If you were to take the 4 Train north from Fordham Road, you would suddenly come upon a mass of brick and stone and iron and glass, a huge building that looks like a cross between a Medieval castle and a Victorian train station. This is the Kingsbridge Armory. A protected landmark originally housing the 8th NY Artillery Regiment, the armory is currently undergoing renovations to become the Kingsbridge National Ice Center. Built in 1912, it is one of two dozen National Guard armories built in New York City starting in the 1880s (Fogelson 78). The Kingsbridge Armory is typical of such armories: like it, many have recently been handed over by the state to private organizations, which now operate them for community use. This current situation, however, is a far cry from their intended purpose: conceived out of fears of social upheaval and class warfare in the late nineteenth century, the armories originally served as bastions to defend against the working masses. These armories have thus transformed from fortresses meant to police their communities into centers serving their communities. The complex history of this transformation has witnessed the armories’ disparate functions such as sports coliseums, homeless shelters, and art galleries. Understanding this history is important to understanding the armories; however, it is also important in understanding New York City. Because the armories have long served New York, their nature and use changing in response to the changing needs of the city, the armories may serve as a mirror, revealing much about the city’s past and present. By examining the history of the armories and their roles in New York we may glimpse the city’s social and political history since the late nineteenth century, catching sight of labor tensions and social outreach, of decline and resurgence. In the transformation of the armories, therefore, we may find reflected the transformation of New York City.
The great period of armory building began in the late nineteenth century, starting in 1879. This was the Gilded Age: a tumultuous time of both incredible wealth and abject poverty, divisions that were exacerbated in an urban setting such as New York City. During this time, the great business conglomerates and monopolies were formed, but so too were the unions and labor organizations. These developments were a source of great tension throughout the period, as the interests of the managers and the workers, of capital and labor, contended with each other for primacy. Unrest was common. As a result, many Americans feared that the United States was in fact on the verge of class warfare (Fogelson 15). There was much evidence to support this view, as news of unrest turning violent was common. For example, a labor dispute in the railroad industry grew in 1877 into a general strike that paralyzed the Midwest and erupted into mob violence that was only suppressed by federal troops of the U.S. Regular Army (20). Fear and panic spread again in 1886 after an anarchist bomb killed seven policemen at a protest in Chicago during the Haymarket Affair (22). Yet more violence erupted in 1892 during the Homestead Steel Strike (22-23). These and numerous other riots climaxed in 1894 with the Pullman Strike, which, while not as violent as the strike of 1877, affected railways as far west as San Francisco (23). Nor was news from abroad much more heartening: newspapers carried stories of mob rule in the Paris Commune, full of communists, anarchists, and terrorists (15). Haunted by memories of the destruction caused by the draft riots of 1863, many Americans concluded that it was inevitable that similar violence would soon erupt in the United States (15).
While many Americans, including New Yorkers, disagreed about the exact causes of these riots, most agreed about how best to deal with them: through force (Fogelson 29). This was because most Americans believed that law and order should be maintained at any cost. Strikers and rioters were viewed as a massive threat to the values and way of life of the middle and upper classes: they were believed to be foreign anarchists and communists who were engaged in an all-out insurrection against society (29). The municipal police departments, however, were too ill-equipped and unreliable to handle this task, and the regular troops too few and too expensive. To fill this need, therefore, the states began to take greater control of their volunteer militias, militarizing and training them to suppress riots and strikes. Addressing the 7th NY Infantry in 1879 at the dedication of their armory, orator George W. Curtis made this role clear:
In the last dire extremity, behind the policeman’s club glistens your bayonet, and its stern radiance guards the commonwealth like a wall of fire. Because of this armory, and of all similar armories around us, the great city sleeps in peace. Every honest man goes quietly to his work, because he knows that, should lawful order be assaulted and overthrown, these reservoirs of the will of the state would overflow with resistless power (2).
Originally, the militias existed as a check to the power of the state, a safeguard to liberty; now, however, the newly-christened “national guard” was an agent of the state, preserving order and protecting property (41). It was into this atmosphere that New York’s armories were conceived and built.
Armories were viewed as essential towards fulfilling this mission. They Armories provided the Guard with space to train their men not only in the military arts but also in the qualities of a good citizen: patriotism, discipline, and respect for authority (79). The armories also acted as defensive fortresses for the Guard, for it was thought that eventually they would be attacked by mobs (164). Furthermore, the armories acted as symbols of authority, readiness, and determination. In 1891, the Rev. T. De Witt Talmadge explained what armories stood for: “An armory [says] to all the people as they pass by: ‘Be good citizens! Honor the law! Keep the peace! And if you don’t keep it, I will make you keep it!’” (81). The armories’ architecture reflected and reinforced this sentiment: built in the style of medieval castles, these prominent buildings projected the power and strength of the state (156).
