals for preserving Ft. Hancock for future generations.  Appropriately, Betsy Barrett concedes that “we’re thoroughly biased and don’t deserve to be on this panel.”  As should those who have opposed previous efforts to preserve the landmark.  The two Congressmen who represent Sandy Hook and the nearby communities need to support the Park Service’s efforts to seek solutions to the dilemma that is Ft. Hancock.  It is nearly too late already.

Meanwhile, support the work of Betsy Barrett and the Sandy Hook Foundation.  Visit their website>>.

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