Historic Fort Steilacoom battles to get new landlord

May 18, 2023, 7:00 AM | Updated: May 19, 2023, 12:44 pm

Fort Steilacoom...

Soldiers re-create mid 19th century life at historic Fort Steilacoom on the grounds of Western State Hospital. (Courtesy Historic Fort Steilacoom Association)

(Courtesy Historic Fort Steilacoom Association)

In Pierce County, a quartet of historic buildings from one of the oldest outposts of the U.S. Army in what’s now the Evergreen State still stands on a small piece of public land near Lakewood.

On the grounds of Western State Hospital are all that remains of historic Fort Steilacoom, which even predates, by a few years, the creation of Washington Territory itself.

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For the past several decades, a non-profit group has operated a museum and historic attraction in the four structures originally built as officer’s quarters. That non-profit group has what appears to be a pretty sweet deal with the owner of the buildings, but they say the arrangement is holding them back.

Now, the all-volunteer museum wants a new landlord.

Walter Neary is the board president of the non-profit Historic Fort Steilacoom Association.

“In August of 1849, the [U.S. Army] Infantry established a foothold” on what had been agricultural property claimed by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Neary told KIRO Newsradio. “And then in 1857 [and] 1858, two dozen ‘permanent’ buildings were established. We still have four of them today, and it’s those four buildings that we share as a museum.”

When the Army retreated from Fort Steilacoom a long time ago – way back in 1868 – the land ultimately was transferred to what became the state of Washington.

Just a few years after the Army left, the remaining military buildings were repurposed as part of a public asylum, the 19th-century version of a mental health care facility, which was operated by what was then the Washington Territorial government. The old fort structures remained in use for a variety of purposes for much of the next century.

Historic Fort Steilacoom Association was founded in 1983 to preserve the four remaining buildings, which look like nicely built and well-maintained 19th-century homes. However, they didn’t always look this good. By the late 1970s, the structures were in rough shape. They probably wouldn’t still exist today without the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association stepping up to advocate for their preservation and restoration 40 years ago and without their subsequent decades of offering modest public programs there.

And while community efforts are what led to the preservation of Fort Steilacoom, the buildings and the land they sit upon are still owned by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), the public agency that operates Western State Hospital.

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The Fort Steilacoom Museum has a lease agreement with DSHS which gives the museum essentially free use of the four historic buildings and the grounds immediately surrounding them. In addition to not collecting any rent, DSHS pays for all utilities, mowing the grass, and for the security guards who keep an eye on Fort Steilacoom 24 hours a day as part of their rounds protecting the adjoining hospital campus.

That part of the equation – that a historic fort from the 19th century sits on the grounds of a state hospital – is what bothers Neary and what inspired him to publish an op-ed in The News Tribune in April.

Neary says he looks enviously across the street from the old fort buildings on the hospital grounds to nearby Fort Steilacoom Park. Those 340 acres of recreational land were transferred from state ownership to the City of Lakewood in 2018, and Neary wants the same thing to happen to Fort Steilacoom.

“We’re not aware of any museum of national significance that’s administered by a behavioral health facility,” Neary said. “So what I’d like to do is steer Fort Steilacoom into a safe harbor.”

Who, exactly, does Neary want to be the fort’s new landlord?

“The City of Lakewood is a really responsive local government that can help us with some of the really complicated stories we’ve got to tell,” said Neary, who previously served on the Lakewood City Council. “And so I look at the City of Lakewood as a rescuer if DSHS and the Legislature will go along with it.”

Bob Hubenthal is the Director of Capital Programs for DSHS. In other words, he’s the land and facilities guy who oversees DSHS’s relationship with the Historic Fort Steilacoom Association.

Hubenthal is not interested in handing over Fort Steilacoom to Neary’s group or to anyone.

“Without having further discussions with our executive leadership, we are not interested in giving up any more land or property at Western State Hospitals campus,” Hubenthal told KIRO Newsradio. “The buildings themselves – we might have discussions about transferring those – but the underlying property we need to keep because of the other critical infrastructure and roads and parking and things that run across that parcel.”

Hubenthal says there was a conversation earlier this year between DSHS and the City Lakewood Parks Department about the city’s desire to transfer Fort Steilacoom to their ownership. He believes that the City of Lakewood wants to own the real estate outright in order to more easily direct public funds into maintenance and preservation of the fort buildings.

“I think the city’s perspective was if they don’t own the asset, then they can’t use their tax proceeds to benefit it,” Hubenthal said. “And so they were going to go back and see if we were to simply deed the buildings over to them but have DSHS retain the property, if that was something they could work with.”

And what was the City of Lakewood’s answer?

“We have not had a response back from [Lakewood] City Parks since then,” Hubenthal continued.

KIRO Newsradio contacted the City of Lakewood spokesperson, who arranged for a conversation with Lakewood City Councilmember Don Anderson.

Councilmember Anderson told KIRO Newsradio that he was not aware of the Parks Department conversation with Hubenthal. However, Councilmember Anderson said that the Lakewood City Council has formally adopted and made it a legislative priority to secure ownership of the entire Fort Steilacoom site – buildings and land – from DSHS.

If that’s the case, is Councilmember Anderson not interested in a deal that would only involve the buildings themselves?

“Oh, no, I didn’t say that,” Councilmember Anderson told KIRO Newsradio. “It would depend on the terms of the land lease. What you don’t want is a situation where you get buildings; you invest money and staff time in enhancing them; you build a program; and [then] you have a third-party entity saying ‘we’re going to control the hours’ or ‘we’re going to control the access’ or ‘we’re going to control this.’”

Given Lakewood’s intentions to secure the land and the buildings, and DSHS’s stance that they need to retain the land, any kind of deal will likely involve behind-the-scenes politicking and, ultimately, the Washington State Legislature taking action. Timing for any steps or other public actions that might come next is hard to predict.

Meanwhile, back at the fort, Historic Fort Steilacoom Association board president Walter Neary is clearly passionate about the future of Fort Steilacoom. But, he says, until the ownership situation changes, he feels like his group’s hands are essentially tied. Without legal possession of the real estate, Neary believes the group is hampered as far as serious fundraising or taking other steps toward making their organization grow to be what they believe it could and should be.

“That’s what I think has been hard on our volunteers is that we’re all sitting around thinking, ‘We really ought to be like Fort Vancouver or Fort Nisqually,’ because we have these great stories,” Neary said. “But our parent organization is a mental hospital, and this is not how things are supposed to work.”

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Neary and his group should get credit for taking on what can be a thankless task, and it can be tough for all-volunteer groups to offer consistent levels of public programming and to present sophisticated interpretations (such as exhibits and tours) that highlight complex events of the mid 19th century. Those years were when the settlement of what’s now Washington radically altered the lives of Indigenous people, settled political differences with Great Britain and laid the foundation for the modern state we all now inhabit.

“Hospitals and museums are different things,” Neary continued. “And in Washington, we’ve normalized it that, ‘Oh yeah, hospital, museum – the same thing.”

“But they’re not,” Neary said. “You really need a skill set applied to a museum.”

Anyone interested in experiencing Fort Steilacoom does NOT need to wait for a new landlord to learn more about a fascinating chapter of Pacific Northwest history. With DSHS footing the bill (for now) to keep the lights on and the grass cut, Historic Fort Steilacoom Association is offering guided tours over Memorial Day Weekend on the afternoon of Sunday, May 28, as well as other programs throughout the summer.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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