|photo by Alice Lum
What began as a social riding club would evolve into a brave fighting unit vaguely remembered by the romantic ruins of its medieval castle on Madison Avenue. In 1884 some of the wealthiest and most prominent of New York gentlemen banded together in their love of horsemanship. They created a private unit—originally a social club—called the First New York Hussars or First Dragoons. The men drilled at Dickel’s Riding Academy where they had use of an assembly room and lockers. They created their own dress uniforms based on London’s 10th Hussars.
But there was a problem. Since 1877 New York City’s National Guard had had no mounted unit.
“Since the close of the civil war,” The New York Times later noted on January 23, 1898, ‘the people of the Eastern States had been unused to the sight of cavalry for a generation; the National troops of that arm having been fully employed in subduing the Indians in the far Western Territories.”
When an escort was required for visiting Presidents or other dignitaries, the infantry or artillery made do. More importantly, military leaders became concerned about the lack of a cavalry in the major urban area. So in 1889 the 53-man unit became Troop “A,” an official part of the New York National Guard. The Troop was put under the command of West Point trained Major Charles F. Roe, a veteran of the Civil War and former Indian fighter.
The New York Times described Roe as “no holiday commander of Troop A, and the young aristocrats and millionaires who abounded in the ranks were required to submit to the same stern discipline as the thirteen-dollar-a-month trooper on the plains.”
The elite members, accustomed to smoking rooms and evening clothes, found themselves quickly in less than elegant conditions. In August 1892 the Troop was sent to Buffalo, New York to quell the riots that erupted during the railroad strike there.
The Troop was increased by a special act of Legislature in 1893 to 112 men and was divided into two troops, becoming Squadron A. That year they served as Governor Roswell P. Flower’s escort at the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland. All this time the men still called Dickel’s Riding Academy home. It was time for a respectable armory.
Architect John Rochester Thomas knew his way around armory design. In 1888 he designed the Eighth Regiment Armory and in 1892 he laid the plans for the 71st Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 33rd Street. In 1894 he was commissioned to design the Squadron A headquarters on Madison Avenue between 94th and 95th Streets which would back up against his earlier Eighth Regiment Armory which faced Park Avenue.
|Intricate brickwork surmounts a romantic brownstone balcony -- photo by Alice Lum
"The new armory…will be designed in the ancient Norman castellated style and will have a true military appearance,” promised The New York Times. The cornerstone was laid on July 10, 1894—emblazoned with the unit’s motto “Boutez en Avant” (Push to the Front). On June 7, 1895 Squadron A took possession of its still uncompleted building which The New York Times said was in “the Scottish Baronial” style.
|The cornerstone announced the unit's motto "Push to the Front" -- photo by Alice Lum
With towers, lancet windows, balconies and monumental arches Thomas created a fantastic castle. It recalled visions of knights in battle and caldrons of boiling oil being cast over the ramparts onto the invaders below. There were three main floors, a mezzanine and basement.
Below ground were the stables, saddle room, 200-foot long pistol range, storage and work rooms and waiting rooms. There were 100 horse stalls in the concrete basement.
The main floor contained a 197-foot long riding and drill ring, 87 feet wide. The drilling ring soared through the center of the building to a glass-and-iron ceiling. In the corner towers were winding staircases leading to the upper floors. The mezzanine consisted of a broad viewing gallery that encircled the drill ring below.
|A glimpse of the 95th Street entrance is seen in this 1898 sketch on the menu of a dinner at the exclusive Delmonico's restaurant. Pictured is Major Roe --NYPL Collection
On the second floor, in addition to administrative rooms, was an 85-foot long hall on the 95th Street side which was used as a meeting room and “a place for the social gatherings of the organization.” The top floor housed a gymnasium “complete with all the modern appliances for physical development,” said The New York Times and “a complete plant for the Commissary of Subsistence.” The impressive term translated into the troop kitchen, pantries, smaller kitchen, dining rooms as well as sleeping rooms.
|Major Roe's office -- The New York Tribune, December 15, 1901 (copyright expired)
While the janitor and the armorer had permanent quarters, there were sufficient sleeping accommodations for the entire unit if necessary.
While the armory was being completed Squadron A was called upon again to quell an uprising. The 1895 Brooklyn Trolley Strike resulted in rioting. For eight days the men patrolled the Brooklyn streets during a blizzard of an exceptionally cold winter, burning fires in the streets and sleeping on the hard floor of a factory.
