Walking the urban landscape of New York, one comes upon buildings of different styles and periods—one of the great joys of living in an older city. Even in this wildly varied landscape the armories stand out. One can walk down a row of modest apartment houses and, turning the corner, confront one of these massive structures looming like an apparition from the middle ages.
I had never seen an armory until I moved from the flat sprawl of my western city to Brooklyn, and at first had little sense of their connection to the life of New York. I quickly learned their origins, but for a long time never entered one, and so they retained a mythic quality for me.
In intervening years, I have had the opportunity to enter these impressive spaces to attend art events or sports activities, and this year, for early voting. Recently, I heard a patron reminisce with fond nostalgia about attending boxing matches in a Brooklyn armory and I became interested in their story, particularly their transformation from military to civilian uses. What follows is not comprehensive documentation, but a selective jaunt through the evolution of our Brooklyn armories.
In the early years of the Republic, there was suspicion of standing armies and an inclination to rely on volunteer militias. Samuel Adams, in a letter to James Warren (1776) wrote:
“A standing Army, however necessary it may be at some times, is always dangerous to the Liberties of the People. Soldiers are apt to consider themselves as a Body distinct from the rest of the Citizens …” (Samuel Adams Heritage Society).
These scattered groups of volunteers owned their weapons and stored them at home, or in the rented locked rooms of public buildings. They gathered where they could find space in warehouses, barns, taverns, and the top floors of markets, and when needing to drill, used public spaces like the village square.
Despite the important role militias played in the antebellum period, during the Civil War, and in the 1863 Draft Riots, there was still much opposition to building new armories—mostly on fiscal, but also on philosophical grounds. When Henry Ward Beecher gave an address at the laying of the cornerstone of a new armory on July 4, 1858—a year that had seen a surge in armory construction—he displayed some ambivalence towards the enterprise. At a time of growing political divisions on the brink of war, he argued for trust in the citizens.
" … [O]ur armories are not the places where the soldiery congregate to beat down the spirit of freedom and coerce obedience from unwilling citizens, … Our armories are all along the streets! – Wherever we shall find fathers educating their children, ‘there are the best drill sergeants, the best soldiers.’ Virtuous, well-educate families are our armories. "
Twenty years later, Beecher’s feelings about the militia had evidently changed, when he accepted the chaplainship of the 13th regiment at Flatbush Avenue and Hanson Place.
Building the Armories
Despite some strong opposition, Brooklyn proved itself more willing than many large cities to build armories, with seven completed or expanded between the 1870s-1890s, and four more in the early years of the 20th century. Contemporary events helped to fuel this enthusiasm: news of the 1871 Paris Commune and ongoing labor-capital unrest throughout the last quarter of the century, including railroad strikes in 1877 and 1895, gave rise to fears of class warfare and revolution. It needs to be said that many of the strikers had legitimate grievances, having had their wages cut by their corporate employers.
“The strike among the stevedores and grain shovelers in South Brooklyn, on account of reduction of five cents an hour in their wages, has assumed a formidable and threatening aspect.”
The strikers had many supporters among the population, including the police forces, which only served to bolster arguments in favor of a state force.
Fears of civil unrest helped supporters make the case for larger militia units and the purpose-built structures that could serve their needs of storage, drilling and socializing.
Most of Brooklyn’s early armories (Gothic Hall being the exception) were designed in architectural styles reminiscent of other civic buildings.
In time, the armories were built not only with functional elegance in mind, but as objects of political communication. Their European castellated style, imposing scale, and impregnable construction served both to intimidate and engender confidence and pride, depending on your social position.
What is a Fortress For? Beak-Busting and Beyond
The newly built armories were first limited to military purposes: arms storage, drilling, military reviews, welcoming visiting dignitaries, and the recreational and team-building activities of the units. But as the needs of the city changed, so did the nature of the armories. Energetic debates took place over when they should be used for non-military purposes and by whom.
A large proportion of the Eagle’s coverage of the armories involved sporting events featuring a single unit, competitions with other regiments and professional or school matches, with vociferous disagreements over certain sports’ access to the facilities. Precisely because sports were ubiquitous I have focused with a few exceptions on non-sporting events, though I did like the language in one article [Brooklyn Eagle sports, May 16, 1952, p. 16] about whether the armories should be used for independent boxing that calls it … “the beak-busting business.”
What follows are profiles of our Brooklyn armories in order of construction, some of the many functions they have served historically, and how they are being used up to our present day.
Brooklyn’s First Permanent Facility for its Militia
1830s: Gothic Hall at Adams Street was known to serve Brooklyn’s 13th and 14th regiments. According to New York’s Historic Armories by Nancy Todd (hereafter NYHA) this was an older building “fitted up as an armory” and later destroyed by fire in 1882. Even though many of the early armories looked like other civic buildings, this one happened to be done in the castellated style that later became the prevailing architecture for armories until the 20th century.
1858: Henry Street Armory at Cranberry Street. This structure was built for Brooklyn’s local units, and demolished in 1930 (NYHA, p. 55). A handsome photo of the Henry Street site heads the essay on the National Guard in The Eagle and Brooklyn.
The Brooklyn Daily Eagle often reported doings at the various armories, and one of those about the Henry Street armory introduced me to a new noun: the “sociable.”
