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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

Detroit's Fort Wayne more a victim of the present than the past

DETROIT - Every year, people discover, to their amazement, that a sprawling and fascinating military complex, including a pre-Civil War-era fort, is hidden within the ruins of the industrial powerhouse that was Detroit.

The heart of the installation is an immense star-shaped earthen fort, with brick tunnels and ramparts that are every 10-year-old boy's dream, and a huge barracks building that housed soldiers from virtually every conflict this nation has fought. There's a parade ground perfect for re-enactments of various conflicts.

There are large and formerly magnificent officers' houses in various states of disrepair, a functioning Spanish-American War era guardhouse with restored jail cells, and the remains of World War II-era warehouses.

Here troops drilled and Detroit, back when it was World War II's "arsenal of democracy," stored millions of tons of tanks and planes and other weapons, before they were loaded on barges to begin their journey to our fighting men overseas.

The fabled Tuskegee Airmen, the black flyers of that war, have their national museum here. A few yards away are the remnants of an Indian mound built by the area's first warriors about 900 A.D.

The 88-acre complex is called Fort Wayne, named for "Mad Anthony" Wayne of Revolutionary War fame. "It is one of the best examples of military architecture of its day," noted Dr. Dennis Zembala, who as director of Detroit's historical museums is in charge of the crumbling masterpiece.

But while many history buffs from Toledo to Traverse City know all about it, there are thousands who live virtually in Fort Wayne's shadow who have never heard of it. That's because it was completely closed to the public for more than a decade, the victim not of hostile action but of state and city budget shortfalls.

Now, it is open a few weekends in the summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, though it will reopen for a rare Detroit Historical Society flea market on Oct. 9 and 10, that will include guided tours of the grounds.

Ironically, peace and prosperity have done more damage to Fort Wayne than any foreign enemy ever could. In fact, a shot was never fired in anger here.

Fort Wayne was built in 1845 to defend us from Canada, probably at the point where the British invaded and captured Detroit during the War of 1812. "But politically it was obsolete before it was finished," Dr. Zembala said; by that time, war with Canada and invasion by Britain was no longer a threat.

But the fort continued to be an active military installation, even if it was somewhat of a backwater. Officers lived in large, spacious and elegant houses, and young ladies in the surrounding neighborhood went with them to military balls. Men came here to be inducted into the armed forces and shipped off to every conflict the nation faced, down to Vietnam.

Eventually, the installation was gradually turned over to the city, which used it to house some of those made homeless in the riot of 1967. Later, it became a popular tourist site, and had a number of now-vanished museums. But there was not enough money to keep it up, and eventually it closed.

Its fans were dismayed, and have been campaigning ever since to fix up and permanently reopen Fort Wayne.

Wayne County voters approved a $90 million tax in 1996 that was billed as providing, among other things, money for Fort Wayne. But in the peculiar way business was often done in the Ed McNamara era, Fort Wayne got virtually none of the money. This winter, it will finally get a paltry $2 million, which project manager Bode Morin says will be mostly used to build restrooms at the site.

But Fort Wayne's keepers have bigger dreams. Dr. Zembala would love to make the core of the fort a museum of military technology as it evolved through the nation's history, with a considerable assist from the factories of Detroit.

His staff has drawn up a master plan which would involve leasing some of the restored buildings to private firms, and maybe having a bed and breakfast or two. The historical society is considering possible ways to do that, from a capital campaign to federal grants to a possible bond issue. But something needs to be done.

The problem, city officials say, is not that they have forgotten the past. It is simply that there is no money available at present.



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