IT CAN’T REALLY be said that structures built to garrison dimensions — often standing for decades as the largest, most in-your-face buildings in town — are hiding in plain sight. But the purpose of Washington state’s armories often is obscured, especially to newcomers.
The dozen-plus armories dotting the Evergreen State were built to last, and last they have. Nearly all of them, in fact, long ago outlived their original intended purpose as mustering stations and training facilities for state and federal troops.
Built in the early to mid-20th-century wartime years, armories in Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Bellingham, Aberdeen, Spokane and other locales have lived through cycles of heavy use and silent repose, attentive upkeep and sad decay.
But as large, open and usually publicly available spaces, they’ve also forged their place in local history and culture. A stroll through the photo archives of armories such as the grand brick structure in Tacoma, now shifting to use as a nonprofit arts center and meeting space, is like a tour through the civic life of a city’s people.
Decades ago, with their military uses behind them — everything from training for cavalry troops, small-arms combat and artillery fire to tracking of possible enemy aircraft during the Cold War Civil Defense era — most of these now-century-old garrisons shifted to more community-oriented tasks: hosting public meetings, political conventions, graduations, rock concerts, dances and art exhibits.
Some, such as the sprawling complex in Aberdeen, which burned last summer, have since met tragic fates. Others, such as the armory at Seattle Center and the impressive Tacoma Armory, now serve as multipurpose civic stars.
Given their role as foundations of civic life in communities large and small, past and present, photographer Alan Berner and I thought a glimpse at life spans and possible futures of the state’s landmark armories might provide some insight into the people who built them.