The motivation for the armories’ construction and their design thus reveal much about New York City during end of the nineteenth century. In the armories, we may see a reflection of the concerns of the middle and upper classes of New York, who sought to control the ever increasing number of poor and immigrants, those “dangerous classes” whom they feared might rise up and destroy their way of life (“Kingsbridge”). The armories built between 1880 and 1914 are a unique representation and manifestation of this concern. Despite these fears, however, the revolution did not ultimately occur and the United States was not plunged into class warfare (Fogelson 167). Consequently, the priorities and concerns of New York City changed, and so did the role of the armories within it.
By 1905, worries about class warfare began to fade, replaced with growing concerns of foreign warfare (Fogelson 213). As the twentieth century began, the threat of war with foreign powers emerged and the National Guard increasingly became a reserve force to the regular army, relegating its policing duties to the newly created State Police and coming under federal control (217-218). This change in the National Guard resulted in a change in the perception and role of the armories. The importance of Armories as defensive installations decreased as the Guard turned its attention outwards. Coastal forts began to eclipse armories in importance. New construction slowed, and the castellated design fell from favor (206)., No longer seen as fortresses, the armories began to see civilian use (207-208). The armories’ drill sheds were among the largest unobstructed spaces in the city, so the Guard regiments began to occasionally rent them out as coliseums for public events (209). For example, the 7th Regiment Armory hosted several national music festivals (Todd 243), while the 69th Regiment Armory hosted the Armory Art Show of 1913, which was New York’s first introduction to modernist art (“The Armory” and Fogelson 209).
As the military value and use of the armories decreased, their civilian use and value increased. After continued use as coliseums, the armories began to be used as community centers, serving the daily needs of their communities. This new use of armories as community centers was particularly encouraged during the Great Depression by the WPA, which provided funding contingent that 75% of the armories’ use be civilian (Fogelson 211). In the 1920s and 30s, armories hosted trade shows, dances, and athletic competitions, and served the unemployed (Todd 244, 250). They were especially used as recreational facilities for children in an effort to get them “off the streets” (Fogelson 210). In this way, the New Deal firmly entrenched armories as being just as civil as they were martial (211). Just as governments, including that of New York, began to greater and more directly serve the needs of the public during this period, so, too, did the armories.
This prevalent use of armories as coliseums and community centers decreased after the Second World War with the advent of modern convention centers, arenas, and sports complexes (Todd 248, 271). However, this did not mark the end of the armories’ importance in New York City, for post-war developments would again make the armories critical to the city’s civic life. Many of New York’s armories were used as homeless shelters during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of the city’s homelessness crisis. Through this role, the armories show how the crisis, and the conditions that lead to it, typify the experience of post-war New York.
In 1980, a New York State court decision, Callahan V. Carey, granted the city’s homeless a right to shelter (Howard 136). By this time, homelessness in New York had reached crisis proportions, with over 60,000 persons living on the streets (Fogelson 229). This crisis had several causes, but was ultimately a result of several trends in post-war New York. After World War II, New York, like many cities, went into a period of decline as it lost its population to the suburbs and faced increased poverty. To combat this trend, Federal agencies allocated funds to revitalizes the cities. Consequently, people like Robert Moses undertook massive “Urban Renewal” projects, such as the Lincoln Square Revitalization Project, to clear out New York’s slums and skid-rows (Howard 120). However, such planners often “conflated people and place, hoping to erase poverty from the landscape through good urban design” (10). Very often these projects were undertaken without concern for current residents, often displacing thousands of them (124). By 1980, far more low-income housing was being destroyed than was being built (122). Historian Ella Howard explains: “Moses did not set out to house [a slum’s] population in better conditions. Instead, he planned to replace an undesirable population with a different, more desirable one” (126). As a result of this lack of low-income housing, coupled with long-term unemployment and a trend of de-institutionalizing in the cities psychiatric institutes, New York City’s homeless population exploded (Fogelson 229). Displaced from all residential, social, and economic systems, they were forced to the streets in huge numbers (Howard 178).
