They once served as depots, social clubs and even parade grounds for National Guardsmen. Today, they host sporting events, fashion shows and large-scale art installations.
They are New York’s armories, the imposing brick fortresses that take up entire city blocks. Over the past 200-plus years, 120 armories have been built in New York State, according to a book on that very subject, “New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History.”
Most of the armories in the city were built in the late 19th century, when the role of the National Guard expanded to include maintaining the peace in the aftermath of the Civil War. Park Avenue Armory, arguably New York’s most elegant armory, was erected in 1879, making it the state’s first armory. In those days, the armories acted as military facilities, clubhouses and public monuments. Guardsmen were able to do drills year-round in the large enclosed halls, practice shooting in basement rifle ranges and use the attached administrative offices for meetings or for recreational activities like swimming or bowling.
Although most armories still maintain a small military presence for administrative and recruitment purposes, they are evolving more and more into full-time cultural arts centers, where New Yorkers can enjoy everything from avant-garde performance art to dodgeball games.
Here’s a look at three armories that are among the city’s busiest:
Park Avenue Armory
Park Avenue and E. 67th St., Manhattan
With names like Roosevelt and Vanderbilt among its ranks, the membership of the Seventh Regiment of the National Guard was made up of New York’s Gilded Age elite. The Regiment’s tastes were reflected in the sumptuous armory they built on Park Avenue. The New York Philharmonic played at the Armory’s dedication ceremony and Louis Comfort Tiffany designed several of the building’s ornate interiors.
Park Avenue Armory’s 50,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall has hosted antique shows and art auctions, but more recently that space has been a platform for large-scale cultural events. During the summer of 2011, the space hosted a full-scale replica of the Royal Shakespeare Company theater at Stratford-upon-Avon in England. Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda recently installed a massive piece in the space. Later this year, the Park Avenue Armory will host the high-flyers of the Streb Action Intervention Lab and the final performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
The Armory is currently undergoing renovations to its exterior which are expected to be completed in 2012.
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“Treasures of New York: Park Avenue Armory,” presented by Morley Safer. The documentary features interviews with composer Philip Glass as well as Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the Pritzker Prize-winning architects behind the Armory’s multi-million dollar renovation.
Park Slope Armory
361 15th St., Brooklyn
The 14th Brooklyn Regiment Armory, better known as the Park Slope Armory, was completed in 1893. In early 2010, the armory re-opened with an updated recreation center that includes an indoor track in addition to other facilities. This armory is also rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a veteran who died before his deployment in World War I. The YMCA that operates out of the renovated space offers a wide range of programming to Brooklynites, including guitar lessons and drawing classes.
The Park Slope Armory underwent a $16 million renovation that ended in early 2010. It now operates as a recreation center for area residents and nearby public schools that lack gymnasium facilities. Produced by Michelle Michalos for The City Concealed.
69th Regiment Armory
Lexington Avenue at E. 25th St., Manhattan
You may have seen camouflage Hummers parked outside this armory. Aside from being an active National Guard base and recruitment center, the 69th Regiment Armory has also hosted a wide range of cultural and social events. The 1913 New York Armory Show is considered the birth of modern art in America. The show marked a U.S. debut for Picasso, Matisse and the Cubist style. The drill hall was home to several roller derbys in the late 1940s and the Knicks also played several games there in the 1950s. In 1996, Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow played a concert there and, more recently, Victoria’s Secret models have strutted on a runway. But bringing fashion to the space apparently came with a price: In 2008, a state employee at the armory was accused of soliciting bribes from fashion designer Marc Jacobs in return for allowing him to hold his fashion shows there.
CBS reports on the transformation of the 69th Regiment Armory into a runway for a Victoria’s Secret show. Video courtesy of CBS.