Fort Smith National Historic Site set to reopen

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 333 views 

The Fort Smith National Historic Site in downtown Fort Smith will reopen the doors Nov. 1 to the visitor center and museum after more than 19 months with reduced occupancy.

Initially closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the visitor center and museum suffered water damage due to a frozen sprinkler head caused by the extended extreme cold temperatures in February.

The frozen sprinkler burst in a third-floor office, said Nissa Mondahl, supervisory park ranger. That office was flooded, and another on the third floor was damaged. Because of gravity, the second and first floors of the building also flooded. There was extreme flooding of the second floor exhibit space, Mondahl said.

“When it happened, everyone got in quickly. We got the exhibits out and to a safe place immediately,” she said.

The majority of the damage was to the wood floors and the drywall, she added. That has all been repaired or replaced. One painting did receive some minor damage and is still at the conservatory. All other exhibit pieces will be back on display when the center reopens, Mondahl said.

“Really I think it just needs a good cleaning now,” she said of the painting.

The first floor also had some flooding, but there was not as extensive damage as that on the second floor, she said. On the first floor gallery area, most of the repair and reconstruction work was limited to plaster work and replacing carpets. Demolition of the affected areas was quickly addressed, and the repair process is complete, a news release said.

The visitors center and museum has evolved over the years. In 1846, it was the enlisted men’s barracks and dining hall, according to the site’s website. It was converted into a courthouse and jail in 1872. A more modern jail was built in 1888. The historic building was renovated and exhibits were added between 1996 and 2000 to make the building more accessible to visitors.

“We are really excited to be open again, to be able to get back out there and get the people back in,” Mondahl said. “There is just something about the power of place, people being able to experience the first and the second jails, see where the barracks were.”

In order to achieve proper social distancing throughout the building, the limited number of visitors inside the building has been set at no more than 35 at one time. In some of the smaller exhibit areas, numbers will be more limited. In the theater for example, only eight visitors can go in at a time.

Hours of operation will be daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park grounds and trails will remain open from 30 minutes before sunrise to thirty minutes after sunset.

“We want to thank everyone for their patience, and we are very excited to open our doors again to the public”, said Park Superintendent Lisa Conard Frost. “Visitors to the site will once again be able experience Fort Smith’s nationally significant history within our historic building, through exhibits and interpretive media.”

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance is in effect at the National Historic Site. Masks are required in all NPS buildings and on all forms of enclosed public transportation, regardless of location or vaccination status. Additionally, masks must be worn in outdoor
spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as narrow or busy trails and overlooks.

“We want to make sure we do everything we can to keep everyone safe,” Mondahl said.