Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Post Movie Theater

Fort Snelling was renowned for it’s recreational opportunities for servicemen and their families. One of the most popular activities for families was to go to the post theatre. The original theatre was nothing fancy. It was built around the turn of the century, but greatly altered in the mid-1920s. The theatre was a wooden structure with hardwood floors and 12’ ceilings. The entire theatre was just over 3,000 square-feet and seated up to 438 people. The original theatre stood near the post school and the guardhouse, near where Building 66 is today.

As movies became more popular, the U.S. War Department thought it would be beneficial to add a movie theater to the post. Construction on the new state-of-the-art theater took place in 1931 and cost over $30,000 to build. The new brick building opened on December 12, 1931 to a sold-out crowd. The movie theater boasted almost 6,000 square-feet of space, a 15’ screen, seats for as many as 574 people, and was air-conditioned. Snacks and beverages could be purchased in the lobby before the show. The theater quickly became the most used recreational facility on the post.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Commandant’s Residence

Without a doubt, the post commandant’s residence was the grandest of all of the homes along Officer’s Row. The Second Empire style home was nearly 7,000 square feet in size, with six bedrooms and three bathrooms. The first floor featured a large dining room, library, and two sitting rooms. A large conservatory was also located on this floor at the side of the home. The second and third floors were less formal. The family’s bedrooms and a sitting room were located on the second floor. The third floor contained one or two bedrooms and storage space.

In early 1911, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Hinkley Plummer, 28th Infantry, took over command of the post. He moved into the home with his wife, Georgia, and one of their daughters. New furniture was moved in for Plummer and his family including two bedroom sets, a sideboard, dining room table and six chairs, a divan, arm chairs, and bookcases, a desk, chair, and table for the library. Forty-six new window shades and thirty-six curtain rods were installed during this time. A refrigerator was also moved into the residence.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Band Barracks

The barracks for the Fort Snelling band originally housed about 28 military musicians. Built in 1903, the yellow brick band barracks features a three-story projecting bay with wooden porches on both sides on the first and second stories. The porches were originally open but the first-floor porches have now been enclosed. The second-story porches feature round, wooden columns to support the roof of the porch. Palladian windows add a graceful touch to the third story on both sides of the building. Inside, hardwood floors and tin-tile ceiling extended throughout the main floor. The main floor includes a small kitchen, and each floor has its own bathroom. The building is in good condition, but the wooded porches are beginning to crumble.

Fort Snelling was hit especially hard by the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic — in October of 1918, just the beginning of the outbreak, there were ten dead and over 500 sick soldiers at the fort. In order to slow the epidemic at the fort, an isolation hospital was needed to keep the sick away from the general population and act as overflow for the main hospital. Since the band barracks were right next to the hospital, it was an obvious choice. The barracks were quickly converted into an isolation hospital for soldiers. The first wave of the epidemic lasted until mid-November and things started returning to normal at the fort until a second wave hit just before Christmas. Again, the isolation hospital was filled to capacity with sick soldiers. By the end of February 1919 the epidemic contained. By summer, the outbreak was completely over and the band was able to move back into their barracks.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Post School

Prior to Minnesota becoming a state, most of a child’s educational needs were met by either their parents or a local priest/pastor who could devote time to teaching them. Once Fort Snelling was built in the early 1800s, the wives of the post commandant and officers took up the task of teaching the children that lived at the fort. The women focused on teaching the three Rs, polite manners, and a former member of of Napoleon’s army taught them French. The original one-room school house stood just inside the main entrance to the fort.

A growth spurt outside the walls of the historic fort offered an opportunity to build a new, larger school house that would be accessible to all of the children at the fort, as well as those living in the surrounding area. The new wood-frame school house was completed in 1880. It stood where the Telephone Exchange (building 66) is today — behind the Post Headquarters and just to the south of the Guardhouse. The 1,113 square-foot school had a coatroom attached to a large, 24’x36’ classroom where one teacher taught approximately sixty students. One wood-stove was commissioned to heat the entire school house. In 1908, a small bathroom was added — the outhouse they had been using for twenty-eight years was removed shortly after the indoor bathroom was completed. The school house was completely destroyed by a fire on January 22, 1930.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Neoclassical Revival Officer’s Quarters

Prior to the 1967 expansion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, the area of the Upper Post known as Officer’s Row looked like a typical block of family homes. The houses were generously set back from Taylor Avenue giving each a large front yard. The considerable space between each residence allowed officers and their families privacy and plenty of space to live and play. Just like neighborhoods in the city, various architectural styles were used to add to the homey feel of this part of the fort.

