CASTLES IN THE CITY - ARMORIES OF NEW YORK, NY
A city as old as New York contains layer upon layer of building types, each exhibiting its own architectural and social histories. Distinctive structures are therefore fairly pedestrian in that they are all around, popping up in the midst of indistinguishable rows of sameness that have their own charm. Turning a corner to see a castle, however, may not seem one of the more likely occurrences, regardless of your location on bustling Park Avenue or a quiet Hasidic Williamsburg block.
Armories and arsenals – generally massive masonry structures fashioned in the medieval Gothic style of fortresses (parapets and turrets included) – are scattered throughout the city. The WPA Guide to New York City mentions many armories briefly, four for their 50-cent badminton rates and others for their resident regiments’ performance in this or that war, though it definitely does not serve as a comprehensive source for the building form. In the 1930s, armories were noted pieces of a community, at once social clubs for men of the upper and upper-middle classes, training grounds for the State’s National Guard divisions, and symbols of government and military might that also sometimes doubled as civic centers. Today, their uses vary widely, as do their states of (dis)repair. In the current economy, one would have a hard time justifying the contemporary construction of such monumental structures on some of the most valuable real estate in the world. But these were quite expensive to construct back in the day as well, which begs the questions of why they were built initially and how these elephant-in-the-city holdovers from a previous era are being used today.
Wanting a bit more information on these behemoths designed to house guns and the people authorized to use them, I stumbled on the NY State Military Museum’s listing of still-existing and long-demolished armories across the state. This resource, coupled with Nancy Todd’s New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History, gave me the bones of a plan to jaunt around the city and visit a few. Todd’s situation of form’s rise in the state within the larger context of the militia in the country’s history is fascinating. To paraphrase greatly, the state militias went from the military force of the colonies and newly minted states to a fairly equal partner with the centralized military, largely focused on domestic unrest, to a group of trained folks that serve overseas and scramble to action when disasters strike at home.
Armories grew in popularity when the state National Guard became a serious force. With industrialization giving rise to class inequality that seems quaint by today’s standards, labor-capital conflicts exploded in the 1870s to the 1890s and the National Guard – rallying out from its urban (and rural) castles – was the group that quashed the riots. The Guard’s consequence among the moneyed classes during that time figured prominently in the construction of more homes for Guard regiments across the city.
The reserve force we know today, which in the City rallied (to name only two instances) post-Sandy and post-9/11 for significant relief efforts, no longer requires structures from which to withstand siege. (Whether the necessity ever truly existed is a very valid question.) Largely beginning in the late 1960s, armories began to fall out of use by the Guard, sometimes due to the cost of upkeep when balanced against the true need for the structures. Ownership of some was transferred to the City, others maintained by the State, some to private groups, and most falling into some sort of disrepair. Many remain in such condition, though some have been repurposed, and plans are in the works for others to be put back to use.
The Central Park Arsenal at 5th Ave. and 64th St. is the oldest of the bunch I visited (constructed in 1848), and one of two structures within Vaux and Olmsted’s great park that predate its creation. As an arsenal, it was largely a warehouse for arms and over time saw many uses, including as a police precinct, a menagerie, the first home of the American Museum of Natural History, and, since Robert Moses assumed its helm in 1934, the City Department of Parks and Recreation.
To bring the regiments off of parade grounds into a weatherized space, the state moved away from the construction of simply arsenals to armories, which generally include an administrative structure, complete with fancy rooms in which cigar smoking would seem a fitting activity, backed by a massive drill shed used for military exercises. Todd calls the Seventh Regiment Armory, known also as the Park Avenue Armory, the “flagship of the building type” and dedicates a whole chapter in her book to its history. Sitting on Park Ave. between 66th and 67th, the 1880 building strikes a powerful image, thanks in part to its rehabilitation as the performance arts space it is today. The massive drill shed, the roof of which is held up by eleven wrought-iron arches, now hosts a range of performances. The space is so large as to permit feats like the reconstruction of an entire four-story theater in the round for a run of performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011 (with ample space left over). The building’s management was not too keen on allowing me to take photos, so take a look at the armory’s interior here.
In the midst of one the nation’s largest Hasidic Jewish populations in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, sits the Forty-Seventh Regiment Armory at Marcy Ave. between Heyward and Lynch Streets. The juxtaposition between the Yiddish-speaking community, their school buses parked alongside the imposing brick walls of the armory, and the building itself makes for a particularly curious scene. Built in 1884 and expanded in 1899 (thus bringing together two different architectural styles utilized in the form), the space is used for major movie filming. I snuck a glance inside at the construction of sets for Spiderman 3, but again, no luck in a thorough look at the interior. Still owned by the State but promoted by the City as part of its Made in NYC film initiative, there has been talk of late of the sale of building, and the rapidly expanding Hasidic community seems first in line to purchase it for school and community space.
The Fort Washington Avenue Armory, which sits between 168th and 169th streets in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, was constructed in 1911. After the National Guard regiment vacated the space, the city operated a homeless shelter in the drill hall from the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it did with a vast number of armories across the five boroughs. The armory now serves as a track and field center hosting area races as well as Olympic qualifying events, a track and field hall of fame, and community center. Oddly, despite being heavily renovated to accommodate the sloping turf surface of the track, it maintains an interior purpose not unlike that of the old drill sheds. The stands that now host supporters of the athletes racing around the track below may have more modern seats, but they look out from the same vantage point the people of the city would have had when surveying troops in full regalia. Some original flooring, molding, and stairways also remain.
Walking into the 369th Regiment Armory in Harlem on 5th Ave. between 142nd and 143rd, I was promptly sized up by a camo-wearing guardsman. While the drill shed, built in 1924, is now used by the Harlem Children’s Zone, the administrative block, completed in 1933, is still home to the regiment that gives its name to the structure: originally the only black regiment in New York City and nicknamed the Harlem Hell Fighters. Built long after the boom in armory construction in the late 19th century, the 369th has a distinct style, incorporating many art-deco features in its floors and molding. Alas, I was asked to leave before I could snap photos, and the exterior is currently undergoing a restoration, but at the very least the thick, iron-girded doors are something to behold.
Much can be said about the architectural features and styles that define armories across the city, as could be about their changing uses and ownership. Fortunately, they will not likely be going anywhere soon, as most are either landmarked by the City or on the National Register of Historic Places.
To see how we utilize these spaces, designed for an entirely different function but no less useful for our own purposes today, provides a curious case study in adaptive reuse in a time when significant buildings are all too often slated for destruction, victims of real estate money-making schemes, or a lack of creativity in adapting their spaces. Armories also serve as a reminder of the past militarization of cities in a time when our police forces are increasingly equipped with technology and trained in tactics previously reserved for the professional federal military. Which makes me think: we are still building armories and arsenals in the city today. They do not, however, double as a social club relatively open to the outside or treat the eye to an anachronistic image of a castle out of medieval times, situated just around the corner from your local bodega.
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JONATHAN TARLETON is a State Guide to New York. He was schooled in Georgia and North Carolina before moving on to denser pastures in Brooklyn. He currently helps out at Urban Omnibus where he researches and writes about the policy, art, peculiarities, and movements that make New York City so enticingly combative. He likes to be outside and to make things, preferably concurrently. Follow him on Tumblr at jttarleton.tumblr.com.