January 1, 2012

A Salute to U.S. Armories

Adaptive Use for Former Military Buildings

  • By: Margaret Shakespeare

Once abandoned, the nation's historic armories are being rediscovered and restored.

By its 15th birthday in 2002, Portland Center Stage (PCS) in Oregon had grown up enough to merit its own theater. Long a tenant in the city’s performing arts center, the company was ready for a space with  good acoustics, technical flexibility for scene changes, a stage that wouldn’t swallow intimate plays, unobstructed sightlines, and, oh, a central location.

“Our dream of having our own space got more serious” as PCS searched for a new artistic director, says longtime staff member Creon Thorne. “All the candidates said that [moving PCS forward] was not viable without our own space.” But in Portland’s small urban grid, suitable buildings—an old warehouse or an abandoned auditorium, for example—were scarcer than actors who avoid the spotlight.

That is, until the Romanesque Revival armory at the edge of the Pearl District landed in the theater company’s lap.   

Built in 1891 for the Oregon National Guard, the 20,000-square-foot armory (an annex to a larger structure) had a history of hosting both military and civilian events. In the 19th century, the Oregon Pioneer Association held reunions there. In the 20th century, thousands filled the drill hall to hear the New York Symphony Orchestra, operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, John Philip Sousa, and to see The Great Train Robbery. It was even used for wrestling matches and rock concerts. Was the armory the ideal venue for a new theater?

Across the continent, in Portland, Maine, businessman Eric Cianchette would have answered that question affirmatively. He’d already proven the versatility of long-overlooked National Guard armories.

In 1984, Cianchette assumed ownership of the 1895 State of Maine Armory in the heart of the city’s port district. Built for the Maine National Guard at a cost of $20,000, the Romanesque behemoth boasted an ornate exterior enlivened by redbrick turrets and a broad arched doorway, all accented with glowing blocks of Deer Isle pink granite. “It was being run as a low-budget warehouse,” Cianchette remembers. “But it was a beautiful building and in an area that was just starting to come of age.” Like its western cousin, the Maine armory was solid, enormous, and prime for reuse. Cianchette, a developer and real estate investor, saw it as the ideal site for a luxury hotel—the Portland Regency. This year his Historic Hotel of America will celebrate its 25th anniversary.

The two Portlands’ structures are part of a growing collection of historic armories that have been reinvented in recent years. Entrepreneurs across the country have restored them as concert halls, entertainment venues, sports arenas, exhibition halls, homeless shelters, libraries, and local government offices. And restoration has often fueled neighborhood revitalization. Once abandoned and overlooked, many of the nation’s armories have become community success stories.

The proliferation of urban armories—dedicated buildings for National Guard unit training and community functions—dates to the 19th century, according to Army National Guard Lt. Col. Don McFadden, chief of the Strategic Plans and Education Branch. “The Civil War draft riots and labor riots of the 19th century spurred construction,” he says. “Armories in this period typically featured a head shed for administrative offices and storage, and a cavernous drill shed for close-order drill and social functions. Particularly in major cities, the armories became showpiece buildings, with regimental armories being the grandest of all.” [See sidebar on p. 38.] Popular castellated forms eventually gave way to smaller-scale Art Nouveau and Art Moderne styles as military needs changed and the Great Depression shrank construction funds. Vast, open-span drill halls became superfluous when realistic field training replaced the shoulder-to-shoulder marching and maneuvers of close-order drill. 

Which left many communities—including Portland, Ore.—with landmarks in limbo.

By the time Portland Center Stage embarked on its site search, Gerding Edlen Development owned the armory. Serendipitously, Bob Gerding was vice chair of the PCS board, and he suggested that theater officials look at the historic structure. “We loved the location. We loved the historic character,” Creon Thorne remembers. “And Bob said he thought he could help with the financing and politics of it all, because it was a stretch.”

Indeed. How could the troupe adapt 20,000 square feet of armory space into at least 50,000 square feet of versatile theatrical space? How could crews attain the dual goals of preservation and sustainability? And once plans had been made to excavate almost 30 feet for an experimental theater and build a box within the armory shell for the main theater, how could they get all the deconstruction and reconstruction materials in and out of the existing, narrow doorways?

“That was problematic,” recalls Bruce Brown, a principal at GBD Architects, the firm that led the design team in the remodeling of the armory. “It was like building a ship in a bottle. The doors at each end of the building measured about 8 to 10 feet square. Excavation equipment, excavated soil, concrete, structural steel—everything had to pass through those doors.” It was a memorable logistical challenge for the contractor.

