Monday, January 9, 2017

The Lost 71st Regiment Armory -- Park Avenue and 33rd Street

photo by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Following the April 1898 declaration of war against Spain, the 71st Regiment was sent to Cuba, where they would participate in the Battle of San Juan Hill.  On May 4 the regiment's veterans issued a call to "the young men of this city to fill the places of the men who have gone, thus reinforcing the regiment for the protection of the city and state."  Enlistees were told to "apply at the 71st Regiment Armory, 34th Street and Park Avenue."

The armory mentioned was a 6-year old imposing stone edifice of towers, turrets and gables sitting squarely within the Murray Hill mansion district.  Inside were historic items relating to the regiment--the muster rolls of the Civil War, the flag carried in the Battle of Bull Run, the banner presented by the City of New Orleans in 1881, an oil portrait of George Washington, and another of Hernan Cortes removed from Castle Chapultepec (the "Halls of Montezuma") during the Mexican War.

The original 71st Regiment Armory.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Then on the morning of February 22, 1902, newspapers ran the story of the destruction of the hulking armory.  Its origin was never discovered; however the high winds of the stormy winter night fed the flames.  Only one wall and the entrance on 34th Street stood after the inferno burned out.

A newspaper reported "The actual property of the Veteran Association was insured for $10,000, and that of the regiment for $20,000.  The only thing saved from both items is the tablet commemorative of the killed and wounded at the battle of Bull Run, presented by Col. Henry P. Martin."  Later one other artifact was found in the ruins, the cannon captured in the riot of 1857.  Although the wooden trunion was destroyed, of course, the cast iron cannon was saved.

The decision was made to rebuild on the site.  But the new armory would not come before scandal and embarrassment for the regiment.  Colonel William G. Bates and Major E. T. T. Marsh were brought up on charges by Major C. H. Smith, who accused them of fraud in reporting the losses.  On December 20, 1902 the Army and Navy Journal reported that the military court decided "That their conduct in filing improper claims for losses in the destruction of the 71st Regiment Armory was indiscreet and improper and lacking in frankness."  The officers narrowly escaped severe discipline when the court deemed that their action "shows no intent to defraud."

Among the members of the 71st Regiment was Lieutenant-Colonel J. Hollis Wells, an architect who worked with the firm of Clinton & Russell.  Understandably, that firm received the commission.  The History of the 71st Regiment, N. G. N. Y. explained that between Wells and Colonel Bates, "understanding all the requirements for a national guard armory, they carefully studied out and advised with the architects, thereby securing everything conceivable as necessary."

On April 29, 1904, the sixth anniversary of the 71st Regiment's departure for Cuba, the cornerstone was laid.  A crowd of 3,000 (there would have been more, thought the New York Times journalist reporting on the event, had it not been for "the very unfavorable weather") watched as Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. tapped it in place with a silver trowel.

The box placed within the cornerstone had been rescued from the old armory ruins--placed there on December 17, 1892.  The original contents were left in place, joined by 1904 coins, a history of the regiment, a roster of current members and a roll of the members of the Veteran Association, and other pamphlets.

The Times announced "The new structure will be completed about the beginning of next year...It will be in the style of a mediaeval castle with turrets and a lofty tower, the latter to be occupied by the Signal Corps." 

photo from the collection of the New York State Military Museum
The completed armory cost $650,000 (nearly $18 million today) and engulfed the entire Park Avenue blockfront from 33rd to 34th Streets. The brick and stone fortress included the expected crenelated towers, romantic turrets, and a gaping maw of an entrance above a wide flight of stone stairs.  All of this was overshadowed by the 236-foot tall tower which seemed a bit out of place. The New York Times later mentioned that the tower was "modeled after the famous Town Hall tower of Siena, Italy."

A vintage postcard of the Siena tower shows the unmistakable similarities.

There was "not an inch of waste room," according to the 1919 History of the 71st Regiment.  The vast drill room, with a separate entrance on 34th Street, was on the first floor, along with the brigade headquarters and staff.   The History added, "Also provided was a large gymnasium, shower, baths, a lavatory large enough for a company at one time, library, officers' locker rooms, bowling alley, billiard room, an assembly room for entertainments, squad drill rooms; in fact, everything requisite."

As with other regiments, the 71st shared its armory in peace time for a dizzying variety of productions, events and conventions.  In November 1912, for instance, the "Land Show" opened.  The Times explained "The exhibits are divided into four classes, including live stock, products of the soil, farming machinery and equipment, and exhibits demonstrating modern scientific methods of farming."

Along with the "bottled fruits and vegetables," varieties of fresh produce, and farm machinery were live animals.  "Pedigreed cows are milked by electricity.  Across the aisle are numerous pigs and prize poultry of all kinds to be seen," reported the newspaper.  Rather out of place was the Women's Political Union which distributed suffragist literature.

The Suffragists were back two months later for the Suffrage Ball.  On January 12, 1913 the New-York Tribune reported "Well, the Women's Political Union did one big thing last night.  It made the 71st Regiment Armory look small.  And the 71st Regiment Armory holds a few people, too--about ten thousand."

The armory quickly became a favored venue for high school, intercollegiate and amateur athletics.  And in 1915 a tradition was begun when the Charity Dog Show opened here.  The Times said "Next to the Westminster Kennel Club's exhibition, the Charity Dog Show...will be the largest dog show ever held in the United States, and it is the greatest for charity ever held in the world."

