Sleeping at the fort once again

THE RESTORED military barracks can accommodate about 40 people in two large bunk rooms and a separate, smaller room for adult chaperones. /
THE RESTORED military barracks can accommodate about 40 people in two large bunk rooms and a separate, smaller room for adult chaperones. /

More than a century ago, the dark, close quarters in the bowels of Fort Adams housed military officers assigned to the sprawling fort overlooking Newport Harbor.

But after sitting unused for decades and being partially destroyed by a fire, a portion of the military barracks has undergone an extensive renovation and will soon have new use as overnight quarters for youth groups.

Newport Collaborative Architects recently completed its $1.1 million rehabilitation of five casemates in Fort Adams, the largest coastal fortification in the United States. The casemates, which housed guns and also served as officers’ quarters when the fort was built in the mid-1800s, will provide overnight shelter for Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and other youth groups visiting the fort beginning next spring, said Arnold Robinson, the firm’s planning director.

The rehabilitated barracks can accommodate about 40 people in two large bunk rooms and a separate, smaller room for adult chaperones, Robinson said. Newport Collaborative custom-made the bunks from white oak to match what historic 19th-century bunks would have looked like. Another casemate was turned into a dining/teaching hall where groups can cook their food and have classroom sessions, he said.

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Newport Collaborative began the historical rehab in September of last year, starting with extensive work on the fort’s exterior to disassemble a large granite wall in order to restore its crumbling interior.

“There were entire sections of the granite face wall, about 18 feet high and each stone weighing two-and-a-half to three tons, that were essentially delaminating and falling off,” Robinson said.

The architecture and design firm also installed four new bathrooms in the same places where the fort’s original privies were built. The fort had not had indoor plumbing since the 1950s, and the new bathrooms, which meet all modern codes and standards for water conservation and handicap accessibility, will also be available when the fort hosts outdoor concerts and private events, Robinson said.

The project was funded through a combination of grants from private foundations in Rhode Island and with a state bond that also funded a restoration of the Roger Williams Park Zoo, Robinson said.

Ongoing work to fund adaptive reuse of the fort is the result of a strategic master plan undertaken by the Fort Adams Trust in 2000. More specific plans to rehabilitate part of the fort as an overnight youth barracks came out of a public charrette held in the winter of 2002, he said.

Fort Adams is owned by the state and managed by the R.I. Department of Environmental Management. The Fort Adams Trust, a nonprofit organization formed in 1994, operates all educational and cultural activities at the fort and raises money to fund its restoration.

As with all adaptive reuse projects, Newport Collaborative worked to restore and reproduce the fort’s historical details while meeting modern fire and safety codes and integrating modern amenities like plumbing and electrical lighting, Robinson said.

“You don’t want to clean up historic structures to the point where it doesn’t tell its story anymore,” he said.

Seeking a way to install lighting and other electrical systems in the bunk rooms as unobtrusively as possible, Newport Collaborative decided to put them into troughs that match the woodwork in the rooms and run along the walls about 10 feet from the floor.

“We put all of our light fixtures up there, we put all of our cabling for our electrical systems, for our fire alarm systems, for our heat sensors and CO2 sensors – everything we needed to have for controls is all hidden in that trough,” Robinson explained. “So if you turn the lights off in the space and you’re there in the daytime, except for that trough it’s a completely 19th-century environment. But at nighttime you turn those light switches on and the light comes up and washes over the ceilings of the space to then reflect the light downward, without having any light fixtures hanging from the ceiling and looking incredibly out of place.”

The architecture firm recreated a series of wooden blocks in the ceiling that were originally used to anchor the plasterwork, but which were seriously damaged in a fire that happened in the casemates in the 1970s.

“We ended up putting them back in wood, so that in the future someone could come into that space and say, ‘Oh, there’s wood up there, why is it like that?’ and it would still tell the story of what it used to look like in that space,” Robinson said. •