The “Double-Edged Sword” of Fort Union

Fort Union was established as a National Monument on June 28, 1954 with the condition that it would be preserved as a ruin, not reconstructed like many other earthen fort sites in the American South-West. This plan work for a while, but the cost of applying historic building techniques to the ruins and poor site interpretation due to its ruinous features has left a detrimental impact on the overall site. Fort Union was originally chosen as a National Monument because of its connections to the Free Masons, who occupied a building during the time of the third fort. This focus does not show up in the current interpretation, which only shows the fort’s connections to the Civil War.

Ignored also is Fort Union’s connection to the vast natural landscape that surrounds the remaining structures. The original site was only chosen because of its relationship to the Santa Fe Trail, which is pointed out through various signs, but is not clearly legible from the visitor’s trails. In the introduction to Buildings, Landscapes, and Memory, Bluestone mentions that while preservationists understands people’s connections to historic structures and landscapes, they fail to see how broad these views can be.

For me, Fort Union has become a collection of sculptural elements that work to frame the natural environment that surround them. To others, the adobe walls have become “fudgesicle” remnants, serving no real function in the interpretation of the site because they are not able to communicate volumes. While many can appreciate the aesthetic and picturesque values of the site, Fort Union has lost its economic, political and historical values. The site was conserved as a ruin because it was thought that it would preserve the integrity of Fort Union’s historical narrative, but while the structures are picturesque they are difficult to interpret.

The “double-edged sword” of Fort Union is that it is neither purely picturesque nor historical. The National Park Service chooses to focus on a small moment in the fort’s history that cannot clearly be seen through the ruins of the buildings, and is only starting to exploit the picturesque views-shed of the surrounding landscape. Because of this, the park is continuing to not bring in visitors and is wasting money on repairs to the adobe ruins that are not helping the interpretation of the fort. Fort Union National Monument is currently a disconnected building and landscape with no coherent memory.

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