Growing up, Hampton native Khyle Dixon remembers Fort Monroe as this hidden magical playground, a former military post, a place to kick around with friends during summers.
But inside there was an actual fortress. And a moat too, not something he expected to see on the U.S. Army post, decommissioned in 2011.
“When it was opened to the public, you see it was a military base, but you’re like, ‘aww this is awesome,’ ” Dixon said, recalling the stone walls enclosing the inner fort. “It kind of had a look I wasn’t used to. I had never been to a historic site. It was kind strange to see an actual fort inside of this Army base. It was out of place here.”
Now 20 years old, Dixon happily worked Tuesday to prime and prep wooden columns for a National Park Service preservation project on an important architecture structure within his beloved fortress — Quarters No.1.
The 2017 Phoebus High School grad and current Thomas Nelson Community College student is an intern working with the park service and crews from the Historic Architecture Conservation & Engineering Center, known as HACE.
The preservation project at the historic structure — where commanders such as Gen. Benjamin Butler, who offered refuge to three Hampton slaves, resided — is among many restoration projects the group oversees in the park service’s northeast region, said Larry Waldrop, a park service senior exhibits specialist.
For this project, HACE is working on the building’s exterior — restoring the porches and the outside masonry, installing columns, painting and doing some landscaping, Waldrop said.
A key goal at the Fort Monroe National Monument is to paint and clean up the Quarters No. 1 exterior in time the 400th anniversary in late August commemorating the arrival of the first Africans to English North America, at Point Comfort.
For the commemoration, the park service is planning events on the former military base. Fort Monroe Superintendent Terry E. Brown has an operating budget of $1 million, some of which is earmarked for various facility upgrade projects, he said.
Brown said the park service has been focused on restoring the historic building with the HACE team shortly after he became superintendent in 2016. To date the park service has invested $700,000 in restoration work.
“Obviously, this is like the crown jewel,” Brown said. “This is one the most historic resources here at the fort. ... This was (Abraham) Lincoln’s residence … he stayed here. This idea of the contraband, we don’t know if it was signed or decided in building … but this is a wonderful resource.”
When construction began in 1819, it was designed for the commanding officers. Over the years, the property has had major additions, such as adding a kitchen and expanding an original portico to extend the balcony with detailed posts known as balusters.
The building has withstood the weather and time with its bones and footprint mainly intact. But a lot of the wood — more than a century old — has rotted. The exterior has several layers of paint, peeling and cracked, which needs stripping.
The Army was famous for painting over older coats, and Quarters No. 1 throughout its lifetime has been a multitude of colors — brick red, yellow ochre and hunter green, Waldrop said.
Repainting the building white is not scheduled to begin until May, Waldrop said. The park service ultimately would have a separate project plan to restore the building’s interior, with the intention of it being open to the public one day for receptions or tours, Brown said.
Inside there are pristine marble mantles, a wrap staircase and molding elements, some — such as a rope detail along the moldings of the commander’s bedroom — architecturally specific to high-ranking military officers.
Dixon twice has interned for the park service, once after graduating high school and more recently since September.
He has worked through the winter, mostly alone, to strip, clean and repaint several dozen baluster posts, and do other woodworking tasks and masonry jobs.
Dixon originally came, with other students, as a part of a national program called HOPE (Hands-On Preservation Experience) managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Brown said. The group connects youth with opportunities to work on historic sites on public land, learn preservation skills and other trades.
Brown said Dixon was among the few interns who returned last year.
Dixon has grown with the park service, Brown said, learned a trade and parlayed it into a job with the U.S. Department of the Interior at a park in Maryland.
Next week, Dixon will help install the columns he has painted.
“This building has been raggedly for quite a long time,” Dixon said. “It’s had some neglect. It’s kind of awesome to see your own progress.”
Waldrop said HACE architects have set the restoration period from its beginning through 1907, which is the last time commanding officers lived in the building.
As many as 24 first commanders have lived and led the post, beginning with the construction engineer in 1819 and including famous generals such as Abraham Eustis and Butler during the Civil War.
“It’s nice that the primary history when the generals lived here also coincides when the building took its form ... the way it looks now,” Waldrop said. “We are keeping the porches the way they were in 1907, so we can kind of tell that full story.”
The work has been inspiring for Dixon.
Dixon, who is also member of the U.S. National Guard, was planning to study information technology at TNCC. He is now on pace to transfer to Old Dominion University to major in civil engineering.
“It’s a lot more hands-on,” Dixon said. “I feel like you get a lot more self-worth out of it.”
Lisa Vernon Sparks, 757-247-4832, email@example.com, on Twitter: @lvernonsparks