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Mobtown Beat

Re-Fortification?

Local Builder Sets Sights on Fort Carroll

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/25/2000

Long a forgotten island in the Patapsco River, Fort Carroll has been little more than a murky curiosity--a six-sided, overgrown bastion of aging bricks, rotting wood, vermin, and trash trees. Now, a high-powered local developer says he'll take a first step in possibly returning the fort to its glory--or what passes for glory in what has been a sad history.

Bill Struever, president of Struever Bros., Eccles, and Rouse, recently signed a lease on the 3.45-acre fort, construction of which began on its man-made island under the eye of Army Col. Robert E. Lee in the mid 19th century. Although Struever and his firm have become perhaps the leading local purveyors of "adaptive reuse"--the retooling of old industrial buildings for modern use as shopping centers (such as the Can Company in Canton) and high-tech office complexes (Tide Point in Locust Point)--he says he has no immediate plans to turn the site into a retail destination or an outpost of his "Digital Harbor" concept. "My only interest is in preserving this terrific piece of history," Struever says.

The developer, uncharacteristically quiet on the issue, isn't saying how much it would cost to re-point the brickwork or clear the island of trees and rubble, nor is he specific about whether he plans to eventually open the off-limits site, located just over the city line in Baltimore County and in the shadow of the Key Bridge, to visitors. Struever says he is searching the Library of Congress for the fort's original engineering plans, which he hopes will aid him in stabilizing the troubled structure. The 152-year-old site has suffered from neglect for most of the years since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sold it to a private owner in 1958. Struever says his plans reflect a long-held and intense architectural interest in the citadel. "The fort has some of the most magnificent rooms I've ever seen," he says. "The brickwork is breathtaking."

But snaking amid the magnificent masonry are numerous trees and other flora. Many trees have broken through roofs, allowing the elements to invade the fort's inner sanctums. Reportedly, rats and sea gulls have long made the island home, while another species has been warned off by a PRIVATE / KEEP OFF / GUARD DOG sign. Struever says that while the restoration work is being done, humans would do well to heed the warning. "Generally, people stay off the island. That's a good thing. There are holes in the floor, and the area out by a pier is in very bad shape," he says. "It's dangerous. People shouldn't explore there."

Once work begins, removing the damaging trees will be the first priority of Struever's firm, which he says will perform the stabilization work. He's mum about what will happen next: "It's too early to say all that much."

If Struever and his firm succeed in setting the stage for a revival of the site--as a historic treasure or something else entirely--it might mark the first time in its existence that Fort Carroll amounts to anything more than an interestingly arranged collection of stones and bricks. Since it was planned as a complementary bulwark to Fort McHenry and as a protector of the Chesapeake Bay, Fort Carroll has repeatedly been the focus of aborted plans. When Robert E. Lee moved to Baltimore in 1848 to supervise its construction, the fort was envisioned as a multitiered citadel outfitted with 350 cannons. Lee presided over every aspect of construction, from the placement of pilings in the harbor bed by a steam-powered driver to the dumping of hundreds of thousands of stones into the water to the laying of bricks at the fort's offices and barracks. Construction of the hexagonal foundation and the first of the planned four tiers cost $1 million.

But by 1851, the U.S. Congress had decided the fort was little more than a monument to the mid-19th-century arms race, a million-dollar boondoggle that could be blown to bits by newer naval gunships in a matter of hours. Lee moved on to become the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and Fort Carroll--burdened by its own weight--settled deeper into the harbor.

Since those inauspicious beginnings, entrepreneurs and politicians have touted the fort's Outer Harbor location as the perfect spot for many ventures that never came off. Planned statues of Cecilius Calvert, Orpheus, and Christopher Columbus never made it to the island. In 1923, Mayor William F. Broening proposed an electric WELCOME TO BALTIMORE sign to accompany a giant statue of Lord Baltimore. Other stillborn ideas included a "Chesapeake Alcatraz" for prisoners or mental patients and a museum for Revolutionary and Civil War relics.

When the Eisenberg family--the fort's current owners--bought the site from the federal government for $10,010 in 1958, it poured money into patching up the structure and planting peach trees. According to an account in The Sun, Benjamin Eisenberg intended to turn the island into a casino, but was thwarted when it was discovered that the site wasn't in gambling-tolerant Anne Arundel County, but restrictive Baltimore County. In 1964, developer Robert L. Jackson leased Fort Carroll and used his hydrofoil, called the Baltimore Clipper, to ferry guests to a picnic park he created at the fort. But the idea failed.

The island has remained mostly deserted since then, although rumors have persisted that the Eisenbergs and a developer have plans for it. Struever says he knows nothing about it. "All we're doing," he says, "is trying to protect the site from neglect and decay."

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