Fort McHenry's walls are finally breached Time, winter ice do what British couldn't

March 15, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer PHOTO:

Time has done what British rockets and cannon shells couldn't do, breached the ramparts at Fort McHenry.

In the visitors center yesterday, the film about the American resistance to the bombardment in 1814 ended with "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the curtains retracted to reveal the 17-by-25-foot, 15-star-15-stripe battle flag streaming above the red-brick walls.

Closer inspection, however, reveals where bricks have cracked and fallen out, and walls have buckled. Water leaks have weakened the curved brick ceilings of underground Civil War-era powder magazines. Floor joists and window frames are rotting in some places.

L But all is not lost, said Park Superintendent John W. Tyler.

Congress has approved a special $3 million appropriation for a three-year restoration, which is scheduled to begin this summer, Mr. Tyler said.

He said it will be the most extensive repair since the Army renovated the fort before turning it over to the National Park Service in the 1930s.

The appropriation will meet only part of the need, however.

In a ceremony at the fort yesterday, Maryland American Legion posts donated $14,700 to the Patriots of Fort McHenry, a volunteer organization established in 1984 for the preservation and enhancement of the fort through patriotic and educational programs.

"It's a phenomenal site, probably the most historic place in the country. Volunteer organizations and the government have to get behind the preservation," said Dominic DiFrancesco, of Middletown, Pa., American Legion national commander. "We [the Legion] want to expand our own effort."

The Patriots group has raised $250,000 so far, said Alan Walden, of WBAL Radio, who is the current president. But he lamented what he said is "very little support from the city and very little corporate support."

He also criticized the House of Delegates for twice failing to go along with the state Senate in passing a bill for state funds -- $250,000 -- to match what the Patriots have raised.

"A perception exists that because this is a federal institution the federal government should pay for everything. The Park Service provides for maintenance and general operation, but more is needed. We ask more awareness and help from the private sector. This is the only national monument that is also an historic shrine," he said.

"The War of 1812 is the Korean War of the 19th century -- a forgotten war. But it enabled us to keep the freedom we won 30 years earlier in the Revolution, and it gave us our National Anthem," said Mr. Walden, a history buff.

Robert N. Ford, Maryland Legion adjutant, said yesterday's contributions came from 20 of the state's 168 Legion posts, "and we'll hit the rest, too."

During a tour, Superintendent Tyler said the outer fortification walls have suffered the most damage because they were built without foundations or a drainage system. The buildings and walls of the inner fort are in "pretty good shape," although some window frames, floor joists and other wooden parts will be repaired or replaced.

The damage to the bastion walls has been cumulative over decades, mainly for lack of drainage, Mr. Tyler said. When water built up in the earthen-fill areas between the brick and stone facings it froze and thawed, contracting and expanding in relentless pressure on the walls.

Chinks have appeared where cement has been forced out, bricks have split and sections of brickwork have fallen out; a sightline down some walls reveals how they have buckled.

Fort McHenry was begun in 1797 and was modified periodically through the Civil War. "In doing archaeology and reviewing documents, we have found no hint of a drainage system," Mr. Tyler said.

A survey by the Baltimore architectural firm of Grieves, Worrall, Wright & O'Hatnick is nearly complete and will recommend what needs to be done and how it should be done, Mr. Tyler said.

Once the restoration plans are firm, he said, contracts for the work will be drafted and put out for bid. While modern restoration techniques and materials may be used, the objective will be accuracy, Mr. Tyler said. For example, the Park Service will go to brick manufacturers to obtain bricks that match as nearly as possible the existing masonry.

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