Castle for the People

Henry Degaitas still remembers gym class in the Providence Armory. Every day he and the other kids of Bishop McVinney, a nearby Catholic school, would march over to the corner of Cranston and Dexter, walk through the Armory’s big wooden doors, and make their way to the great drill hall—a 90 foot high, 45,000 square foot room over twice as wide as two football fields. Inside, they ran laps and played touch football while National Guardsmen in full uniform trained alongside them.

Henry owns John’s New York System Wieners, the West End diner famous for its hot dogs. His father, John Degaitas, immigrated to Providence from Greece, and opened the restaurant in 1948. In 1968, John moved the restaurant to its current location, on the southwest Corner of Cranston and Dexter, directly across the street from the Armory. Henry remembers going to boxing matches there, sneaking in through the side door and pushing through the crowd to try and get a glimpse of the ring. He remembers the annual Halloween Ball—or, rather, he remembers walking by it. He was too young and too scared to go inside. He remembers swinging on the ropes that hung down from the flagpoles until “Military guys came runnin’ out, just yelling and yelling at us underneath the flags while we’d run and keeping swinging.” As a kid growing up on the West End in the 1970s, the Armory was the center of Henry’s universe.

The Armory’s two towers loom over the West End—six stories high, their crenellated turrets are trimmed in blue-green copper. In between the two towers is a stretch of building as long as a city block—something like a medieval airplane hangar, with battlements and arrow-slit windows below a vast expanse of black roof. The lower half is built in blocks of rough red granite, and upper half in yellow brick. It feels almost mythical, a castle standing tall against the sky.

The Armory sits on the Southern end of the Dexter Training Grounds, an 11-acre park willed to the City of Providence in 1824 by Ebenezer Knight Dexter, an eccentric businessman and Providence aristocrat. At the time, state militias trained on village greens and fields, so when Dexter willed West Side property to the city he requested that the land be used for military purposes. The Training Ground was the sight of a skirmish during the Dorr War (a short-lived 1841 labor insurrection in Rhode Island), and was used by militias and volunteers during the Civil War as an encampment and drill field.

During the Industrial Revolution, state militias began constructing armories—buildings in which they could store weapons and ammunition, run drills, and have a place to gather instead of bars, storefronts, and town halls. The majority of the men in militias were middle-and-upper class and feared the wrath of angry unionists and laborers. Many of the armories were designed to look like castles, the logic being that their fortress-like appearances would stave off revolts and deter class warfare.

The Providence Armory was built during a second wave of armory construction following the Militia Act of 1903, which reorganized the state militias of America into the National Guard System. Completed in 1907—after nearly six years and a cost of $650,000—it was billed as the brand new home of Rhode Island’s recently formed National Guard.

The structure was designed by William R. Walker & Son, a well-known architectural firm responsible for four other Rhode Island armories and dozens of other noteworthy public buildings around the state—among them what is now the Trinity Repertory Theater and Avon Cinema. It is the largest of Rhode Island’s 18 Armories, measuring 165,300 square feet. For a long time, the drill hall was one of the largest indoor spaces in New England.

Though the National Guard initially opposed the use of the Armory as a public space, a resolution was passed in 1909 allowing the first public event to take place in the drill hall: “The Booming Providence Banquet for Rhode Island Small Businesses”. Over time, it became a de-facto civic center for the entire state. The drill hall was the sight of dog shows and poultry shows, dance performances and political rallies, track meets and circuses. When John Chaffee—Lincoln’s father—was elected Governor in 1962, he threw his gubernatorial ball in the Armory.

In 1981, after supposed structural problems rendered the building unsafe for public use, the Armory’s days as a Civic Center ended for good. The Guard remained in the Armory until 1996, when legislation was passed granting National Guardsthe funding to relocate to new facilities. Apparently, the economic burden of the Armory was too great for the Guard to handle. The building was severely in need of repairs—among them a new roof—and in the five years prior to 1996, the Guard’s operating budget had been more than cut in half. After occupying the building for nearly 90 years, the Rhode Island National Guard moved to a new building in East Greenwich. “You lost customers who had been coming for 20 or 30 years,” Henry says, “In a sense, you know, you lost part of your family.” With the Guard’s departure, the Armory was left empty.

 

Kari Lang fell in love with the Providence Armory when she was 27 years old. She is the executive director of the West Broadway Neighborhood Association (WBNA), an organization founded in 1983 by a group of West End residents who, according to Lang, “didn’t feel like this side of town was getting the attention from the city and state that it deserved.” Its headquarters are in a converted Texaco gas station on the corner of Westminster and Sycamore, across the street from a row of artfully restored Victorian homes. The forces of gentrification—which have changed the face of the West End over the past decade—are visible at this intersection. Lang started working for WBNA in 1996, the same year that the National Guard vacated the Armory. “Here we have this huge, amazing, nationally renowned castle-like structure,” she says, “and it was being totally vacated because of some federal policy that was giving money to National Guards to build new facilities. 90 percent of my job was working with a committee in the state department properties division finding a reuse for the building.”

In 1998, after Rhode Island passed legislation offering film companies tax credits of up to 25%, the Armory served a brief stint as a soundstage. Two Hollywood movies, Underdog and Outside Providence, filmed both in and around the Armory. Michael Corrente, the director of Outside Providence and a Pawtucket native, spearheaded efforts to permanently turn the Armory into film studios. Due to financial reasons, these plans never materialized. According to Lang, that’s a good thing: “To me it was almost like raping and pillaging the building. They’d set a fire for a film scene or something…that should be in a tin warehouse…that should not be in a nationally renowned landmark.”

