Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hunt & Hunt's Monumental 69th Regiment Armory, 68 Lexington Ave

photo by Alice Lum
In stark contrast to New York’s Seventh Regiment, popularly known as “The Silk Stocking Regiment” because of its many wealthy members, the 69th Regiment was formed by Irish immigrants.   Organized in 1851, the regiment was accepted into the State Militia—later to become the National Guard.

The feisty group was deployed during the Civil War and saw action in every major battle from Bull Run to Appomattox.  The 69th was well-known as “the Fighting Sixty-Ninth” by the time it was called to action in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
The reputation of the 69th resulted at least one popular song -- NYPL Collection

While the 69th was still fighting that war, the Committee on Sites of the Armory Board raised a disturbing concern.   Regimental armories were, essentially, all located above 59th Street.  “In case of trouble necessitating the use of troops down town much valuable time would, in the opinion of the committee, be lost in moving them,” reported The New York Times on March 15, 1889.

On April 3, 1901 $450,000 was appropriated for a new armory “including architect’s fees and all incidental expenses connected therewith;” that amount being approved by the Sinking Fund a month later.

Trouble soon ensued.  The architectural firm of Horgan & Slattery was given the commission to design the new armory on Lexington Avenue between 25th and 26th Streets.   By November 19 the plans and specifications were completed and approved, and construction bids were requested.  The lowest bid received was $666,394—more than $200,000 higher than budget.  The Armory Board therefore rejected the plans of Horgan & Slattery and terminated its contract.  It then added another $100,000 to the appropriation and invited competitive plans from selected architects.

As a result the firm of Hunt & Hunt was awarded the new commission in 1903 and the City of New York was slapped with a law suit from Horgan & Slattery.

Richard and Joseph Hunt were the sons of the eminent architect Richard Morris Hunt.  Their partnership was just two years old when they began designing the armory and their plans were ground-breaking.  The brothers made a near-360 degree turn away from the traditional armory design—romantic medieval-looking fortresses with towers and crenellations.  

The New York Times made special mention of the fact in announcing the design.  “The exterior of the new armory…is not of the castellated style consecrated to armories,” it reported on August 13, 1903.

Instead the architects envisioned a burly block of brown-red brick that rose three stories to an imposing two-story mansard roof.   The military theme was not disposed of entirely.   Projecting gun bays lined the Lexington Avenue façade and great stone panels were inscribed with the regiment’s campaigns.

A massive maw-like arch sheltered the deeply recessed entrance, above which a sculptured stone eagle acted as keystone.

The plans called for a drill hall, 212 by 168 feet, spanned by a glass and steel arched roof that rose 126 feet above the floor.  The third floor contained the gymnasium, a hall 113 feet by 40 feet surrounded by locker rooms.  Above were the rooms of the Quartermaster, the band, drum corps and baths.  In the basement were bowling alleys, rifle ranges, magazines and “other offices of inferior sorts.”

By now the cost of the building had risen to $600,000.

Several months later the City condemned all the buildings standing on the site of the proposed armory.   Letters dated January 16, 1904 were sent out informing tenants that they would have to vacate by February 15.  Many of the condemned buildings were boarding houses and finding a new home proved difficult.

The day after they were to have cleared out, The Times publicized their plight.  “In many cases persons were too ill to be removed, and, in one instance, a death resulted from catching cold while looking for another apartment.  Some of the persons who endeavored to secure new apartments were told they would have to get references, but they were unable to do so, as for the last six months the rents have been paid to the city.”

James D. Murphy, the contractor, insisted that “There is no desire on the part of the Murphy Company to be harsh or hard, or to create trouble for any one.”  Nevertheless, the task of emptying and demolishing the existing buildings was emotional and ploddingly slow.

A rendering was released to an eagerly-awaiting public -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Finally, on April 23, 1904 the cornerstone was laid with impressive ceremonies.  Irish-Americans were rightfully conspicuous in full force.  The two stands erected at the corner of 25th Street and Lexington Avenue were decorated with Irish and American flags.  The regiment and its guests were escorted by the Ancient Order of Hibernians and approximately 200 members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick were among the first to arrive.  Joseph I. C. Clarke composed a poem for the occasion “The Gallant Sixty-ninth,” and the Irish-theme of the event was consummated when Major Gen. McMahon presented the silver trowel to Mayor McClellan with which he laid the cornerstone.

Two and a half years later, on October 6, 1906, the building was completed and dedicated.   The Times called it “a handsome and commodious building” and noted that the drill hall was the largest in the city.  Impressive military pomp accompanied the ceremonies, including a parade from the old armory at Tompkins’ Market and the presentation of the battle flags.

A lone pedestrian stands before the newly-completed armory -- photograph from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The hulking structure would not be confined to military drills and pageantry.  On Christmas Eve 1911 8,000 needy families presented a ticket and were escorted through the spacious armory.  At the 26th Street entrance they were handed a basket of holiday food and gifts paid for by several fund-raising events.

