IN THE FAMILY of public buildings, they’re like your slightly off-kilter uncle: been around forever. Done and seen everything, made friends far and wide. Made the front page a time or two, mostly just worked away in the background. Now graying and shedding some shingles, wondering whether there’s enough time, space or energy for a second — or maybe eighth — act.
Washington’s public armories won’t show up for anyone’s Thanksgiving dinner. But for multiple generations of residents, they were a sprawling table for civic life around the Evergreen State.
THE BACKSTORY: What’s a big, old armory like you doing in a city like this?
They’re rare historical remnants spanning a 100-year gap between distinct eras. Built in the early 20th century to serve, as the name suggests, as military mustering stations and storehouses, these strongholds shared common traits: All were fortresses, in appearance and construction. They contained voluminous field-house spaces used for field exercises, military training and even small-arms target practice. And most still stand.
Built with state; local; and, later, federal funds, most were designed by architects of some renown who sketched them out with a flair not often seen in structures for utilitarian purpose. They went up before anyone knew what neighborhood character was — or cared. For better or worse, depending on one’s appreciation for garrison-style architecture, most were likely the most prominent — or at least most interesting — building in town when the doors swung open.
Some of them still are.
Tim Wynn, who managed the castlelike, hilltop Bellingham Armory — now largely hidden by the South Hill neighborhood that grew up around it — remembers the first day he set foot inside the structure after taking a job as facilities director for Western Washington University, which inherited the armory from the National Guard and owned it until last year.
Inspecting some impeccable mortar applied to the building’s Chuckanut sandstone blocks, Wynn remarked to a co-worker how well the building had been maintained. The response: It’s original. The same stuff they used to build it in 1910.
“I fell in love with that building at that very moment,” Wynn says.
In a fate mirrored by many of its cousins, the building sat empty for decades, used largely for storage, before a recent sale to private developers who’ve pledged to convert it to housing and retail space, maintaining to the degree possible its historical features.
A checkup on the state’s inventory suggests other historical armories have reached a similar tipping point between public use, private renovation and abandonment, with a select few rising as new civic stars.
THE FIRST public construction flurry produced armories in Tacoma, Spokane, Seattle, Bellingham and Yakima between 1908 and 1912. A handful of others appeared in the following decade, including a building in Yakima (since demolished) and a sprawling Aberdeen armory finished in 1922. In the 1930s, Depression-era federal funds were tapped to build additional armories, such as Seattle’s former “Center House” and the old Seattle Naval Reserve building in South Lake Union that now has a hip new tenant, the Museum of History & Industry.
In the post-WWII era, as the nature of national war training and civil defense slowly became more high-tech, all the armories gradually became functionally obsolete. While most maintained their “defense” flavor as part of a network of Washington National Guard facilities for decades, each of the old buildings eventually found other public and private uses.
And what were those? Basically, any activity that utilized what, in the ever-clammy Northwest, qualified as the armories’ most-useful feature: acres of covered, unencumbered floor space.
Our armories morphed into dance halls, concert venues, political and labor convention spaces, Red Scare star-chamber proceedings (in at least one instance) and gathering spots for speeches by a pantheon of national leaders. Their sprawling hardwood floors morphed into roller rinks, basketball courts (donkey and/or human), boxing-card venues and professional wrestling rings.
They were the definition of civic centers: places where local public history, for better or worse, richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, played out. It’s where locals graduated from high school, reported for duty, drafted political candidates, took strike votes, tuned in, tuned out and grew up.
In the past two decades, as most of the old buildings edged toward the century point, major decisions loomed, especially for those still in public ownership: Do these old relics serve a modern-day purpose beyond their interesting history? Are they worth saving? At what cost, and from whose pocket?
For some armories, those questions have been answered, heralding a promising second century of public service. Others have not been so fortunate. A handful of them are already gone.
Here’s a look at the state’s most-prominent historic armories, what transpired inside their substantial walls and what’s become of them.
SEATTLE, BEFITTING its place as the state’s commerce center and largest city, has hosted not just one armory, but four, two of which remain in very active public use. The old First Washington Regiment Armory, built on Union Street in 1888, gave way in 1909 to a new National Guard Armory at Virginia Street and Western Avenue. A fire at the armory on Jan. 7, 1962, threatened the adjacent, then-young Alaskan Way Viaduct with falling bricks. Attempts to remodel the old building fizzled, and it was demolished in 1968. Part of Victor Steinbrueck Park sits on the southern portion of the armory site today.
