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Military housing finds new life as condominium development, prison camp

Duluth's Aspenwood Condominiums have served a wide array of residents.

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The Aspenwood Condominiums off Arrowhead Road were built in 1960 to provide housing for U.S. Air Force base personnel. After the base closed in 1982, it was used as student housing by the University of Minnesota Duluth. A private company purchased it in 1986 and converted it to condominiums. This picture is from September 1997. (Josh Meltzer / News Tribune)
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The U.S. Air Force constructed 60 buildings in 1960, providing 240 units of housing for military personnel at its Duluth base. At the time, the development was known as the Capehart Housing Area.

It occupies 114 acres of land below Arrowhead Road, accessed off Selfridge Drive.

For a short while, 5th District City Councilor Janet Kennedy’s family called Capehart home. Her late father, William Arnold Kennedy, a Korean War veteran, served in the Air Force. She said it was that service that first brought her family and many other people of color to Duluth.

“We have a lot of African heritage families who are here just for that reason. They were military migrants,” Kennedy said. “There was a sense of community. We were all pretty connected through the air base.”

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This shot of an Air Force plane flying over Duluth was taken in the 1960s or 1970s. (File / News Tribune)

When the Air Force closed its Duluth base in 1982, Capehart emptied out. The base closure, combined with the deactivation of a local air defense computer operation, eliminated about 1,375 jobs and dealt a painful economic blow to the community at a time when it was already reeling from U.S. Steel Corp.’s decision to shutter its mill in Gary-New Duluth. The Duluth base had an annual payroll of about $30 million.

In “Locating Air Force Base Sites: History’s Legacy,” Frederick J. Shaw wrote that Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara “emphasized efficiency and cutting waste in the defense establishment,” during his tenure from 1961-68.

“Coupled with changing defense needs based on technological developments in weapon systems and a new strategic focus under President John F. Kennedy, this emphasis led to massive base closures not seen since the end of World War II,” Shaw noted. From 1961-72, the number of U.S. Air Force installations in the continental U.S. declined from 152 to 112.

Duluth’s base survived those cuts but was one of a handful of additional Air Force bases to close in the 1980s, joining the ranks of Fort Lee, Virginia and Hancock Field, New York.

Despite the departure of the U.S. Air Force, the 148th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard has maintained a military presence in Duluth.

Following the base closure, the University of Minnesota Duluth briefly converted Capehart to student housing, but in 1986 the school was outbid by a New Hampshire businessman, who offered $3.9 million to purchase the property from the U.S. government’s General Services Administration.

After sprucing up the place, the new owner remarketed Capehart in 1989 as Aspenwood, one of the city’s first condominium developments.

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Barracks off U.S. Highway 53 that previously housed about 100 airmen in Duluth also found new life in 1983, when the facilities were converted to a minimum-security federal prison camp.

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The Federal Prison Camp in Duluth. (Photo courtesy of Federal Bureau of Prisons)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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