Monday, June 14, 2010

The Seventh Regiment Armory - Park Avenue

photo by Ajay Suresh

New York's Seventh Regiment was formed in 1806 when outraged citizens demanded retaliation against the British who blockaded the harbor and fired on American ships, killing a helmsman.  At the time, the city had a population of just over 60,000.  The regiment was called into action just six years later when they marched off to serve in the War of 1812.  It was the Astor Place Riots in 1849, though, that changed the fortunes of the group.

Over 20,000 working class rioters, ostensibly protesting against a British actor appearing at the high class Astor Place Opera House but actually striking out against the upper class, filled Astor Place.  Here, surrounded by the homes of New York's wealthy, they lobbed bricks and rocks, breaking windows and causing panic.

The Seventh Regiment responded, firing into the crowd to quell the disorder and driving away what Harper's Bazaar called "the bleeding rioters, demoralized and defeated."  When it was over 25 were dead and 120 hurt.  The wealthy, however, did not forget their champions.  The Regiment not only became a favorite among New York's elite, they enlisted in force, earning it its nickname "The Silk Stocking Regiment."

Just after a new armory was built for them in 1860 on the Bowery, the Regiment was dispatched to defend Washington DC when it was cut off by rebel forces; it was first volunteer unit called into action in the Civil War.

After the war, it became apparent that the elite group needed a new home.  Not only had the population it guarded migrated north, away from the present armory, but armories had become social clubs as well as drill houses.  The monied members wanted a more impressive space in which to gather.

While the city donated the land at Fourth Avenue (soon to be renamed Park Avenue) between 66th and 67th Streets in 1875, the depression at the time precluded public funding for the building.  Private fund raising was necessary.  Money poured in not only from the likes of Vanderbilt, Lenox and Rhinelander, but from regular citizens and businesses who supported the group they regarded as their protectors.

The money for the building was raised; however there was not enough to pay for the outfitting and decorating of the interior.  As the building was being completed, a lavish indoor fair was organized, opened by President Rutherford B. Hayes on November 17, 1879.  Expensive items were sold such as carriages, organs, boats and even pedigreed house pets.  There were entertainments, an art exhibition, and exotic bazaars.

The New York Times reported that a "peculiarity of the Seventh-Regiment New Armory Fair is that every day the crowd is larger, more enthusiastic, and more liberal in their purchases, and more reckless in their patronage of prize drawings than on any preceding day."

photo NYPL Collection

The money was raised and the elite Seventh Regiment gained a Park Avenue showplace -- the only armory in the United States ever built with only private funding.

Designed by regiment member Charles William Clinton, the armory set the bar for armories to come.  A forbidding fortress-looking structure in red brick and gray granite, it had all the features of a medieval castle:  narrow slits for archers, battlements and 6-inch thick oak doors, protected by a huge bronze gate, wide enough to accommodate four men marching abreast.  A tall, slender open bell tower rose high over the entrance.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

James D. McCabe Jr., in his 1882 New York by Gaslight, described the armory as having "the strength of a fortress and the elegance and comfort of a club-house.  The regimental drill room is 300 by 200 feet in size, and besides this there are ten company drill rooms, an officers' room, a veterans' room, a field and staff room, a gymnasium, and six squad drill rooms."

Clinton's drill room took inspiration from the Grand Central Depot which had the largest unobstructed interior space in the country.  Eleven cast iron trusses -- 127 feet from side to side -- supported the vaulting ceiling.

But the administrative rooms were the hallmark of the armory.  They were designed and furnished by firms like Louis C. Tiffany, Herter Brothers, Pottier and Stymus Manufacturing, Roux and Company, George C. Flint, and A. Kimbel and J. Cabus -- the premier interior design firms of the day.

photograph by John Hall

The interiors were the pinnacle of 19th century taste and materials.  Stained glass, tilework, exotic carved woods, statuary, custom designed furnishings, wallpapers and stenciling, frescoed ceilings -- the armory had it all.

In 1909 the slender bell tower was removed and a fourth floor added.  In 1931 yet another floor was added, changing the proportions of the building.

photographs by John Hall

The latter part of the 20th century was cruel to the Armory, which was allowed to fall into disrepair and neglect.  In 2000, the World Monuments Fund listed the Seventh Regiment Armory as one of the top 100 most endangered historical sites in the world.  The irreplaceable rooms were in a serious state of dilapidation.

In 2006 the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy was formed and managed to obtain a 99-year lease from the state.  By 2009 $100 million was raised as part of a planned $150 million restoration to save the historic building and its exquisite interiors.

An early postcard view of the Board Room.


  1. The deterioration of the armory was not entirely due to NY State. Unlike most armories in the state the 7th was largely built by private funds and the veteran's association kept a tight hold on it, seemingly with the notion that they would rather see the building drop to pieces before allowing the state to take title. Silk battle flags rotted on their staffs and pieces fell to the ground, but state employees weren't allowed to remove them for preservation. It took a series of court battles to put the armory into the hands of the Conservancy.

  2. thanks for that important information. point well taken.

  3. Yes...though the State, I am told, has a history of reaching down from Albany and claiming items as their own; items which really were paid for and belonged to the units. This policy is, by all means, alive today. There is a museum in upstate New York which generally claims ownership over most of the items in the armories in New York. This includes the 69th Regiment armory (still active) as well, I am told by competent authority. Such policy, I understand, has not been welcome for fear of losing valuable items. In the case of the 7th Regiment, those items are hundreds of miles away from Manhattan, not to be seen by New Yorkers without great effort.

    Another issue has been the potential federalization of the soldiers at the 7th Regiment, which could bring into question the authorities of ownership.

    Indeed the point of decay is a great tragedy. I must add that most armories have been closed down in New York and this has been a decision of the State. As such, armories, traditions, history and the concept of service fell apart. The active military is no different. The closing of bases continues, following the closure of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and many others. The last active duty base in New York City is the postage stamp sized base at Ft. least an hour by subway from Manhattan.

    What should really strike alarm to those who care is that a city of 8 million citizens has all but completely lost its military heritage in 50 years. This tradition of service, for those who choose it, is a noble way to give back to one's community and country. When we see our country go to war, we like to think that military service is fair and equitable; not so easy these days. Complaints about select groups missing out of service in the Civil War or Vietnam invoke the anger of many...though National Guard service for New Yorkers - rich or poor - who choose to join is now beyond inconvenient...and impossible for many simply due to geography. The State could have handled and funded this better, that is my vote; though I do recognize there were many legitimate challenges.

    I should add that I have never been a member of either of these units but have looked into the issue in some detail.

  4. Grays Armory built in 1893 was built with private mony including the purchase of land and furnishing. Cleveland Grays formed in 1837 but followed similar membership and activities with Clevelands elite. Still owned and maintained by members. No government ownership ever.Have leased special space to state and Nat. Guard but not for 20 years. Nat. Hist. Landmark.