Building 171 was originally constructed to house one officer and his family. After a fire partially destroyed the home in 1913, it was remodeled into a stacked duplex — one officer and his family lived downstairs, and another family lived in the upper unit. Each home was approximately 1,000 square feet, had a fireplace in the living room, and hardwood floors throughout. The 1922 remodel added screened-in porches that extended off the front of the building which gave each unit additional three-season living space. The addition of the porches, with their supporting columns and railings, removed most of the original colonial revival influences and gave it more of a neoclassical style that was unique on the fort at this time.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Quartermaster’s Shops

A building boom took place in this area of the fort when the Department of the Dakota moved its headquarters to Fort Snelling in 1879. Building 63 was originally constructed to house the Quartermaster’s Shops for this new area of the post, but soon became the Post Exchange. Originally lit with oil lamps, electricity was added in the 1910s. In 1926 it was converted into eight sets of apartments for non-commissioned officers and their wives. These one bedroom, one bathroom apartments had hardwood floors throughout and were heated by a fireplace and small wood stove. Each apartment was approximately 700 square feet.

Building 63 is the most recent to be razed. Prior to demolition, an array of obvious structural problems went unheeded by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Serious problems, such as gaping holes in the roof and voids in the joints between exterior bricks were documented as early as the 1990s. By 1998, a survey of the building found that, “Brick work on the [outer] walls does not use common bond construction, using instead metal ties between the withes. These have rusted through and the outer withe of brick has collapsed in a section of the east wall.”[1] Recommendations to stabilize and mothball the building fell on deaf ears until it was too late. By the next documented survey of the building in 2006, the center section of Building 63 had entirely collapsed. The following year, even more of the building had toppled, leaving only a small, two-story section at the northern end standing. That section of the building held on proudly until a bulldozer tore it down in 2010.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling: Hospital Steward’s Quarters

The home for the hospital steward (the hospital’s principal non-commissioned officer) and his family sits in a small grove of trees that gives us a glimpse as to what this part of the Fort may have looked like when people lived here. If your imagination can get you past the boarded up windows and entryways, you can almost see the family sitting on the porch on a warm summer evening drinking lemonade.

The home was simple. The main level featured a living room, dining room, and a kitchen. Upstairs there were three bedrooms and one bath. This building originally had a slate roof, which was later replaced with asphalt shingles. A skylight has also been added. An open wooden porch was replaced with an enclosed red brick structure to match the  exterior of the building. There was also a small, one-story addition to the rear corner of the home since its original construction.

Currently, this building is in fair condition. Like most of the buildings at the Upper Post, it is in need of mortar re-pointing and concrete work. Problems with the roof have caused interior damage all the way to the basement. Paint and plaster have cracked off walls and ceilings in numerous places. The windows have severe water damage. Obviously, most of the exterior wood also needs to be replaced after years of neglect.

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Upper Post of Fort Snelling

The Upper Post of Fort Snelling will be featured in a new series of posts dedicated to the buildings located to the southwest of Historic Fort Snelling. The Upper Post is comprised of World War I and II era buildings. Our new series will focus on the buildings that are still standing, as well as those that have been lost.

To get us started, here is a map shows the sobering reality we face today. I put this together to show which buildings at Fort Snelling that have been lost, and which are still standing. You can see how many houses along Officers Row were razed to make way for the airport expansion. Many of the barracks were also lost at that time. Some of the buildings were lost to more natural causes such as fire, tornados, or simply because they were temporary buildings that weren’t meant to stand the test of time. The buildings that are still standing are in various states of revitalization. The former Calvary Drill House has been completely restored and is being used by the Northern Star Council, Boy Scouts of America as a Base Camp. Many buildings have simply been mothballed until an alternate use can be found. Sadly, there are a few, such as the hospital, that are in dire need of repair and are at risk of demolition by neglect. Next time you visit the Upper Post, stand along Taylor Avenue and picture what we’ve lost. I think it’s the best way to appreciate the buildings that are still standing.

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