Socially-prominent names like Frederick Townsend Martin and Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey M. DePew assisted in distributing the booty.  The New-York Tribune said that “hundreds carrying boxes of toys hastened away to boil, bake, roast and fry the fowls whose legs protruded along with the green of celery tops from the well filled baskets on their arms.”  The newspaper estimated that 52,000 persons were included in the benefit.

A magnificent spread-winged eagle serves as keystone -- photo by Alice Lum

A month later, on January 23, 4,000 high school girls “outdid themselves in the big pageant they gave,” according to The New York Times.  The annual event paid tribute to the girls’ teachers and school superintendents.

Among the innovative program, which included an all-girl production of Rip Van Winkle, was the astonishing opening.  “A gigantic hour glass was drawn in to the floor in front of the gallery, where the guests of honor were seated,” explained The Times.  When the wife of Colonel Louis D. Conley (he had provided the armory for the pageant) pulled on a ribbon, “the hour glass flew open and out flew a little fairy girl.  She was Pleasant Hour, who danced a fairy-like dance.”

Then hundreds of girls with broad bands of dark green ribbon recreated a river.  “It was a swaying, serpentine, gliding body, topped by heads and arms, the latter raised high in the air, passing from hand to hand down the line little full-rigged boats, a great winding river and its shipping.”

No show or exhibition would be more ground-breaking or influential than the 1913 “International Exhibition of Modern Art.”  Now commonly referred to as the “Armory Show,” it changed the course of American art.

The organizers, the small Association of American Painters and Sculptors, paid a month-long rent of $5,500 to use the armory—a significant $95,000 today.   The vast space was divided by means of partitions and bunting into eighteen octagonal exhibition rooms.

Around 1,300 works by painters and sculptors were exhibited to 4,000 opening-night viewers on February 17—many of whom were unprepared for the starkly modern art.    By March 17 more than 100,000 had paid their ticket price to see works by Cezanne, Gauguin, Picasso, Van Gogh, Bracque, and Matisse.  American artists showing here included George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Walt Kuhn, John Marin, and Arthur B. Davis—several of which were Manhattan residents.

Many of the Edwardian viewers were scandalized by Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” and the painting became one of the show’s most talked-about and controversial works.  The 1913 Armory Show is generally credited with establishing New York as the nation’s center of art and with changing the entire direction of art in America.

In December 1913 a full week of exhibitions by the Stockholm Gymnastic Society was held here.  “In addition to the callisthenic setting-up drills, which easily surpass any ever seen in this country, the gymnasts executed leaps, cut-offs, and hand-springs over apparatus which brought forth bursts of applause from the reviewing stand and galleries.”  The newspaper said that the Swedes were “a revelation” to those “who had thought that no set of men could surpass American gymnasts.”

While pageants and exhibitions went on in its armory, the 69th Regiment continued to defend its country.  In 1916 the soldiers served at the Mexican border and with the United States’ entrance into World War I, it was picked by Colonel Douglas MacArthur to represent the state in the famed 42nd Rainbow Division.

Space on the list of campaigns, intentionally left blank originally, now filled with more recent battles -- photo by Alice Lum

Meanwhile, the 45,000 square-foot drill hall became home to the annually-anticipated Automobile Show.   Motor Travel, in 1918, noted that “In addition, there will be a large area in the balconies devoted to accessories, parts and sundries, where several hundred manufacturers will be represented.”  That year visitors to the Armory ogled now early-forgotten cars like The Hupmobile, Nash, McFarlan, Lexington, Roamer, Standard, Westcott, Franklin, Chalmers, Apperson, Kissel, Paige and others.

With the welcomed arrival of peacetime, the two-week exhibition by the Aeronautical Exposition of the Manufacturers’ Aircraft Association opened on March 1, 1919.  The drill hall was filled with “intensely interesting exhibits,” as described by the New-York Tribune, including aircraft “and the trophies our pilots brought home from France.”  The army, navy and post office departments cooperated in assembling the exhibit.

Reflecting a proud, victorious nation’s patriotism The Tribune’s headline read “America supreme in the Air!  The aeroplane is liberty’s surest weapon of defense.  By the part it took in the destruction of Germany’s arbitrary powers it proved its indispensable need in the future.”

Throughout the century the great space continued to serve as a venue for widely-varied activities.  For a year in 1948 and ’49 Roller Derby matches were held here, including the first to be broadcast on television.  From 1946 until 1960 some of the New York Knicks basketball games were held here.

Immediately following the tragedy of September 11, 2001 Lexington Avenue in front of the Amory was lined with military vehicles and soldiers.  The cavernous drill hall was used, initially, for family members to register information on their missing loved ones and, later, as a counseling center for the victims and families.

Today Hunt & Hunt’s imposing 69th Regiment Armory is unchanged.  Still the home to the Fighting 69th, it continues to host large scale events.
photo by Alice Lum


  1. I went there a couple of years back during the annual Open House New York event. Very interesting - worth a visit. And there's a bar inside, too, that was open to visitors during the the event.

  2. I imagine 600,000 was an enormous sum in those days. Interesting building thanks for the information!