It prompted Outing to declare in March 1895 “Troop A proved that the cavalry arm is a necessary adjunct to the militia service; their scrupulously kept horses, stable and equipment speak volumes for their veteran commander and their work was splendidly accomplished.”
|The quixotic facade creates images of Lancelot (or perhaps Rapunzel) -- photo by Alice Lum
A resplendent ball and reception signaled the formal opening of the armory on January 31, 1896.
Although Squadron A was fully a part of the National Guard, its high-class roots remained. “The organization resembles a club in other social customs,” remarked The New York Times on January 23, 1898. “’Smokers’ and entertainments for various purposes are held from time to time in its assembly room and outside of their homes. The reading hall is always free to members of the organization.
|Squadron A, in full dress uniform, rides in the Fifth Avenue parade for Admiral Dewey -- photo Library of Congress
That year, however, social entertainments would be put on hold as the Squadron was deployed to the Spanish American War and to Puerto Rico. On April 16, 1900 the Squadron was mobilized again because of a strike. Workers in disagreement with the contractors had brought construction of the dam at Croton Landing, New York to a standstill. When word arrived that Squadron A would be marching north, labor leader Angelo Rotella declared “Only a part of our men are armed, but they will all be armed in the morning. We will resist every attempt by the contractors to renew the work to-morrow with strange men and we will fight, if necessary, until the troops get here.”
On April 28 the men—many of them the sons of the leading names of New York society—headed home. “The men were browned and campaign soiled,” reported The New York Times, “and the horses looked in much better shape than they. Capt. Howard Badgley made a speech thanking the men for their faithful duty, and they cheered him, and all took a bath.”
Along with the men on their long journey back to the city were two unusual companions. The New York Times reported that “The men brought down two baggage wagons, an ambulance and two mascots. One of the mascots is a gander named Antonio…The wagon supply man found a baby carriage along the road, and imprisoned the bird in it and tied the carriage to the back of his wagon. The other mascot is a yellow dog, nicknamed Croton, weary and worn.”
In 1903 Squadron A petitioned for a new armory; feeling that they had outgrown the present structure. Instead the Eighth Regiment was moved to a new facility and Squadron A took over the vacated armory facing Park Avenue, combining the two.
|photo by Alice Lum
In 1916 the Squadron was deployed again, sent to the Mexican border “where it suffered every kind of discomfort with far less grousing than the regulars,” noted The New York Times.
Only a year later with war raging in Europe, Squadron A found itself headed for France. At 9:30 am, headed by Sousa’s band, the 538-man unit marched south on Fifth Avenue to the 23rd Street ferry. The Squadron leaving for the front was not made up of the social elite, however; those men would stay back.
“The most of the lawyers, bankers and society lights who used to make Squadron A the pet unit of New York’s 400 have graduated into commissions, and their places have since been taken by recruits from less conspicuous stations in life,” said The New York Times. “Every one of the new men, however, appeared to be a first class soldier, competent, and eager for an opportunity to show his worth.”
While the band played “Auld Lang Syne” the soldiers boarded the ferry. “They were showered with kits candy, cigars and cigarettes,” the newspaper added. After seeing battle in Flanders and Ypres under the 105th Machine Gun Battalion, 80 members of the Squadron would not return home.
|Riding in motorcars rather than on horseback, Squadron A passes the New York Public Library in the triumphal 1919 parade for returning troops. -- photo NYPL Collection
After the war and the return of Squadron A the upscale roots of the unit reappeared. The drilling ring was the scene of animated polo matches year after year and the annual Squadron A Horse Show became an anticipated event. By the 1950s the armory was as much the home to the Squadron A Polo Club as it was a military installation. Privately owned polo ponies could be housed in the massive stables below ground with a monthly bill for stabling and feed amounting to $85. Members who owned one horse paid dues of $135, or $285 for two or more.
It would all come to an end within a decade. The Squadron was pulled from the old armory and plans to demolish the structure, to be replaced with a 16-story school and apartment building complex, were announced.
As demolition commenced, The Landmarks Preservation Commission rushed into action with only the Madison Avenue façade left standing. The Commission’s report noted that “There were four speakers in opposition to designation; they were fearful that the retaining of the Madison Avenue front of the Armory might delay the construction of the new public school on the Park Avenue side of the site.”
Overpowering the opposition was strong community support for salvaging what remained of the armory. On October 19, 1966 the surviving sliver of the John R. Thomas’ romantic brick and stone castle was landmarked.
|The surviving sliver, barely saved from the wrecking ball, gives a hint of the original, massive structure -- photo by Alice Lum
Today the Madison Avenue ruins stand as a wall to the Hunter College High School and its attached elementary school. Saved at the 11th hour it is a remarkable example of Victorian military architecture—if a bit out of place in the playground.