From Prison to Upper Post

Minnesota inmates help to restore a 19th-century military facility

Fort Snelling Building 101, 102, 103 - Infantry Enlisted Barracks. Fort Snelling Upper Post in Hennepin County, Minnesota was on the 2006 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Credit: Chris Morris


The workers repointing the masonry walls at historic Fort Snelling in St. Paul are not your typical preservationists. They're convicted felons working in Minnesota's innovative Sentencing to Service (STS) program. And they are helping to restore the fort's long-forgotten Upper Post, a complex of buildings constructed at the turn of the last century. This marks the first time STS has organized inmates to work on a historic restoration project.

"It's a cost saver for the county in hard times, and that's certainly important," says Joe Witt, senior administrative manager for STS. "But I think the real benefit is you're training guys that are coming back into the community and you're giving them a good chance of learning a skill."

Fort Snelling was built in the early 1820s at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. During the Civil War, more than 22,000 Union troops were stationed there, and in the late 1800s the Upper Post was added. The fort served as a training site for troops during the Spanish-American War and World War I. It was decommissioned in 1946.

11 most markFourteen years later Fort Snelling was named a National Historic Landmark, and the Minnesota Historical Society restored the Lower Post as a museum. But the Upper Post, established as a state recreation area, was gradually forgotten. After decades of decline, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Upper Post to its 2006 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Supported by a $150,000 grant from Save America's Treasures, a public-private partnership between the National Trust and the National Park Service, and $1.7 million from the Minnesota state legislature, the state's Department of Natural Resources and Hennepin County initiated much-needed restoration five years ago. Rotating crews of STS workers have now mothballed the Upper Post's 26 Victorian and Italianate buildings, rebuilt and restored the guard house roof, and restored masonry walls at the post headquarters. They will also help with planned restoration work at the post hospital.

The restored fort will likely be incorporated into a mixed residential, retail, and office development. Hennepin County and the Department of Natural Resources are now working to secure funding for that project, and the National Trust is helping local and state officials to explore development options.

Melissa Ekman, an architect with Miller Dunwiddie Architecture, a Minneapolis-based firm, helped train and supervise members of the STS crew. "There were a couple that were really interested in the history, and they wanted to know more about the fort and what they were working on, and why it was important," Ekman says. "There were a couple, too, who said this is what they want to do [for a career], after doing it for a week."

The crew is paid a modest wage for their work. According to Witt, at least half of the inmates will go on to secure construction jobs after release. Royce Yeater, director of the National Trust's Midwest office, says, "When they first started, it was just a job. But over time they have become a little team, and there's a spirit and a pride about what they're accomplishing. The more we can provide trained and skilled labor sources to the market for preservation restoration, that's kind of a win-win for the general preservation effort."

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