Chicagoans, To Armories!

31 Jan

Yes, I’ve still got armories on the brain.

New York's Seventh Regiment Armory. Photo by Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS)

Back in September 2011, I saw a great talk at Chicago’s Driehaus Museum on the Seventh Regiment (“Park Avenue”) Armory, designed by architect Charles Clinton and built on New York’s Upper East Side in 1880.  Architecture and design historian Chelsea Bruner gave a riveting presentation on this legendary building whose architecture and interiors were then and still are truly too incredible to believe.  Among the members of the Seventh Regiment who occupied the Armory were the sons of some of New York’s wealthiest and most powerful families, and that wealth and power can be read both in the citadel-like facade and in the luxurious common and company rooms furnished by exclusive American design firms like Associated Artists, Herter Brothers, Kimbel & Cabus, Louis C. Tiffany & Company, Marcotte & Company, Pottier & Stymus, and Alexander Roux (a freelance Stanford White also made his mark).  Currently in the works is a Herzog & DeMeuron-designed rehab of the Armory, one that plans to leave the remarkable Aesthetic style interiors intact.

I’ve already written a bit on Chicago’s nineteenth- and early twentieth-century armories and the role these imposing buildings played in the city’s early years as fortresses against raucous labor unrest, as venues for community (and sometimes regional and even national) athletic and social events, and as local landmarks that gave Chicago’s neighborhoods pride and identity.

Chcago's First Regiment Armory. Image credit Lake County Discovery Museum Collectons.

None of Chicago’s  surviving armories can claim that special kind of interior architectural spectacle that New York’s Seventh Regiment Armory can.  Still, we can claim a heritage of pretty astounding armory architecture.  Probably the best example of Chicago’s large armory complexes was the South Loop’s First Regiment Armory,  completed in 1890, constructed in the aftermath of and in response to the violence of the city’s 1886 Haymarket Riot.  Designed by Burnham & Root, the First Regiment Armory was built to protect of the city’s wealthy Prairie Avenue set, often the target of worker rage.  The Armory’s high thick walls could hold weaponry, men, and, if needed in times of real crisis, hundreds of Chicago’s wealthiest citizens.  The need for such desperate last-resort protection never arose and instead Chicago’s upper crust often enjoyed the Armory as the venue for some of the city’s most exclusive social events.  Long empty and neglected, the First Regiment Armory was demolished in 1967.

The Winter Garden Ice Rink before it became the "Broadway Armory." Image credit Chuckman's Collection.

Built a generation after the South Loop Armory, Chicago’s Fourth Regiment Armory at 5917 N. Broadway actually got it start as an entertainment hall.  Designed by architects Carpenter & Weldon and completed in 1916, the Winter Garden Ice Rink had a long column-free body with a flamboyant Baroque style stone entrance pavilion at its north end, and was to be the Edgewater community’s premier destination for warm-weather dancing and winter ice-skating.

Or at least that was the intended purpose for the Winter Garden Ice Rink building.  In fact, it is not clear whether the rink ever hosted dancers or skaters at all.  At the start of America’s involvement in World War I in 1917, just one year after its completion, the property was purchased by the federal government and outfitted as the Fourth Regiment Armory, its rink/dance floor quickly converted into a company drill hall.  For much of its life, the public rarely got a look inside the “Broadway Armory,” though like many such facilities, they were sometimes opened for community use.  Today the Armory is owned by the Chicago Park District and Chicagoans can finally enjoy the space as the recreation center it was built to be.

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