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Ft. Totten historian readies for Parks Department work

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Fort Totten historian Jack Fein has begun packing up thousands of pieces of military memorabilia in the fort's museum in anticipation of a city Parks Department site safety and improvement project slated to begin in earnest this fall.

The Civil War-era fort was decommissioned by the U.S. Army in 1995, and the city is slowly acquiring the land to be used as a park and a Fire Department training ground.

A $17 million revitalization plan conceived in 1999 will begin its first phase this fall, said Lucile Helfat, chairwoman of the Northeast Queens Nature and Historical Preserve Commission.

The goal of the project is to stabilize and beautify the 14-acre section of Totten known as the "Old Fort," which includes the Water Battery, a 270-foot tunnel, 12 large chambers and the Ordnance Building, the current home of the Fort Totten Museum.

"It'll be bigger and better than ever," said Fein, who has moved about 40 percent of his collection of photographs, maps and documents "here, there and everywhere" for safekeeping around the fort.

The revamped fort will contain explanatory signage, handrails, lighting, paving and improved landscaping, said Helfat.

Funding for the first phase of work, expected to cost $675,000, was secured by state Sen. Frank Padavan (R-Bellerose) and the Queens Borough President's office.

The renovations by design firm DuBerry & Goodkind will leave Totten "mainly looking as it was in the 1860s without too much enhancement," said Helfat.

The second phase of the Old Fort enhancement will transform Fein's museum into a visitors' center with interpretive signs and a repaved yard, said Helfat.

A Parks spokesman said waterproofing of building structures was part of the plan, a promise Fein hoped would come through since he has been catching water leaking from the museum's century-old roof in a half-dozen orange bins.

"This is a very old building," said Fein. "It's as old as I am!"

Fein, 87, has been giving tours of the museum and speaking to groups about the fort since 1950, and even lived on the fort for some time. He hopes to continue leading tours in some limited fashion even after all his items are packed away.

"It's been quite a job," said Fein, surveying the boxes of objects and jumble of medals, news clippings and photos in the museum's main room that have yet to be put into boxes.

Removal of overgrowth, puddles and weeds, as omnipresent on the Old Fort as Canadian geese, are another goal of making the fort appealing to visitors.

In another development, Parks officials have proposed designating a high-level administrator to supervise Alley Pond Park, Udalls Cove and Fort Totten, said Helfat, who welcomed the idea as a way of expediting communication between Parks and her organization.

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 1-718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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