“Local clowns … promise to be unusually funny.”
1858: The State Arsenal, Second Division. North Portland Avenue and Auburn Place. This armory was later replaced by the Brooklyn Arsenal in Sunset Park, completed in 1926.
Some of the first events at the armories open to the public were reviews of a unit’s readiness and pomp, or benefits for operations. Here is an example of this unit’s first “regular entertainment,” a circus to raise money for Trooop C’s country club on Long Island.
“For the benefit of those sorely taxed to pay for it.”
1872-73: Clermont Ave, between Myrtle and Willoughby in Clinton Hill. 23rd Regiment. This armory was substantially renovated in 1911 and now houses apartments.
On July 2, 1873, we have an example of the kind of dispute that appears often in the Eagle, where an outside entity requests to rent and a debate ensues as to the legality or appropriateness of renting armories for non-military uses. Here the officers of the 23rd regiment decide to veto the use of the armory on legal grounds despite the rank and file’s willingness to rent to the Industrial Institute exposition.
Some of these disputes hinge on the perceived worthiness of an organization or cause as in this 1921 example involving wrestling. Here the writer gets the opportunity to express some very pungent opinions about the legitimacy of wrestling as a sport.
“It’s thumbs down against the wrestlers. They have got to wrestle on the square or else hie themselves to some other grazing ground where the grass grows longer than it does in New York. They tried to break into the armories, but have been barred out. … the men of brawn and muscles can take their … phoney [sic] exhibitions to the tall timbers where the unsophisticated imagine they are witnessing and honest-to-goodness bout …"
“Lifted to the social plane of the horse show”
1874-75: Flatbush Avenue and Hanson Place. 13th regiment.
This facility was built to accommodate the 13th regiment after it outgrew the Henry Street armory. Being at the terminus of the LIRR would have been very convenient for shipping arms, but the location may also have hastened this building’s demise.
The armory collapsed, with fatalities, in 1903, and the building was razed to make way for an expansion of the LIRR, now the site of Atlantic Terminal.
In happier days, it hosted cycle shows and roller skating aimed at the “smart set.”
2,500 Besiege WPA Job Fair
1883-84: 355 Marcy Avenue, between Heyward and Lynch streets, Williamsburg. 47th regiment.
This armory was built on a site of baseball fields and the beloved ice skating site, Union Pond. During the Depression, the Marcy Avenue Armory hosted a WPA job fair attended by thousands.
According to the Daily News from July 28, 2014, the Williamsburg armory is owned by the state and a coveted rental for movie productions and neighborhood religious groups.
The Giant Milk Bottle: 40+ Years of Food Shows
1892-94: Sumner Avenue on Marcus Garvey Boulevard in Bedford-Stuyvesant. 13th regiment.
The Sumner Avenue armory hosted many public events, including circuses, model plane shows, and over 40 years of food fairs. I would love to discover a photograph of the giant milk bottle. Today it serves as the Pamoja House homeless shelter.
Separation of church and state
1891-95: 1322 Bedford Avenue at Atlantic Avenue in Crown Heights. 23rd regiment and 106th infantry.
The 23rd regiment armory hosted, among other events: elections, auto shows and boxing matches to benefit Catholic Big Sisters which gave rise to disputes about armories being barred from religious uses. It now houses a homeless shelter.
Red Cross feels sorry for thieves of dummy sandwiches
1891-95: 14th regiment armory on 8th Avenue in Park Slope, between 14th and 15th Streets.
From the many events hosted at the Park Slope armory comes a curious story from the 1950 food fair. Today the armory is being used by the Prospect Park YMCA, and served as an early voting site in 2019.
Mixed-Use Community Hub To Come
1903-07: 1579 Bedford Avenue between Union and President Streets, Crown Heights. Troop C armory.
The Bedford and Union armory, with its impressive drill hall, is in the process of being renovated for a mixed-use community hub, with affordable housing and a sports complex.
Home to the Signalman: Cutting Edge Communicators
1909-11: 801 Dean Street armory, between Washington Avenue and Grand Avenue. Second Signal Corps/3rd Gatling Battery.
Some of our best photographs of this building demonstrate the usefulness of, and the differences between, the 1940 and 1980 tax photographs available from the Municipal Archives.
An article about the Dean Street Signal Corps gives some fascinating details of late 19th century communications technology.
Dean Street was site of the Crown Heights Boxing Association, as can be seen in the 1980 municipal tax photo. Today it is home to the Nigerian-American Muslim Integrated Community Center.
The Last Armory
1926: Second Ave, between 64th and 65th Streets in Sunset Park, formerly called the Bay Ridge Arsenal. Second Battalion, Naval Militia.
With this last Brooklyn armory, we see an evolution from the castellated form to a style ubiquitous in the 1920s: Art Deco. This site brings our history of the Brooklyn armories full circle: a building type that started as military storage has been repurposed for commercial storage. Its spare elegance is now hidden behind metal cladding like some landlocked Monitor, lying in wait to be revealed to the appreciation of future Brooklynites. With their military past behind them, these surviving armory structures, built over almost 100 years, will continue to serve a changing Brooklyn in novel ways.
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Jim Tully Jr.
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