Monday, September 7, 2015

The Lost 12th Regiment Armory -- Columbus Ave and 61st St.

Plans for James E. Ware's massive structure were published in Building on May 8, 1886 (copyright expired)

In the half-century before the Civil War the small militia force of State of New York protected the city again the threat of invasion, rioting, and other disorder.   When not seeing such action, the men of what would become the National Guard enjoyed their armories as more-or-less social clubs.

On June 21, 1847 the 11th Regiment was formed—later to be renamed the 12th.   While the 7th Regiment had earned the nickname of The Silk Stocking Regiment because many of its members came from the city’s wealthiest families; the 11th Regiment could boast blue blood as well.   Its first lieutenant colonel was John Jacob Astor.  He would proudly use his rank for the rest of his life.

Less than 24 hours after news of the bombardment of Fort Sumter reached New York in April 1861, the regiment “offered its services to President Lincoln," as reported in the New-York Daily Tribune later.  Under the command of then-Colonel Daniel Butterfield, the unit would see repeated action at the front lines; earning national commendation.

Just the regiment anticipated marching back to New York, after more than a year of action, General John E. Wool sent urgent word that “additional troops were needed, especially at Harper’s Ferry,” according to the Tribune.  The 12th Regiment was at present at the momentous surrender on September 15, 1862.

But there would be not much time to rest in success.  The 12th Regiment was brought back to New York to re-establish order when the bloody Draft Riots erupted in July 1863.  Following the war, the regiment saw duty in the Orange Riots in July 1871.  As the labor movement took form, strikes were often violent and bloody.  The 12th would be called to squelch the Railroad Riots of 1877, the switchmen’s strike in Buffalo in 1892 and the Brooklyn motormen’s strike in 1895.  

The 12th Regiment armory had been located on Longacre Square (later renamed Times Square), where Manhattan’s carriage-making industry was centered.  But by the early 1880s the rapidly-developing Upper West Side required an armory.   A plot encompassing 22 city lots on Ninth Avenue (now Columbus Avenue) from 61st to 62nd Streets was purchased and in April 1885 ground was broken.

City armories at the time were as much about architectural drama as they were military function.  Architect James E. Ware designed the rising structure as a medieval fortress replete with towers, loopholes, and a high tower “in which will be portholes commanding all the streets and avenues in the vicinity,” promised The New York Times.

Five months after construction began, the cornerstone was laid on September 19, 1885.  The Times reported “Military men in resplendent uniforms, gray-haired civilians, content with the badges worn in younger days; Freemasons behind their aprons, and Mr. Rollin M. Squire in a new silk hat and a pair of faultless trousers,” met at the site to participate in the ceremony.  The first speaker was, deservedly, Daniel Butterfield, now a General.

Ware’s plans included a 175 by 200 foot drill room with a glass and iron ceiling 45 feet above the floor.  There was a Board of Officers’ Room (called by the Tribune “one of the finest in the building), a meeting room, offices for the Colonel, Adjutant and Quartermaster, a “band room,” and 10 company “apartments.”  The single wood used throughout the interior would be ash.

Invading enemies would be well advised to steer clear of the 12th Regiment Armory.  The Times reported “Along the edge of the roof of the drill room will run a parapet walk guarded by a stone wall nine feet high.  Seventy portholes are to be built in this wall…This will be the only armory in the United States that will be practicably defensible from the inside.  The building will be of granite and brick, the former to be used only on the first floor.”

photo by Geo. P. Hall & Son, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

The $750,000 structure was completed in April 1887.  Before the 12th Regiment moved in, a glittering reception was held on April 21.   Unfortunately, the National Guard was better at fighting battles than at planning social events.  Invitations went out to far more people than could be accommodated. 

The following day the New-York Tribune was irate at the outrageous turn of events.  “The people who were asked to the 12th Regiment’s reception last night came near being invited to a riot.  Thousands of invitations were sent out, it is said, but after about 3000 people were admitted to the armory, the rest were kept out at the point of the bayonet.”

The Board of Officers' Room (above) and the room of Company B.  New-York Tribune December 29, 1901 (copyright expired)
While Victorian ladies and gentlemen in evening dress puzzled over their predicament, “Twice a corporal’s guard indicated a desire to charge on the eager guests, and would have done it, too, probably, if the guests had not had nerve enough to hold the dangerous playthings steady and harmless in the agitated militiamen’s hands.”  With thinly-veiled annoyance, the newspaper offered “Next time the regiment would do well to ask fewer people or such as are accustomed to being stuck with bayonets.”

The Regiment took the advice to heart and the following evening the armory was the scene of what the Tribune called “mild revelry."   This time only about 200 or 300 guests were present.  “The company first gave an exhibition of drill; then there was a dance, which was followed by a supper.  The regimental band gave a concert and played for the dancers.”

