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New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History

New York Army National Guard armories are among the oddest yet grandest sights in towns and cities throughout the state. Like great medieval castles, some dominate the streets they reside upon, while others seem dwarfed by their glass and steel neighbors. Yet they recall for the observer a time when there was a need to house soldiers in heavily protected fortresses within New York State communities. These American castles are the subject of New York’s Historic Armories; An Illustrated History, in which Nancy L. Todd profiles nearly 120 arsenals and armories across New York State. As the title indicates, the book is packed with photographs and sketches that accompany brief descriptions of each subject. Furthermore, the book presents the sub-theme of armory construction as an illustration of the evolution of the National Guard.

Todd’s introduction presents the building of armories as a testament to the growth and development of the New York Army National Guard and as a response to the growing tension between labor and business in the latter half of the 1800s. The opening chapter presents a general history of the National Guard, allowing the reader to understand the armories within a larger historic context. In following the construction chronologically, one gets the sense of the growing confidence and stature of the American militia. The humblest of the early armories, such as the 1808 Canandaigua Arsenal of Ontario County, look like little more than brick church houses. Post-Civil war armories grew grander and castellated in size and design. The book ends with the few post World War II armories, such as the 1959 Rome Armory.

In looking at the nearly twenty arsenals built prior to the Civil War, one immediately notices the modest structure and utilitarian sensibility involved in their design, pointing out that these early arsenals were meant as storage places for local militia units. The photographs accompanying most of the individual arsenal entries demonstrate the masonry construction and simplistic design. Yet keeping in mind the history of the time, this reflects the division in American society about the role of the military—large or small, professional or volunteer.

As the reader advances in the book, we see the gradual acceptance and growing love of the military reflected in the size, scale, and pomp of post-Civil War arsenals and armories. Perhaps the greatest example of the enfranchisement of the New York National Guard into mainstream society is reflected in the Seventh Regiment Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Todd devotes an entire chapter to this exceptional armory. Towards the end of the

1800s, with the Civil War left to the memories of old men and idealized by young ones, a new generation sought the prestige and honor of service won by the veterans of Americans worst conflict. However, photographs of the opulent entrance hall and Board of Officers’ Room show that they brought their own community values to the militia.

The book also shows the alternative roles that the armories played in local communities. With the buildings’ growing size, a closer bond was shared between the regiment and the area around it. This can be seen in the grandeur of the Seventh Regiment Armory, but also in more modest constructions like the Virginia Street Armory in Buffalo. The later armories, with their large drill houses, were often the only large indoor facilities available to the areas they served. As a result, dances, sports exhibitions, and community fairs were hosted at them. However, in this time of labor unrest, their imposing size and structure also served as a very visible symbol of communal law and order.

The book could certainly contain more content on the histories of the various regiments themselves. For most, we are only given a sketch of their involvement in the events of the time. However the author points out that this is beyond the scope of the work, and furthermore, the examination of individual regiments could often fill a study of their own. But this reader is still left to question why New York led the way in armory construction. What was so distinct about the state that its armory construction was at the forefront of a nationwide movement?

The layout of the book is easy to follow. Each armory is given an entry describing the date, architect (where available), and brief histories of the regiment and the armory’s construction and eventual fate. The strength of the book lies in its great use of period photographs; Todd uses period photography to show the armories at their grandest. The accompanying captions add further detail about their design. In this, the reader is led to reflect on New York’s military history and the artifacts left behind.

—Jason Schaaf

 

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