I’ve been doing a lot of research on early twentieth century Chicago sports architecture, in particular sites where bowlers and billiard players might be found playing a round (did I mention I’ve been studying bowling and billiards?). While purpose-built commercial recreation centers have been fascinating to uncover, I’ve also increasingly become a sucker for the city’s lost all-purpose sports venues, particularly the mammoth armories that once had an important place in Chicago’s architectural and social landscape.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, almost all of Chicago’s neighborhoods would have had one of these sometimes foreboding structures, but despite their overwhelming size, armories served an important purpose in the growing city. Not only did the buildings serve to train reserve troops; their pools and gymnasium facilities were often opened for public use and their large auditorium spaces were frequently used for large-scale events.
One of these great buildings was the 132nd Regiment Armory at 2643 W. Madison, an enormous , a brick and steel pile built in 1916 to serve as a training and recreation facility for fresh army recruits on Chicago’s West Side. With monumental multi-floor facades facing both Madison Street and Monroe Street one block south, the facility, which appeared more like a heavily-fortified palace than a gymnasium, dwarfed most buildings in its vicinity.
Recruits entering the facility under the main entrance arch on Madison found that the Armory was in reality more two structures than one. Just inside, they found a slim three-story structure densely packed with regiment functions: a gymnasium, “two or three big halls, with stages and dressing rooms for parties and entertainments, …fifty or more shower baths, more than thirty club and locker rooms, …revolver and rifle ranges,…and private offices.” But crossing south past the main entrance through a series of glass swinging doors, they entered the Armory’s Drill Hall, a five-story tall cavern of a space covered with a barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by oversized steel trusses. At the vault’s apex, a skylight ran the entire length of the room, allowing sunlight to pour down onto the drill floor, one full square acre of open space ringed by a second-floor spectators gallery that could seat hundreds.
One of the more well-known events held inside the 132nd Regiment Armory was the 1924 American Bowling Congress (A.B.C.) International Tournament. To host this event — it was one of the largest A.B.C. tournaments to be assembled up to that time — a playing floor of twenty-eight temporary lanes was quickly constructed in the Armory’s Drill Hall.
With football, baseball, golf, and swimming occupying most sportsmen’s warmer summer and fall months, bowling and billiards were traditionally seen as wintertime sports. Thus the 1924 A.B.C. Tournament was held in late winter at the end of the indoor sports season, all the better considering the intense heat that might have enveloped the 9,000 participants, not to mention the unrecorded scores of bowling enthusiasts watching from the stands, had the event been held in a hot Chicago summer. The tournament lasted five full weeks and saw over $100,000 awarded in prizes. The excitement of five full weeks of play and the scale of the building that housed it made the twenty-fourth tournament “an epoch making affair in the tenpin world.”
Chicago’s armories were for the most part unlucky during the twentieth century transitions experienced by most Chicago neighborhoods. Most of these important structures have been demolished, among them the 132nd Regiment Armory in West Town.
“A.B.C. Cuts Up its Alleys and Noisily Departs,” Chicago Tribune (March 20, 1924).
“A.B.C.’s Big Bowling Tourney Opens,” Chicago Tribune (February 24, 1924).
“Gala Ceremony as Record A.B.C. Opens Tonight,” Chicago Tribune (February 13, 1924).
“New Armory of 2d Regiment Best in West,” Chicago Tribune (April 15, 1916).
Sanborn Map Company maps.