A week later, on April 29, 1887, the 12th Regiment marched up Broadway from its old headquarters, and took official possession of the Columbus Avenue armory.   The New-York Tribune noted that the Board of Officers’ Room “contains a fine collection of portraits” and “a collection of heavy oaken chairs in which the names of the officers who occupy then are inscribed.”

When the 12th Regiment was not engaged in putting down strikes or military campaigns—it would see action in Cuba during the Spanish-American War—the armory was the scene of sporting games and social activities.

On February 20, 1896 crowds watched the joint athletic games of the New West Side Athletic Club and Company F of the 12th Regiment.  Among the contests were the two-mile bicycle race, the one-mile walk (no one could understand why W. F. McLaughlin who finished second was disqualified), and basketball.  The Tribune reported that “Master Le Roy See gave a clever exhibition of trick riding on a bicycle.  After the games dancing was indulged in.”

Recruits for the Spanish-American War are sworn in.  Officers have stabilized the table, on casters, with magazines. photograph by Byron Company, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In February of 1902 Columbia University’s intercollegiate, interscholastic and open track events were held here.  The university’s newspaper announced that “five hundred entries have been received” on February 28.

By 1905 the 20-year old armory showed needed maintenance.  Immediately after the election of Mayor George B. McClellan that year he was invited to review the 12th Regiment.  The Mayor arrived during a pouring rainstorm.  On February 5 the New-York Tribune reported “when the time came for the review the Mayor was led to a spot on the floor where the rain came through and sprinkled him.  He looked around to see if other people were in range of the shower, and saw that they were not.”

The following morning he understood the indignity.  “There came before him for signature a resolution of the Armory Board calling for an appropriation of about $40,000 for repairing the roof of the 12th Regiment Armory.”

At the time of the Mayor’s soaking, another millionaire, Cornelius Vanderbilt, was a Lieutenant in the 12th Regiment.   When Major General Charles F. Roe reviewed the unit in December 1905 Vanderbilt served as officer of the guard.  That same month the Tribune reported “Indoor baseball has become quite a pastime among the companies, and a competition is at present going on for the regimental championship.”

On March 27, 1909 the armory was visited by Baron Rosen, the Czar’s Ambassador to the United States.   With him were Colonel Baron Bode, the Military Attache to the Washington embassy, and Baron Schlippenbach, the Russian Consul General in New York.  The regimental band played the Russian National Anthem as the group arrived with Colonel Dyer.  After an exhibition of shooting and drill, the baron lavished the regiment with praise. 

The Russian baron reviewed the troops in the massive drill hall -- photo by Geo. P. Hall & Son, from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.
Russia was involved in violent revolution and political tensions throughout Europe were intensifying.  In response to his praise, someone remarked “But you are a man of peace.  As such, don’t you think this warlike display is to be deplored?”

The baron replied in part “I do not believe that my hope of peace is lessened in any way by reviewing the Twelfth Regiment.  More confident I am than ever of the fact that no nation will attempt to make war upon any other nation as well prepared as this would lead me to believe the United States is.” 

With an eerie sense of foreshadowing, in presenting the regiment an award, he said “Soldiers, you have shot well to earn this handsome trophy, and, although I am a man of peace, I hope that you will shoot as well in time of war as you have done in times of peace.”

As the United States paid careful attention to the developments overseas, the men of the 12th Regiment prepared for any eventuality.  On April 16, 1910 the detachment left the armory at 6:15 p.m. in a drill march.  They marched to Philadelphia, following the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.  With only brief rest periods, the regiment continued for two and a half days, marching in with full equipment and ending back at the armory at 8:55 on April 19.  In his report, Captain F. C. Harriman noted that the men “finished in better physical condition than when they started, and with the exception of a few blisters on the feet owing to the very hard roads that we had to come over they would have been able to start and do the march over again.”  As it turned out, the march was, indeed, repeated several times over the next few years. 

In the meantime, the armory continued to be used for various exhibitions and meetings.  In 1912 it hosted the Exhibition of Aristocratic Canines, and a year later the United Catholic Works staged an exhibition and sale that included Native American works like Navajo rugs and Sioux and Chippewa bead work.

Especially noteworthy was the 10-day New York Emancipation Exposition held that same year.  The event honored the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The first staging of W. E. B. Du Bois’ pageant play The Star of Ethiopia with a cast of over 1,000 actors took place during the event on October 22, 1913.’’

When the Exposition closed, The Crisis called it “perhaps the largest single celebration which colored people have had in the North.  The total attendance was over 30,000; the order was perfect; not a single arrest was made and there were no serious accidents.”

Peace ended on April 2, 1917.  Dancing, games and dog shows gave way to war.   In September the year before, Base Hospital No. 1 had been organized as a military surgical team.  Now its home was the 12th Regiment armory.    As the Base Hospital temporarily remained, training for deployment, the 12th Regiment headed off to war.

