Preservation Magazine, Winter 2021

A Reimagined Library Opens the Cover of Fort Monroe's Black History

In August of 1619, the first ship carrying Africans enslaved by Europeans arrived in English-occupied North America, landing at what is now Fort Monroe, a National Monument in Hampton, Virginia. Constructed 200 years later, in 1819, the fort played a prominent role in the Civil War as a Union-controlled safe haven for enslaved and freed African Americans escaping the Confederacy, earning the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.” And another two centuries later, a new visitors center highlighting the site’s Black history has opened inside Building 138, a former military library. “We were trying to create a prominent space to tell that story,” says Steven Blashfield, director of the cultural studio at Glavé & Holmes Architecture, which oversaw the conversion in partnership with the Fort Monroe Authority. “We didn’t want it to be something people could skip over.”

Constructed in 1909 by military architect Francis Wheaton, Building 138 had a well-preserved Beaux-Arts facade, but its interiors had been carved up during a shift to administrative offices after World War II. Blashfield and his team focused on opening up the building’s layout and restoring original details like an interior balcony, skylight, and terrazzo floors. The rehabilitation included an elevator and graded entry to make the building accessible, and expanding the gallery space for a permanent exhibition on the Black history of the area. “The goal was to create a space that would orient visitors to the entire 600 acres that is Fort Monroe,” Blashfield says. “This building will be a catalyst for its ongoing reimagination.”

Editor's note: This story was updated on March 2, 2021.

Lauren Vespoli is a freelance culture writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

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