A New Life for Historic Army Fort in New Jersey
Rehabilitation effort to encompass a variety of uses.
Jennifer Orr

Less than an hour away from Lower Manhattan floats a stretch of New Jersey coastline that has remained untouched by private development. With nearly 14 miles of beachfront, the Sandy Hook peninsula is a real estate developer’s dream. But since Sandy Hook is a national park, owned by the federal government and managed by the National Park Service, those visions of commercial development have remained only in developers’ imaginations — until now.
Built in 1898-1899, the 18 former quarters on Officers’ Row at Fort Hancock will offer accommodations and meeting space when the rehabilitation is complete at The Fort at Sandy Hook. The Georgian-style, buff-colored brick buildings look much the same as when they were built.


The National Park Service has entered into a partnership with private developer Sandy Hook Partners to redevelop a portion of Fort Hancock, an Army base built on the peninsula’s tip in the 1890s to protect New York Harbor. Now, much of Fort Hancock is devoted to marine and environmental uses. The National Park Service, the Coast Guard, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the New Jersey Marine Science Consortium, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, and other marine and environmental organizations operate at the fort.

The historic Fort Hancock (foreground) was built in the 1890s to protect New York Harbor. Besides the fort itself, which was decommissioned in 1974, Sandy Hook is also the location of an army proving ground where new weapons were once tested, the Spermaceti Cove No. 2 Life-Saving Service Station, the earliest federally sponsored effort to aid coastal shipwrecks, and the Sandy Hook Lighthouse, which was built in 1764. The area is managed by the National Park Service, which is redeveloping the fort with Sandy Hook Partners. The New York City skyline can be seen across the water.
Sandy Hook Partners will expand on this marine/environmental sciences theme as it redevelops 36 of Fort Hancock’s 110 buildings into the Fort at Sandy Hook, a project that encompasses nearly 300,000 square feet. The company’s plan calls for a mix of interesting uses — a plan that blends together corporate training facilities, fitness and wellness programs, research and education facilities, cultural events, and hospitality services.

“What we’re developing at the end of the day is a learning and conferencing center where people will come for a variety of research environments and development labs,” says James Wassel, president of Sandy Hook Partners. “The hospitality programs will service their needs as they develop programs, seminars and conferences.”

The hospitality component was the number one element that current tenants (referred to as “park partners” at Fort Hancock) stressed when talking with Sandy Hook Partners about how to best complement the existing uses of the fort. “The park partners told us that if the fort had lodging, they could really begin to grow their programs because they could invite researchers to Sandy Hook,” says Wassel. “They could invite professors to come here and develop research projects and graduate programs. The partners told us stories about researchers who wanted to come here to work with NOAA, but passed Sandy Hook by because there are no hospitality facilities here, no places to stay and eat.”

A period picture from the early 20th century shows the enlisted men’s barracks across the parade grounds. The parade grounds and flagstaff are part of the historic setting. Fort Hancock was an operational Army location until 1974, when it was decommissioned by the Pentagon. The rectangular-shaped, two-story barracks were built from 1898-1899 in the same buff-colored brick as the Officers’ Row quarters. Several buildings that are unoccupied have suffered significant decay.
Other suggestions included adding conference facilities and meeting rooms, where park partners could share and celebrate the research occurring on the peninsula. Sandy Hook Partners agreed that such facilities would be a boon to the fort and is currently talking with some hospitality companies who can add both a conference center and lodging accommodations to Fort Hancock. Wassel expects the first phase of the hospitality component to open late this year.

The Fort at Sandy Hook will also include a new oceanographic research center, which will be developed by Rutgers University and Brookdale Community College. Construction will begin on that project by year’s end. A research institute focused on hyperbaric medicine — therapy originally targeted for treating decompression sickness and now one of the fastest growing areas of medical research, says Wassel — will also open at the Fort at Sandy Hook during the second phase of Sandy Hook Partners’ development plan.

In addition, Sandy Hook Partners plans to develop a simulated trading floor and court room as part of its corporate training and learning center. A health club is already in the works. The YMCA, which previously operated at the fort, is reopening in the building it originally occupied. Sandy Hook Partners plans to set up additional health and wellness programs around the Fort at Sandy Hook’s YMCA. The company is also arranging numerous recreational programs and cultural events. A month-long Shakespeare festival is scheduled for summer 2005 and Sandy Hook Partners is also looking into organizing a film festival and lecture series for Fort Hancock.

All of the projects at the Fort at Sandy Hook will be developed in the fort’s existing buildings. Much of Fort Hancock has remained unchanged since the Pentagon deactivated it in 1974 and the National Park Service took over as landlord. Many of the fort’s buildings have not been used in more than 30 years. And, since Fort Hancock is a registered National Historic Landmark, the buildings redeveloped by Sandy Hook Partners must continue to appear as if they have not been touched since the 1890s.

Sandy Hook Partners must rehabilitate all of the fort’s 36 buildings according to New Jersey’s historic preservation standards while simultaneously preparing them for contemporary uses. No new development is allowed. Wassel acknowledges the challenges inherent in such an effort. “It takes a lot of conversation and a lot of give and take with the National Park Service and the state historic preservation office to ensure we meet their criteria.”

But having worked on similar historic rehabilitations, such as Faneuil Hall in Boston and South Street Seaport in New York, Wassel is more than up to the task. In fact, he welcomes the challenges. “I would say 90 percent of the materials in these buildings you wouldn’t want to take out because they are the features that add charm to the buildings. The conference room I’m sitting in right now features dentil molding on top of the windows and a tin ceiling. There are old cast iron radiators. There are these six-panel doors that are original to the building. And in the hallway is a beautiful staircase with a banister. All of those are character-defining features. They must stay, and we must work around those kinds of things.”

Though the Fort at Sandy Hook will expand upon Fort Hancock’s newfound marine and environmental science heritage, it will also keep the fort’s military-based legacy alive, resulting in a truly unique development project that incorporates many different facets of use: research, training, wellness, culture, technology and hospitality. “We think the Fort at Sandy Hook will be a fabulous use for an old, beautiful facility like this,” says Wassel.

©2005 France Publications, Inc. Duplication or reproduction of this article not permitted without authorization from France Publications, Inc. For information on reprints of this article contact Barbara Sherer at (630) 554-6054.

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