Thanksgiving was bleak for soldiers that year.  The 12th Regiment armory became a gigantic dining room as it opened its doors to servicemen.  The New York Times called it “the largest dinner to be served in New York” and said those receiving Thanksgiving dinner here would be the enlisted men from Camp Mills on Long Island, consisting of “soldiers from Western and Pacific States.”  Those in charge of the dinner suggested that “former Westerners now living in New York to come to the dinner and join in the welcome extended to the men from the States from which the division now at Mineola has drawn its men.”

On February 26, 1918 Base Hospital No. 1 too left for war.  Upon arriving at Vichy it set up a hospital in nine hotels.  The first patients arrived on April 9—252 wounded Frenchmen.  Two days later 358 American soldiers arrived.

Among the medical team was Princeton graduate Frank L. Farrell.  Just prior to being shipped off to France, he wrote the Princeton Alumni Weekly, “I’m in a uniform.  It’s the somber, ill fitting uniform of a humble private, but still it’s Uncle Sam’s uniform.  It’s like this:  The Allies decided in view of the Italian and Russian situations that things were pretty serious.  So they decided to play their strongest card and I was mobilized at once…The thing I like most is rising at 6 a. m.”  He downplayed the danger of his deployment adding “Put my initials on one of the kegs you are sending to Berlin for our class reunion.”

Frank Farrell and the rest of Base Hospital No. 1 would remain in Vichy until March 5, 1919.  During that time it performed 8,142 surgeries and treated 7,481 other cases.  When the 12th Regiment, Base Hospital No. 1, and the city’s other regiments returned to New York City, hundreds of thousands of cheering civilians cheered as they marched up Fifth Avenue.

With the end of war the use of the great drill hall returned to its on-and-off use as an exhibition space.  It was highly favored as the venue for motor vehicle shows.  In January 1921 the Motor Truck Association of America held its Highway Transportation Show here.  Motor Truck magazine said “Demonstration of the possibilities of highway haulage with power vehicles is the keynote” of the event.

The event was repeated the following year; and in 1922 the Exposition of the Automobile Body Builders Association was held here.  The car and truck makers would have to find a new space by 1937 when the massive drill hall had been converted to a bowling alley.

On May 19, 1947 a two-day celebration of the centennial of the 12th Infantry Regiment was held.  The festivities ended “with a review and pageant in the regimental armory,” reported The New York Times on May 21.   The 350 people attending the dinner and dance at the Henry Hudson Hotel the first night could scarcely have imagined that within a decade later the massive stone and brick armory would be no more.

Robert Moses conceived of the “Lincoln Square Renewal Project”—a 16.3-acre urban renewal project that would stretch between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues, from West 60th to 66th Streets.

On May 9, 1957 400 people attended a rally to protest the redevelopment project.  While the envisioned Lincoln Center would replace urban blight; it would also put more than 40,000 residents on the street.  The protesters, of course, failed and blocks of structures were razed—including the venerable 12th Regiment Armory.  Rather interestingly, little if any protest was raised about the demolition of the unofficial landmark.  

The site of the armory is now a parking lot and entrance to the garage beneath the Fordham University School of Law.


  1. Thank you so much for this detailed article (with pictures no less)! Our ancestor served in the 12th regiment for years. We are looking for a picture of him. If you have any suggestions on where to find more pictures of the 12th reg

  2. Greetings,
    I was wondering if there is any information on my great grandfather who was assigned to the 12 Regiment. He was Sergeant Major William Henderson and I have his discharge certificate dated 1886.
    Thank You any information would be appreciated
    Gerard Fitzpatrick

  3. My Dad was an Ironworker on the demolition job of the Armory. He was almost killed when the steel framework collapsed, as he was astride a girder when the arch trusses gave way. I have only a yellowing newspaper photo taken by someone named Dan McElleney for the NY Mirror, that mom saved. Dad was taken to Roosevelt Hospital where he stayed for about 6 months. I was barely 3 yrs old, but I remember visiting him at the hospital & watching the pretty pigeons on the window ledge from his room. I've looked online for more info as to the reason for the collapse, etc. More news articles about his condition and recovery, but to no avail. We lost our house (in Queens) because he wasn't working, & had to move to a less expensive neighborhood. Last memory of that time was seeing a taxi cab pull up to the new house and Dad getting out of it & walking with a limp & a cane. As a Daddy's girl, I was so worried he wouldn't be able to find us in the new home. He did go back to work, and retired from Iron-working in the mid 1980's & moved to Florida with mom. From what I have read, Robert Moses was a SOB inspite of his vision of improving the visual affect of NYC & surrounding boroughs. The deal rebuilding Lincoln Square could have been handled better with relocating the residents, but we can't go back in history and change a thing. We have to be alert to the government officials & private businessmen using "Eminent Domain" to "improve" a deteriorating neighborhood. We are a mobile society, so when we become unhappy with living conditions, we move. It has been that way world-wide - looking for a better life and in many cases risking life & limb to make those moves. We also have to remember there's a place for us and everyone else.