Stephen Chambers, Dallas architect, recently visited the historic restoration of Fort Davis, a treasure of the National Park Service. In the book, Texas Public Buildings of the 19th Century, Steve's favorite Texas Tech architecture professor, Willard B. Robinson, writes that the military played an enormous role in civilizing the wilderness, as well as having a spontaneous influence on the general development of communities in the state of Texas. Fort Davis is an exceptional example of these stations and is considered one of the best remaining examples of a frontier military post in the American Southwest.
Named for Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, the post was located in a box canyon near Limpia Creek on the eastern side of the Davis Mountains, where weather remained fairly temperate and wood, water, grass, and building stone were plentiful. From 1854 until 1891, the fort’s import in history was as a key ‘Indian’ post to defend emigrants, mail and freight coaches, and travelers along the main route from El Paso to San Antonio, Texas. When the National Park Service acquired the property in 1962, neglect, vandalism, and the weather had already taken their toll on this national historical treasure.
Regardless of terrain, the layout of all these posts had similar arrangements, recalling plans of Roman military camps. Fort Davis follows the pattern: the most important buildings with their balanced forms and symmetrical openings face ‘the parade,’ demonstrating the desire for order in this rough country. According to Professor Robinson, in the late 1860s "an ambitious program of permanent stone construction was undertaken. Among the buildings to be built wholely or partially of limestone from a nearby quarry were the officers' quarters on the west side of the parade. By 1870 four of these had been built of limestone and the remainder were adobe." Similar to other posts in hot arid climates, the Fort Davis buildings have walls of stone and adobe, both durable and good insulation from the heat and cold.
Today, entering the restored barracks, it looks as though soldiers just walked outside to answer a bugle for morning roll call. Lining the walls are 26 bunks painted with a green, copper-based paint believed to repel insects and reduce infection. At the foot of each bunk hangs the name of a soldier living in the narrow horizontal barracks in the summer of 1884. Private Clagget’s bunk is illustrative of the post soldier’s life. His regulation gray blanket lies perfectly centered with box-folded edges. His blue cap rests squarely on a stiff pillow. A well-used bugle stands on the shelf above an adjacent bunk. Clagget was an older soldier, assigned the bunk near a large open window and a stove in recognition of his long-tenured service to the U.S. Army. A poker table with game cards laid out can still be seen beside the barracks fireplace.
The infirmary, currently in mid-restoration status, primarily cared for soldiers with tuberculosis, accidents, and attempted homicides, which took a significantly higher toll on troops than hostile tribes of Native Americans. According to historical records, some soldiers drank potent sotol and mescal, the liquor of indigenous plants, fueling many fights over gambling and women. Boredom may have been another source of soldier-upon-soldier conflict. One private writes in his journal, “I got tired of looking mules in the face from sunrise to sunset…thought there must be a better livin’ in this world.”
Ft. Davis remains, at the foot of "Sleeping Lion Mountain," as the best-preserved 19th-century military post in the Southwest. This is largely, in our opinion, to the use os locally quarried limestone. Its sensitive restoration allows visitors an opportunity to step into a time and place where a nation struggled to establish and maintain its identity. On this post, U.S. military forces attempted to mitigate bitter conflicts among Native Americans, freed slaves, frontiersmen and their families, emigrants, and opportunistic bandits, while at the same time attempting to preserve the founding beliefs of a young democracy. It reminds architects, particularly those engaged in historic preservation, of the role that built environments play in demonstrating our shared stories.