From Weapons to Stories: Repurposing the Park Avenue Armory

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July 24, 2014 by katmcdaniel

Can historic military landmarks find new purpose? Once crumbling, the Park Avenue Armory has reinvented itself by embracing the arts.

© Gryffindor with CCLicense

© Gryffindor with CCLicense

The Seventh Regiment, or Park Avenue, Armory in New York City is impressive from the outside, filling an entire city block with its Gothic Revival style red brick bulk, complete with square, crenellated turrets and trimmed with granite. Hidden within are opulence and workmanship which exceed the distinctive profile of the ornate facade, as well as an otherworldly ambiance created in its dark hallways and cavernous drill hall. Low lighting in public areas has preserved the candle-lit feel of the place and acheived an ominous mood, quickly broken in areas such as the basement or access stairs, which are brightly lit.

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This masterpiece of architecture, completed in 1881 by George Clinton and recognized as his greatest work, was built as a home for the 7th New York Militia Regiment, also known as the Silk Stocking Regiment, which counted among its members Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, and George Clinton himself. The prestige of the 7th and the elite social standing of its members meant that the building was one of the few armories in the nation to be built with private funds. Not only was it a place for storing weaponry and training soldiers, it was a sumptuous social club that afforded a great deal of privilege in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. No expense was spared on rooms designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White, among others. Elegant wood paneling, coffered ceilings, ornamental light fixtures and stained glass windows dominate a space that radiates luxury and gravitas.

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In the center of the building is the drill hall, recently named for Airstream President Wade Thompson, a champion of the restoration and repurposing of the Armory who passed away in 2009. The room is 200′ by 300′ with the oldest balloon shed roof in the United States, a barrel vault supported by eleven arches of wrought iron in lieu of pillars. It is a cavernous space with a distinctly unique atmosphere and acoustic: reverberant, somber, spooky. These attributes make it an ideal venue for large scale performances and installations that deal with dark subject matter.

Public Domain Image via the Library of Congress

Public Domain Image via the Library of Congress, 1984

Less than a decade ago, the Park Avenue Armory was embroiled in controversy over plans to turn it into a performance venue and exhibition space. Groups connected with the 7th Regiment feared that performers, artists and their audiences would prove intrusive. As the plan to renovate what was a crumbling and increasingly dangerous building, with fallen ceilings in many rooms, a leaking facade, lead contamination issues and an infestation of rats feeding on litter, became contingent on money raised from leasing the building as a performance space, an uneasy bargain was struck. Plumbing and electrical systems had to be overhauled and updated, air conditioning installed, foundation footings strengthened and a new roof put on. Repairs necessitated replacing bricks in the facade, which are such as unusual shade of red that they could not be matched. Bricks were taken from another building built in the same era and cut down to size one brick at a time. Finally, in September 2007, Aaron Young’s Greeting Card, a 9,216 square foot piece created by the tire marks of choreographed motorcycles, was the first work presented in the Park Avenue Armory.

Video via Alldayeveryday on Vimeo.

Today, the Armory is home to the 53rd Army Liaison Team of the New York Army National Guard, the Veterans of the 7th Regiment, an after school program called the Knickerbocker Greys (founded 1881), the ceremonial Veteran Corps of Artillery (founded 1790) and the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House Women’s Mental Health Shelter, as well as the Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, which leases the building for unconventional productions of theater, opera, dance, performance art, fashion shows and art installations and also oversees and coordinates restoration efforts. There are vintage oddities everywhere–one of my favorites is a faded poster that proclaims “Concealment: If the enemy can see you, he can kill you!”. Scarcely readable, it seems to have followed its own advice.

I recently had the opportunity to perform at the Park Avenue Armory as part of Houston Grand Opera’s presentation of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger, an unflinching treatment of the holocaust as seen through the haunted recollections of a former Nazi guardswoman, part of the 2014 Lincoln Center Festival. You can read my article on The Passenger here.

Video via Park Avenue Armory on YouTube.

Stepping into the hall for the first time, already impressed by the sumptuous dark wood paneled staircase and the moody lighting of the front entrance, I was stunned and awestruck to see how well Johan Engel’s split level set had taken to the space. The upper levels represent a cruise liner traveling to Brazil in the 1960s and the lower level Auschwitz during World War II, ringed by railroad tracks with moving cars designed to look like actual barracks at the infamous death camp. Originally designed for the outdoor Bregenz Festival, the front of the set was compressed in the Wortham Theater back in Houston, meaning that there wasn’t very much space between the barracks, a rack of lights, and the end of the stage over the orchestra pit. This was not the case in the Armory, which made our frightened running and clambering in and out of the barrack “shelves” feel safer, at least initially. That is, until the realization that we had more space and the excitement of performing at such a venue in such a city took over. The outside world melted away into a darkness that made the story we were telling feel astonishingly real and dreamlike at the same time.

I’m not saying that the Wade Thompson Drill Hall doesn’t have its difficulties as a performance space. There is no orchestra pit, which necessitated that the players be placed back and to the left of the stage, creating difficulties in seeing the conductor and hearing properly. With a score as complex as Weinberg’s this is more than a little frightening, even with a prompter and television monitors visible from stage. There was no curtain, there were no wings, there was nowhere to wait backstage. Another challenge was that the walk from the chorus dressing room to stage took seven minutes, plunging down three flights of stairs, across the basement, past all sorts of strange artifacts, holes and cracks in the walls, dead pianos, stored works of art, and up a flight of stairs to the back of the theater. We were extremely grateful to our tech crew for rigging a paging system so that we could hear the show, and more importantly, our calls to stage.

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It was all worth it. The personality of the Armory: dark, vast and old, is ideal for immersive experiences and intensified the mood of the production immensely. We didn’t need to rely on large amounts of fog belching out into the space to create an eerie ambience. It was already there. At one point the Armory itself lit up around us, giving the audience time to feel the full force of this piece about the horrors of genocide in a space which began as a support structure for war. Like other elements of the production–the barracks, the costumes, the shoveling of the ovens–the atmosphere of the drill hall is only a suggestion of a reality far more awful. That suggestion is terrifying enough.

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I wish the Park Avenue Armory well as it continues its journey. As befits an aging soldier, it has put away most of its weapons and become a storyteller. It has much to teach and to reveal to those who will listen.

Images not credited are by Katherine McDaniel.

Further reading:

About the building, with lots of pretty pictures. Dizon, Inc

About controversy and success. Wired New York Forum

About renovation and construction. New York TimesContractor MagazineSeaboard

About programming, restoration and much more. armoryonpark.org

A map of the interior, 1st and 2nd floors. Armory Interiors Guide

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3 thoughts on “From Weapons to Stories: Repurposing the Park Avenue Armory

  1. […] as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. You can read about the wonderful historic building here and about our production of The Passenger […]

  2. Adrienne Chandler says:

    Correction: The Knickerbocker Greys were founded in 1881 not 1902.

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