Athletic competitions, dog shows and charity balls came to a halt on March 25, 1917 when 800 of the 1,200 enlisted men of the regiment received orders to mobilize.  In record time, the men were ready to leave the following morning.  The New-York Tribune reported "Wool uniforms, overcoats, and underclothes are held in plenty by the regimental quartermaster."

Canadian Highlander soldiers known as "kilties" march into the armory in July 1917 as part of "British Recruiting Week."  from the collection of the Library of Congress

The war was over in December 1918, making that Christmas especially joyful.  Nevertheless, thousands of soldiers arriving on ferries and at railroad stations were still being directed to War Camp Units and would not be home for the holiday.  Dinners, parties and other entertainments were hurriedly organized.  On December 8 The New York Times announced "there will be a great dance at the 71st Regiment Armory, Park Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, to which 3,000 tickets will be issued."

With peace the exhibitions returned.  1919 saw the Own-Your-Home Exhibition, where according to organizers, the "housing problems of this city" could be tackled.  In April the National Milk and Dairy Farm Exposition was held here.

But world war was not easily forgotten.  On June 19, 1919 the New York City's military, police and fire forces were organized in a city-wide mock drill that simulated an attack.   Bugles were sounded from every armory at 7:30 a.m.--no doubt terrifying civilians.  "Soon afterward, motorcycle couriers, bearing secret orders for the commanders of eleven regiments sped away from the 71st Regiment armory," wrote the New-York Tribune.  "For the purposes of the military problem the city was under martial law.  The seat of government was in the 71st Regiment Armory."

Later that year the armory was besieged not by a foreign enemy, but by children.  On December 5 The Evening World announced that the New York City Police Department intended to hold a "big entertainment" for children on December 23.  "The gifts will be presented by 100 soldiers who fought overseas, attired in Santa Claus costumes."  Every needy child would receive a package containing an article of clothing and other gifts.

The NYPD passed out 7,000 tickets to the event.  But the decision to announce the party in advance proved to be disastrous.  On December 24 The Times ran a headline reading "Children Run Riot In Christmas Fete--Armory Stormed by 14,000 Youngsters."  The article said "Police reserves from six precincts were called to restore order following a rush by the children upon the long tables...where thousands of their gifts were being distributed."  Women fainted, children were nearly crushed in the madness ("some on crutches," said The Times), and some were pushed "headlong down the Thirty-fourth Street entrance."

The armory continued to be the site of extraordinary events.   The Music Festival in April 1920 featured composer Serge Rachmanioff, conductor Walter Damrosch, and opera stars Sophie Braslau, Marie Sundelius, Orville Harrold, and Merle Alock, among others.  Also here that year was the Aviation Show, in which the "smallest dirigible in the world" was exhibited, along with Orville Wright's newest design, the Dayton-Wright aerial coupe.

Throughout the 1920s professional boxing and wrestling matches were presented in the armory.  One of the more bizarre events was the 1928 Talk Contest.  Organized by promoter Milton D. Crandall, well-known for his dance marathons, it pitted 36 persons (11 women and 25 men), "in a contest to determine which sex is the 'gabbier," according to The Times on December 25, 1928.

According to Crandall, the idea originated when he "read of a divorce case in which the husband applied for a decree on the grounds that his wife insisted on doing all of the talking."  The newspaper said the contestants "are poets, philosophers, social welfare worker, baritones and people 'just naturally like to hear their own voices.'"  The winner was "the one with the longest total of time spent in talking, singing, screaming, gargling, reciting and hooting."

On April 28, 1929 some New Yorkers may have been shocked to read that the City Controller had been authorized to sell the 25-year old building.  The Times reported "Actual demolition, in all probability, will not take place until a decision has been reached in regard to new quarters for the regiment."

It was most likely the onslaught of the Great Depression that halted those plans.  The armory continued on as the site for athletic tournaments, boxing and wrestling bouts, and military balls.  In 1938 the New York Police Department began using the drill room and other sections as its Recruit's Training School.

Another New York tradition, along with the dog show, was the New York Antiques Fair which opened on October 20, 1947 and became a much-anticipated annual event.

Despite its reprieve, the fate of the 71st Regiment Armory seemed bleak by the early 1960s.  Whitney North Seymour, Jr., writing in The New York Times on October 13, 1963 made a plea on its behalf; saying that the armory "is now in a sorry state of repair and may surrender its ground to new apartment dwellings.  But, properly cleaned up, this structure has excellent esthetic and commercial possibilities."

The case for preservation was not helped when built-up sewer gas exploded in the basement in June 1964, injuring 18 National Guardsmen.  A few days later the Fire Department returned to find that the gas had once again filled the space.

Despite this, the New York State Democratic Convention was held here in September that year.  On September 2 journalist Philip H. Doughtery made note that "Mrs. Ethel Skakel Kennedy, who is expecting her ninth child in December and is hoping her husband will be a Senator by then, acted the perfect wife, mother and lady in the noisy heat of the State Democratic Convention yesterday."

In what The New York Times described as "the sweltering 71st Regiment Armory," Robert F. Kennedy won the nomination that night.  It was a somewhat surprising turn of events, as the 38-year old Attorney General was neither a resident nor an enrolled member of the New York Democratic party.

The death knoll finally came on June 26, 1971 when the venerable 71st Regiment Armory was evacuated.  The Times remarked that after "the last military vehicle is driven down the steps from the drill floor to Park Avenue...the armory will be locked by the state to await demolition by the city."

In its place the city erected the Norman Thomas High School, topped by a 42-story orange brick skyscraper. designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon Associates.
photograph by Buttonwood Tree

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