200 years later, Fort Snelling looks for a makeover

Historic cavalry barracks at Fort Snelling
Visitors to Historic Fort Snelling walk past an old cavalry barracks that the Minnesota Historical Society wants to convert into a new visitor center Tuesday, June 30, 2015 in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News

Minnesota Historical Society officials will ask lawmakers to approve more than $30 million in next year's bonding bill for a new visitors center at Fort Snelling as the historic site's bicentennial approaches.

Visitors arriving at the fort currently are directed to a plaza offering stunning views of the river valley. They then walk down a ramp into an underground building, where they pay admission, buy souvenirs, and view exhibits before heading to the actual fort.

The project will replace that building, which opened in August 1983, and is leaking.

Described in 2007 guidebook "AIA Guide to the Twin Cities" as "one of the last big underground buildings in the Twin Cities," site manager Tom Pfannenstiel says the initial goal of underground buildings — energy efficiency — has long been overrun by damage costs from the natural effects of water and gravity.

"The building is right next to the river; it's built on the bluff, built in rock," he said on a recent tour of the center. "So if you can imagine water wanting to get to the river, and there's a building in the way. We see that almost every day when it rains."

"We've made the decision that it's not wise to invest further in this building but rather in one of the historic structures for which we're responsible that are adjacent to the visitor center," added David Kelliher, public policy director for the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the fort.

The visitors center has additional floors deeper underground — off-limits to the public — that house offices, labs, and storage.

One former office hasn't had a concrete floor, only piles of dirt, ever since a strong storm that moved through the south metro in 2013, causing flash flooding. "There was water shooting out from the concrete slab over in that corner," noted Kelliher. "This is a great example of why this building is failing as a workplace."

Instead of fixing the 32-year old building, the historical society argues it's a better use of money to renovate vacant cavalry barracks that date back more than a century.

Known as buildings 17 and 18, the interior, as seen on a recent tour, still has the feel and look of the VA clinic that was the building's most recent use. One wall still clearly points patients to X-Rays.

Officials expect many interior walls to be removed to offer grander rooms and sweeping views out back of the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers. A two-story porch that adorned the front of the building when it opened will be rebuilt, as well.

Tuck pointing and other work this summer on buildings 17 and 18 was funded by previous bonding bill allocations and is meant to shore up the building exterior until the visitor center project is funded.

Earlier this year lawmakers approved $500,000 for pre-design work. Kelliher maintains it will be key to get the remainder of $4.4 million pre-design and $30 million for construction during next year's session to ensure the project can be finished for the fort's 200th anniversary celebration.

The project also budgets $12 million raised through donations.

"Historic Fort Snelling is one of the most significant historic places in Minnesota," Kelliher said. "We have the opportunity to tell many, many stories here."

The fort is known today as a popular field trip destination for school groups and staffed by interpreters in period clothing who showcase life in the 1800s, right down the daily cannon exercise by soldiers.

It was built, starting in 1820, on the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, land considered a sacred place of origin for the Dakota people.

It was an important milestone in European settlement across what would become the state of Minnesota.

It also marks the acceleration of Native American displacement and is known among the Dakota as the place where many Native Americans were imprisoned and later removed from their homes following the US-Dakota War of 1862.

Before the Civil War, Dred Scott lived at the fort, which he argued allowed him to be free from slavery. He lost that argument in the pivotal 1857 Supreme Court case.

In 1960, it was the first landmark in Minnesota to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

"We need to tell all of those stories here," Kelliher added.

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