Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Downtown Richmond’s Phantom Armories -
They were demolished years ago…..weren’t they?

Prior to the establishment of the modern National Guard around World War I, municipalities like Richmond maintained volunteer military organizations, which could be called out by the Governor in times of emergency or to maintain public order. These civic militias were housed in armories where they not only stored firearms and drilled, but also were used as social clubs for the members.

The 1890s were the boom years for construction of municipal armories in this country, and Richmond was no exception. At one time there were five in this city: the Howitzers Battalion Armory, which stood back to back with First Regiment Cavalry Virginia Volunteers Armory on a block between Seventh and Eighth Streets, the Richmond Greys and Richmond Blues armories on Marshall Street, and the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers armory on Leigh Street. Of these, only the Blues armory and the Leigh Street armory remain.

In an America when not everybody was literate, armories clearly signaled their military purpose by appearing like little castles, with crenellated turrets, arched doorways, and stout granite trim. These little castles, rising up among the residential neighborhoods where they stood, must have been a remarkable and lively contribution to the Richmond skyline north of Broad Street.

[Click on each image for a larger view]

These buildings were all the product of the Richmond City Engineer’s department and its head, Wilfred Cutshaw. Cutshaw oversaw the construction of many civic projects, and it is believed the Italianate style of these armories, schools, and markets reflected his personal taste. The one exception is the Cavalry Armory, which was designed by the architectural partnership of Edgerton Rogers and Walter Higham. Rogers was a member of the Cavalry organization, but is perhaps best known as the architect of Maymont, Major Dooley’s high-style estate on what was then the far western edge of the city. There is a certain delicacy in the Cavalry armory design that reflects Edgerton Rogers’ fine hand and that is lacking in the other city armories. Nevertheless, the turrets, identical to the other armories, are probably a Cutshawesque requirement demanded by the indomitable ex-Confederate Colonel and City Engineer.

The Cavalry armory faced west; while on the same block facing east was the Richmond Howitzers’ Battalion armory. Both of these remarkable buildings were constructed in 1895. With a general demobilization after the Spanish-American war in 1898, the Cavalry Battalion was disbanded and it’s building was absorbed in the Howitzers’ Battalion complex. A largecovered drill hall was constructed to link the two armories. The Howitzers’ building was eventually expanded to include a number of amenities, including an indoor swimming pool. The facility received considerable use during World War II as a reception and recreation center for GIs traveling through Richmond to other assignments.

In this image, taken not long before both armories were demolished in the early 1970s, the turret of the Cavalry armory can be seen in the distance behind the Howitzers’ building. At this point both armories had ceased to be used by the National Guard and served only as garages and storage for the City. With the wholesale demolition of the area north of the site cleared for the Richmond Coliseum project, both armories and their surrounding neighborhoods were demolished. The last few residential structures in this part of Richmond were destroyed by the construction of the Philip Morris research facility.

The block the two armories stood on became the site of the downtown campus of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, and in an unusual tribute to the architecture that proceeded the brutally plain Reynolds building, a portion of the facades of the Howitzers’ and Cavalry armories were kept as retaining walls. The fronts of the armories were demolished down to three feet tall. There is no signage to indicate this, but the two low walls along Seventh and Eighth Streets are actually these bottom portions of the fronts of the vanished armories. What appears to many as simply being oddly weathered brickwork are the foundations of two little castles, and what now looks like round planters were the bases of once lofty towers.

From the top of the Reynolds building you can peer over the parapet down toward Eighth Street and the outline of the two vanished buildings can be clearly traced. The two round “planters” on either end flank the base of the central square tower, the walls of which have been capped with white concrete to prevent their deterioration.

Compare that view to the original architectural drawings of the Cavalry armory, now in the collections of the Library of Virginia. Although many of the details have been lost, the central element of the elegant armory, which once stood above its entrance, is clearly still preserved in the footprint. Likewise the two towers, now reduced to knee-height beside the Eighth Street sidewalk.

Rogers and Higham would be astounded at the changes wrought to the city they knew a hundred years ago, and Rogers in particular would be aghast that the pomp and formality that was his Cavalry Battalion was today only a fading memory in the history of Richmond. Even more inexplicable to the two architects would be the chunky Reynolds building, the unworthy successor plopped down on the site of the two municipal buildings they knew so well. The persistence of the front walls of their building and the armory to the east of it would also truly be a mystery to them, as it is to many who wait for their ride sitting on the oddly weathered remains of Richmond’s phantom armories.

- Selden Richardson.


Scott said...

Thank you for this great post. Even though they were long gone before I ever came here, I miss the castles.
Hopefully the Leigh St. one can be saved.
Its amazing how many photos of Pratt's Castle I see in local restaurants.

HEK said...

This is grand post, but one tinctured by remorse of what was lost in view of what replaced them. Re: the recent banner headlines about the dismal condition of the Coliseum.