With the court’s 1980 decision, New York City scrambled to provide these thousands with shelter (Howard 136). There were not nearly enough permanent shelters but the armories, with their cavernous interiors, provided an obvious solution (Fogelson 228). Consequently, many armories were turned into temporary homeless shelters, their drill halls and gymnasiums filled with thousands of cots (Todd 273). This development was indeed ironic, as the armories had been built in order to “intimidate the ‘dangerous classes’, not accommodate them,” which they now did (Fogelson 230). However, the armories’ ultimate purpose as the solution to a crisis did not change: rather, as the times changed so too did the crisis. In their role as homeless shelters the armories once again serve to crystallize New York’s history through the city’s response to the challenges it faced in the late twentieth century.
By the twenty-first century, few armories continue to house the National Guard, the 69th Regimental Armory being one exception (Fogelson 220). Several still serve as homeless shelters, but most have been sold to private organizations which use them for nonmilitary purposes (224). Many of New York City’s armories are now protected landmarks occupied by a wide variety of not-for-profit or civic entities (Todd 273). The Fort Washington Avenue Armory, for example, now houses the National Track Hall of Fame and is host to high school and college track meets, as well as a “a variety of cultural and school-coordinated educational activities” (Armory Foundation). Several armories, including the Park Slope Armory, are owned by the YMCA (Todd 134). The First Battery Armory has been converted into an ABC studio, while the 7th Regimental Armory now houses an art exhibit (Fogelson 225). Through these uses, the armories illustrate how New York City has been changing in the twenty-first century. Many of the armories have been repurposed and used in ingenious ways. This utilizing of obsolete structures in unexpected way– called adaptive re-use–is very typical of the new urban environment (225). Also typical of the modern New York is the way that these armories have been mostly redeveloped by community initiatives for the use of the community itself. In this way, the armories play an important part in the current rebirth of many of New York’s communities. Once at odds with their communities, the armories now give back to them.
Throughout their history, New York City’s National Guard armories have served important military, civic, and social roles. However, at all times they have served as a mirror which has reflected the social and political life of New York since the late nineteenth century. By examining the armories, we are able to see the reflection of the changing nature of the city. In the armories we can catch glimpses of labor tensions, of social outreach, of the decline and of the rise of the city. The armories and their continued existence are counterintuitively a testament, in all their medieval brilliance, to change. They are a testament to social and political changes so great that they can transform imposing fortresses meant to control the population into inviting centerpieces of their communities.
 Arising after wages were cut 10%, the strike affected two thirds of the nation’s rail lines and lasted two weeks. Rioters destroyed $5 to $10 million of property in Pittsburg alone, and an equal amount elsewhere. 120 people were killed and hundreds injured. This was only the second time that the army became involved in a labor dispute, called in only after the police and state militias had been overwhelmed (Fogelson 20-21).
 The irony of this was not lost on the leaders of organized labor. Fogelson states: “As they saw it, armories were manifestations of class warfare in America, a war of the plutocracy against the people, Capitalists against workers and farmers – a war in which the National Guard served as the army of the giant corporations” (72).
 Prior to 1880, state militia and guard units had to train and drill in rented or shared spaces. (Sixty-Ninth)
 This is, largely, who comprised the National Guard. Since one of their main purposes was to suppress strikes, the National Guard was not altogether popular with workingmen or labor unions. Some Guards regiments barred men with Union memberships from joining their ranks to prevent conflict of interest. Consequently, the militia/guard grew increasingly homogenous over time and became not unlike a social club (Fogelson 164 and “Kingsbridge”).
 This was largely due to a combination of military force and the reforms of the Progressive movement, which addressed most of workers’ most pressing concerns, such as the eight-hour work day and workers’ compensation. Furthermore, the new century brought new crises to preoccupy the public, allowing fears of class warfare to dissipate (Todd 191),
 This was accomplished by the NY National Guard either leasing space in a given armory to the city or vacating and turning it over to the city entirely (Todd 203).
 Even these active military armories give back to the community. They regularly assist with disasters as emergency facilities, and after 9/11 the 69th Regimental Armory served as a counseling center.
 The High Line Park or the recent art exhibit at the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse are examples of this trend.
“The Armory.” SixtyNinth.Net. Web. 1 May 2015.
“Armory Foundation.” ArmoryTrack.com. Web. 1 May 2015.
Bady, David. “Kingsbridge Armory.” Lehman College Art Gallery: Architecture. Web. 30 Apr. 5.
Fogelson, Robert M. America’s Armories: Architecture, Society, and Public Order. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1989. Print.
Howard, Ella. Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2013. Print.
Todd, Nancy L. New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2006. Print.