Seattle’s third armory is the one with which many current Seattleites most closely identify: the four-story Seattle Field Artillery Armory, designed in 1939 by architect Arrigo Mazzucato Young (see also: Pantages Theatre in Tacoma, et al.). The building became best-known as the home of the “Food Circus” (we always asked for clown on the side) at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair; it later became the Bubbleator-equipped Center House, a hub of what would become Seattle Center.
An entire local history book could center on this grand behemoth with impenetrable concrete walls, which served as the training home for the tank crews of the 146th Field Artillery, the 66th Field Artillery Brigade and the Washington Headquarters of the 41st Division of the National Guard. The building’s later eclectic uses include serving as the city’s longest-running dance floor (Duke Ellington performed here at a University of Washington prom in 1941; senior dances routinely commence in the same space today), military housing, ambulance and medical corps training, and civil defense uses such as cataloging enemy aircraft warnings during World War II.
Like most, this armory housed a shooting range near the Army tank-storage area in the basement; it’s still there, closed from public view. And the facility has a little-known place in national Red Scare history, as well. In 1948, five days of the infamous Albert Canwell Committee Hearings on “un-American activities” at the University of Washington and elsewhere played out inside these walls, heralding the arrival of the McCarthy era.
But most locals today remember the big building as a food stop/gathering place known, beginning in the 1970s, as Center House, which hosted the Seattle Children’s Museum after being acquired by the city in 1985. A substantial 1995 remodel repurposed the old building for public gatherings.
In 2012, the old armory was stripped to its bones; remodeled once more; and, in a nod to its historical roots, renamed the Seattle Center Armory. Stop by and visit the impressive sculpted eagles at the front, which seems like the back, of the building today. They don’t make them like this anymore.
The “youngest” Seattle armory is the old Seattle Naval Reserve building, designed as a Works Progress Administration project in the brash Art Moderne and Art Deco styles by architects William R. Grant and B. Marcus Priteca. The building was dedicated on the Fourth of July 1942, with finishing touches hastened by the war effort. It provided administration and training space for female WAVES units; underwent an early renovation in 1946; and hosted a submarine, the first USS Puffer, at its Lake Union docks until it was scrapped in 1960.
Lake Union Park grew up around it while the building fell into sparse use after the Navy set sail from it in the late 1990s. The reserve/armory got an exciting new life in 2011, when it was named the new display space for MOHAI.
TACOMA’S REDBRICK armory on South 11th Street, perhaps the most impressive in the Northwest, also proved one of the most historically significant — and today claims a promising future. Completed in 1908, it opened with a bang with an epic New Year’s party welcoming in 1909, and has remained a civic hub, to varying degrees, ever since.
Its lower floor was equipped with horse stables for cavalry units, along with the obligatory in-house firing range. A 1930s WPA revamp sealed an open portion of the interior that exposed the lower floors, doubling the size of the hardwood drill floor to its current sprawling state.
From then until the 1960s, that floor saw plenty of action, notably hosting rock concerts that helped launch legendary Northwest bands including The Wailers, The Ventures and The Sonics. Three presidents — William Howard Taft (1911) Woodrow Wilson (1919) and Harry Truman (1952) — spoke here. Prince Olav of Norway paid a visit; Earl Warren, then-governor of California and a GOP vice-presidential candidate, gave a stump speech inside for presidential candidate Thomas Dewey before 5,000 Tacomans in October 1948. Horse shows and boxing cards were common and an even greater draw; countless high school diplomas were granted and Daffodil Queens crowned. The armory hosted basketball and hockey games, and Roy Orbison belted out “Oh, Pretty Woman” under its roof.
In the 1980s, the building was repurposed as a Tacoma/Pierce County jail facility — an experiment that didn’t last long.
“That led to pretty much nothing happening in the building for a decade or more,” recalls David Fischer, executive director of Tacoma Arts Live, which now runs the facility. In 2010, the state declared the building surplus, and in 2013, its white knight, local philanthropist/developer Fred Roberson, stepped in. He purchased the building for just less than $1 million and put another million into it, converting its lower floor to office space, now mostly occupied.
Untrained at the art of booking out the armory’s historic parade floor space, Roberson turned to Tacoma Arts Live, which also manages three Tacoma theaters, as a partner. The group has leased the space to events ranging from MMA fights to an exhibit of frescos from the Sistine Chapel, which drew 12,000 visitors last fall.
Roberson has pledged to donate the armory to nonprofit Tacoma Arts Live for ongoing community use after his death.
“I call him the prince of preservation for Tacoma,” Fischer gushes about the building’s benefactor.
THE PRESENT and future are not as glaringly bright for a handful of other historic armories around the state, at least in terms of ongoing public use.