As part of the rehabilitation, construction crews integrated seismic strengthening elements and added acoustic isolation so that even loud noises outside, such as sirens, could not be heard by audiences. “We were very constrained inside,” Brown says, “but ended up with not one ounce of unused space.” The necessary additional 30,000 square feet was created by excavating and finishing space below ground and adding a mezzanine as well as a new third floor on top of the existing structure. The completed armory incorporates a 600-seat main stage, a 200-seat studio stage, offices, and costume and rehearsal space, all within a historic facility retrofitted with state-of-the-art mechanical and energy management systems.

The design team did face some unexpected hurdles—particularly the integration of lighting systems. The U.S. Green Building Council awards LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points for natural lighting, but landmark-status restrictions didn’t permit the addition of windows in the original masonry walls. The only way to bring in natural light was through new skylights—a total of 42—in the barrel roof. “The Park Service said that wouldn’t be appropriate,” recalls Patrick Wilde, vice president at Gerding Edlen, who was project manager for the 24 months of construction. “We had to make several trips to the East Coast to Washington to explain how we would make them less impactful.” Changing those minds was “a big win for the project,” he says.

In Maine, Eric Cianchette says the challenges he faced were equally daunting. The armory was owned by “a cantankerous, frugal owner” and was unheated and filled with pigeons and broken glass. “He’d converted it into a warehouse, and just wouldn’t spend any money on it,” Cianchette says. He took a chance and proposed a swap: He’d construct a new building with truck access and office space at a cost of approximately $1 million and give it to the owner. In exchange, he’d take title to the armory. The proposal worked, and Cianchette took possession of the historic property in 1984.

Before evicting the pigeons, he entered a protracted period of negotiations with the city to secure the necessary permits, and took on a partner who hired a design and construction team. Cianchette says that one of his chief roles in the development process was making sure “the historic details weren’t disturbed.” Guest rooms were situated on the second, third, and fourth floors of the castle end, which was otherwise left much the way it had been. A restaurant, lounge, ballroom, and spa fill the former drill hall to the rear. “Some of the original glass is still in the windows. We retained the lobby stairs,” he says, and complemented them with new handrails.

The permitting process was rigorous, he says, particularly regarding the front door. He eventually received permission to build a circular court in front of the armory, and returned the granite steps that originally led to the lobby. (The previous owner had “lopped them off to create a truck dock,” Cianchette says.) After making inquiries around the neighborhood, Cianchette located the original 1895 dedication plaque and restored that to the building.

Twenty-five years after the Regency opened, it remains a neighborhood anchor and a catalyst for the rejuvenation of other historic buildings downtown. “The whole area had been designated to be wiped out by urban renewal,” Cianchette recalls. “Today it is Old Port, a tourist magnet for this part of Maine. And the hotel is smack dab in the middle of it.”

Although some armories, including those in the two Portlands, are shuttered or neglected for years, awaiting demolition or rescue, others are snapped up and adapted as soon as the military strings are cut.

 The Newburgh, N.Y., armory, designed by architect William Haugaard, with a cornerstone laid by Gov. Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1931, was relinquished in 2010. Almost immediately, the state offered it to the economically challenged city on the Hudson River for $1.

Newburgh philanthropist William Kaplan had long envisioned establishing a community center for local youths—a much-needed amenity in a city struggling with poverty and a high crime rate. When he learned that the armory was available, he sought the collaboration of local organizations—including Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh and two local colleges, SUNY Orange and Mount Saint Mary—and pledged $500,000 over five years from the Elaine and William Kaplan Family Private Foundation to make the center a reality. Others jumped on board, including CSArch, a local architecture firm; W. Chris Hawkins, a volunteer engineer; and unions with apprenticeship programs offering in-kind services. 

“Our dedication was November 26, 2010,” says Deirdre Glenn, the community center’s president and CEO. “In January 2011, we held our first board meeting, and by March we had nonprofit status.” Basketball and soccer programs started in early 2011, averaging 500 kids a week, with volunteers literally dodging balls to apply fresh coats of paint and stencil “Newburgh Armory Unity Center” in big blue letters on the recently finished gym floor.

Structurally sound, the armory suffered only minor damage from the recent East Coast earthquake, which cracked the ceiling in a former munitions room, and from Hurricane Irene, which revealed weak spots in the roof. “But we think we can do with patches,” Glenn says, mindful of her shoestring budget, projected at less than $5 million. The drill hall, its barrel-vaulted roof reminiscent of European train sheds, will become a multi-use space for athletics and community events. “We won’t be able to get by on nonprofit fees and grants,” she says, “so we plan to rent space for events.”

Just as residents of the two Portlands dared to convert dreams into reality, Newburgh is meeting its future by recycling some of the past.

Margaret Shakespeare lives in New York City and on the North Fork of Long Island, where she is working on her own restoration project.

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