Without a tenant to look after the structure—already in fragile condition after decades of insufficient funding and maintenance—Lang’s biggest concern was keeping the Armory from falling deeper into disrepair. In 1997, she managed to get the Armory placed on the National trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places list. Lang’s hope was that the building would be used as state offices. “Not hugely sexy,” she says, “But it gets people in there to look out for it and it saves the state a huge amount of money.” Proposals were made both to relocate the state police headquarters to the Armory and to turn it into a storage space for state archives, but nothing ever came of either proposal. A few years ago, the state Fire Marshal began using parts of it for offices and storage. While these tenants were a positive alternative to the empty decade that came before them, the Armory still hasn’t found its way out of limbo.

32 people currently work inside the Armory. The building is shared by the Fire Marshal and the state Bomb Squad, and–in striking opposition to its history–is now almost completely off limits to the public.

The great drill hall is sealed off behind a set of wooden doors. Inside, the space is as astonishingly immense as ever; the towering ceiling—supported by a thick latticework of metal beams—curves over the vast wooden floor. Ornate wooden balconies—where sergeants used to sit and watch drills—are fixed to the walls at either end of the hall.

Today, the hall seems to serve as a repository for miscellaneous items. Old safes are stacked under one of the balconies. A long metal fence separates tall piles of containers and storage units from the rest of the space. According to Chief Fire Marshal Richard James—a rosy-cheeked man who keeps his badge pinned to the right lapel of a tan suit jacket—the containers belong to the Department of Health. A dozen evenly-spaced suitcases of varying size and color run the length of the hall, lined up in front of the fence. Three bomb-sniffing dogs—German Shepherds named Aiko, Mira, and Sam—use these suitcases for practice.

The bomb squad keeps its equipment in the basement. In an evidence room, tables are scattered with confiscated goods: boxes of shotgun shells, outdated flares, a few grenades, a pipe bomb, and a couple small rockets. Vehicles sit parked in a low-ceilinged garage with the same footprint as the drill hall: a couple trailers, three shiny red trucks, and a brand new “total containment unit” equipped with a $250,000 fast attack robot.

The vehicles were all purchased with grant money given to the state of Rhode Island by the Department of Homeland Security. “All this has happened since 9/11,” explains James, “That’s when they realized there was a need. Money was always tight in Rhode Island. We wouldn’t be able to buy any equipment without these grants.” For the most part, James is guarded about how much use the equipment is being put to. “We work with the FBI,” he says, “Covert Operations. It’s a thankless job. People don’t know how much we do.”

The Fire Marshal offices are on the first floor of the Parade St. Tower. Chief James’ office is high-ceilinged and oak-paneled, with a view down Parade Street. Before working for the Fire Marshal, James was Fire Chief of West Warwick for thirty years. The walls of his office are hung with plaques displaying his many honors and awards—among them, “1991 Rhode Island Firefighter of the Year.” A sticker on the wall behind his desk reads “King of the Castle”—James’ nickname since he started working at the Armory.

Above the offices, the upper floors of the tower are abandoned. Desks and chairs litter former classrooms. Paint peels off of the walls in long white strips. Birds are often found dead on the floor after flying in through holes in the windows.

 

In 2004, a statewide bond issue vote that would have funded a massive renovation and restoration of the Armory was placed on the ballots. Despite WBNA’s lobbying efforts, the bond issue failed. In part, Kari Lang attributes this to statewide misperceptions of the West End. “We’ve been working for over twenty years,” says Lang, “and there’s still a negative perception of this neighborhood, like, oh that neighborhood.”

In the 19th century, the West End was prosperous and stylish—a highly respected residential area connected to downtown by Providence’s first streetcar line. Wealthy merchants and industrialists populated the neighborhood, lining the streets with grand Victorian homes. The Armory would have been the area’s “crown jewel,” says James Hall, President of the Providence Preservation Society, “If you were prosperous or had aspirations of being prosperous in a city the size of Providence, you looked to the civic architecture as an outward and visible sign of the growth and success of a city.”

By the mid-20th century, the neighborhood had left its prosperous past behind. Following the widespread urban decline of the 1930’s, the majority of the West End’s middle class residents relocated. Crime rates went up, and the neighborhood’s reputation went down. Though the past decade has witnessed widespread gentrification efforts, James Hall agrees that the West End had retained a certain stigma: “The neighborhood has been marginalized…I think that’s one of the problems. It’s hard to get people from outside Providence to be excited about the Armory, because it’s in what they think of as a ‘transitional’ neighborhood.”

 

Fifteen years after beginning to work with the Armory, Lang feels that much of the momentum has been lost. “As the state budget has gotten worse and worse,” she says, “and as some of the devoted people have kind of been forced into retirement… it becomes easier to almost forget and it becomes more of a white elephant.” Though Lang is grateful for the Fire Marshal’s presence, she is far from content. “The armory is a treasure,” she says. “I’ve been here 15 years and sometimes I feel hugely burnt out, but I can’t leave until we find whatever happens to that building. I have to solve this problem before I leave.”

More than anything, Lang is set on the building being opened back up to the public. When she was fighting to pass the 2004 bond issue, she managed to get permission to host a fundraiser in the Armory’s drill hall. It was the first—and only—public event in the space since its vacancy in 1996. At most, a WBNA event generally gets up to two or three hundred people. Over 700 people showed up to the fundraiser. “People love this building,” she says. “That central drill hall has not been maintained for 45 years now at least…but there were poultry shows there, dog shows, Rudolf Vallentino danced in there, every high school in Rhode Island ran track there. My dad ran track there. Governor Chafee’s father had his gubernatorial ball in there. It was supposed to be a public place. It was supposed to be “The Castle for the People.”

 

GRACE DUNHAM ’14 lives in an armory replica.

 

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