Everett’s Armory, designed in 1920 by architect Louis Svarz, a World War I enlisted man, was dedicated in April 1921 with a grand military ball. The building served multiple public uses over its lifetime, and continued to be owned by the Washington National Guard until January 2013, when the Oakes Avenue structure was sold for $1.275 million to rapidly expanding Mars Hill Church.
When a scandal surrounding church founder Mark Driscoll led to the demise of Mars Hill in 2014, the Everett Mars Hill branch became an independent congregation, Foundation Church, which continues to occupy the building today.
Spokane’s Armory, another massive brick fortress, opened in 1908 with a 12-foot terra-cotta eagle adorning its entrance. The building hosted a speech by President Wilson and a 1937 performance by Bing Crosby. Pro wrestling and boxing were huge draws. Iron Butterfly and Jethro Tull played there in their pre-casino-days primes.
(Ugly historical footnote: In 1950, during the nation’s Jim Crow era, jazz legend Louis Armstrong was booked for a concert at the armory, but left Spokane after he and his band were denied rooms at the city’s Davenport Hotel due to a supposed reservations mix-up, according to the book “Carl Maxey: A Fighting Life,” by Spokane journalist Jim Kershner. Armstrong left town, and was eventually persuaded to return and perform after civic officials, fretting about the city’s reputation, pleaded with him to reconsider, Kershner writes.)
The Spokane Armory was sold to the city in 1977, but never redeveloped as a public venue. Today, it is the home of a Laser Quest Arcade, available for private events and parties.
Just to the south, Pullman had its own armory, a smaller, Art Deco-style building, designed by Spokane architects Archibald Rigg and Roland Vantyne, and completed for the National Guard in 1938. In addition to its military use, it served as a community center, movie theater and basketball venue. The National Guard sold the building to private owners in 2013, and it has since morphed into a multiuse commercial building/residence with a business incubator firm, hot yoga studio and high-end loft apartments, all billed as, “Your luxury headquarters in the heart of Pullman.” The rents have since been derided by at least one student from Montana.
The conversion of the Pullman Armory might have helped keep a cousin, the Walla Walla Armory (1920), in use by the National Guard, which still bases a unit of the Guard’s 146th Field Artillery Regiment there. National Guard armories also are still on active duty in Centralia, Wenatchee, Montesano and other towns.
Aberdeen’s armory, which opened in 1922, was occupied by the Guard until 1978, when it was sold to private investors who later donated the building to the city. It served as headquarters for the Aberdeen Museum of History and various social services offices until it was gutted by fire last June, creating a scramble to preserve the city’s historical treasures. The building is set to be demolished.
MORE TYPICAL of an armory in modern times is Bellingham’s hilltop armory, designed by Seattle architects James E. Blackwell and Frank L. Baker. The 60,000-square-foot building, with crenelated parapet walls, was completed in 1910, and became home to the 161st Infantry and various other military uses. Like many other armories, it hosted Civil Defense activities during World War II, including an Aircraft Warning Service detachment staffed by 150 female volunteers.
The National Guard moved out in 1953, and a private enterprise, The Rolladium, signed a lease and moved in until 1989. Many a Bellinghamster recalls a first date on eight wheels inside the castlelike structure’s walls. The building was gifted to Western Washington University in 1972. For many years, the armory served primarily as storage for theater sets and other materials while the university, which sits a half-mile away, conjured its future use.
The discussion was typical of big, historic buildings handed from one public entity to another, recalls Wynn, who was in on the discussions for a decade: It has a notable public history, but does it have a suitable public future?
The building had an impressive, original, hardwood maple floor; sprawling southern windows; and a ceiling held aloft by 85-foot, clear fir beams. But it also was riddled by mildew and leaks, and was considered too expensive to renovate or even maintain long-term.
Last June, the Western Foundation, the university fundraising arm that had taken charge of the property, sold it to local developers, who have announced general plans for a residential/commercial conversion, maintaining as much of its architecture and character as possible.
“I sure hope they get the tenants” that can keep the building viable, Wynn says. “I don’t want to see that building go away.”
The armories, he says, aren’t just interesting old buildings. They’re civic mirrors.
“Sometimes the question is brought up: Why should we maintain these old buildings?” Wynn acknowledges. “It’s a lot more efficient to bulldoze and build another building tailored to what we want right now.
“But this is about people. People 100 years ago built this. They put their labor into it. This was their vision of their need at that time. We can look back and see what the people back then were thinking and compare it to what we’re thinking today. To me, that’s worthwhile.”