By Robert Bluthardt
Director, Fort Concho National Historic Landmark
Published November 2010
To the first-time visitor, Fort Concho presents a commanding appearance—a large Parade Ground with a center flagpole surrounded by several rows of 1800s buildings, all restored to their military exteriors. Little of the current century intrudes, as power poles, city streets and other modern distractions have mostly been removed or hidden. Perhaps, thinks the visitor, it was always this way, but many long-time residents know, “it was not always thus.”
Built and operated between 1867 and 1889, Fort Concho was never meant to be permanent. The U. S. Army built, relocated, and abandoned forts across the west as quickly as the frontier moved. Many forts crumbled into ruins; a few were stripped of their valued building materials; and some survived in very changed fashions.
What saved Fort Concho was both an accident of its limestone construction and the development of a viable community across the river. These well built structures offered San Angelo citizens new homes and commercial locations at the close of the 19th century. By the early 1900s, the fort anchored what was called the “Fort Concho Addition,” and the old post settled into nearly 40 years of semi-retirement.
Amazingly, local folks made some efforts as early as 1905 to save the place as a monument to the pioneer past, as former post trader J. L. Millspaugh suggested that the city could buy the entire site for $15,000. A dollar bought more in those days, and 15,000 of them was far beyond the newly incorporated city’s budget. In 1913, the Santa Fe Railroad gave the eastern third of the parade ground to the city, and for a century that parcel has remained clear of any new buildings or distractions. Meanwhile, in 1923, the Daughters of
the American Revolution announced their plans to save the whole fort, but they fell far, far short in fundraising and settled for a stone marker that now sits near our visitor entrance at Barracks 1.
Ginevra Wood Carson, a lady of vision, energy, and endurance, took on the project in the late 1920s, creating the West Texas Museum in the old Tom Green County Courthouse in 1928, and moving the museum to the fort’s Headquarters Building in 1930 at the dawn of the Great Depression. Through that difficult decade, World War II, and the great drought of the 1950s, she directed the preservation efforts, never losing faith when resources were scarce. Mrs. Carson had to have a sense of humor—or at least great patience—as the city sometimes purchased old fort property, but then assigned it to some other municipal function. In 1939, for example, the city bought the old commissary building and Mrs. Carson’s dream of new exhibit space were dashed when the large structure became the city transit bus barn.
After World War II, both the schoolhouse and two barracks and mess halls were returned to the museum and offered new spaces for displays, but the majority of the military post remained in private hands. In addition, a 1907 elementary school squatted in the middle of the Parade Ground, several 1900s buildings fronted South Oakes Street, new streets cut through the site, and a series of residences filled the gap where Barracks 3 and 4 had tumbled into ruins a generation before. Many of the old officers’ quarters had become private homes too, saved from destruction, but in some cases renovated far beyond their simple military styles.
Mrs. Carson and her allies had accomplished much, but original visions of returning the whole fort to its 1800s glory seemed far away. Administratively, the fort preservation had some support, as it had been owned by the city of San Angelo since 1935 and made a full unit of city government by 1955, and it received the very prestigious honor of being declared a national historic landmark in 1961.
Money, staff, and planning all came together in the 1960s. Mrs. Carson’s successors raised the funds to purchase one officers’ quarters after another, adding a piece of land here and another there throughout the decade. The fort hired a professionally trained staff in the late 1960s. Foundation and government money became available for land and building acquisitions, and the fort made substantial progress on holding events, creating new exhibits, a collections, and a research library. Visitation increased and supporters realized that the best days were ahead.
In the 1970s, major renovation projects included restoring Officers’ Quarters 7 into offices and a research library. The San Angelo Junior League helped to create the fort’s education department in 1976. Major land purchases included the old quartermaster storehouse, the site of the old post hospital, the land between Barracks 2 and 5, and property facing the parade ground and Officers’ Row. At the end of the decade, the Fort board and staff commissioned the Austin firm of Bell, Klein, and Hoffman to create a master plan for development and restoration.
The “Master Plan” as it was often called, spurred the restoration of the commissary into a meeting hall with a second partnership with the Junior League which had assisted the fort in the professional restoration of Officers’ Quarters 8 a decade earlier. The quartermaster storehouse became the first home of the newly created San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts, and Officers’ Quarters 9, after full restoration, became the site’s education building.
Two major developments occurred in the 1980s: the fort board bought the old Monarch Tile block on South Oakes Street, getting back the original Barracks 1 and 2, and eventually worked with the city to see the non-historic property renovated into state office space. Also, the “Hospital-School Project” reconstructed the old post hospital in its 1870s form, created a new Fort Concho Elementary School nearby, and cleared the parade ground for the first time in almost a century. Now you could “see” the fort across the open field and the same impressive vista offered itself to passing drivers on South Oakes Street.
Over the past 20 years, improvements have continued with a new visitor center at Barracks 1, part of the overall creation of the Paseo de Santa Angela across South Oakes Street. Avenue C was closed in 1997 and replaced 10 years later with a period “company street,” while a new pathway and traffic light offered a safe and attractive entrance for guests. The fort finally purchased the original stables block in 1997, transforming one non-historic section into more revenue-producing office space, another two sections into storage space, and a last section becoming a huge rental hall for parties and gatherings.
But what is ahead? Mrs. Carson would be pleased with the progress since her first efforts over 80 years ago, but were she still with us (she passed away in 1958), she might recommend the following:
- Remove Avenue D, create the company street, and bring back the entire fort grounds to those traffic-free days of the 1870s.
- Rebuild the Post Surgeon’s Quarters, a portion of which sits in the current Avenue D, so maybe #1 and #2 can be combined.
- Rebuild the Guardhouse, located between Barracks 6 and the Quartermaster, identical in appearance to a barracks and slightly smaller.
- Fill that gap between Barracks 2 and 5 by rebuilding both Barracks 3 and 4 and their mess halls. The fort’s ever-expanding library, archives, and collections deserve new homes and better spaces to display our fine artifacts.
- Rebuild Officers’ Quarters 5, the only quarters along the row that did not survive.
- Reconstruct the Post Bandstand, a handsome structure at the far west end of the Parade Ground. It would be an appropriate site for future concerts
Fort Concho will mark its 150th anniversary of establishment in 2017, so some of the above goals are not impossible. Established in the 19th century and restored in the 20th century, Fort Concho has already made great progress in the 21st century and looks forward to the ultimate goal of putting the fort back together as its first residents would have recognized it. The fort also thanks its many supporters, volunteers, board, and staff who have kept the faith, when the site “was not always thus!”