Excavating the Armory

CWOS_2017_ArmoryWeekend_forweb-495http://campuspress.yale.edu/excavatingthearmory/

The New Haven Armory is a neglected landmark on Goffe Street, mostly empty since the 2nd Co. of the Governor’s Foot Guard decamped for Branford in 2009.  The Police Department uses part of the basement for eviction storage.  The roof’s east parapet has been breached and water damage now threatens the building’s integrity.

The structure is impressive.  More than 150,000 square feet organized around a massive drill hall, spanned by ten crescent trusses, and wrapped on three sides with meeting rooms, offices, lounges, lobbies, and circulation space.  Three arches mark the entrance to a “Head House” and a wing built specifically for the Foot Guard juts toward Goffe Street.  Fancy brickwork creates a fortress-like atmosphere, but not in an unfriendly way.  Corbelling, arches, recessed bays, and Flemish bond provide enough detailing to break down the building’s mass and give it a human feeling.

The Armory on Goffe Street was built in 1930 to replace the Meadow Street Armory which since 1883 had housed the City’s volunteer militia groups, including the 102nd Infantry, the New Haven Grays.  Militias were the strike-breakers of the nineteenth century; they went to war and served in conflicts abroad; and they have provided emergency relief.  On May 1, 1970, the Connecticut National Guard mustered in the Goffe Street Armory to confront a rally on the New Haven Green protesting the trial of Black Panthers.

When our Armory was built, it was intended to serve many purposes, not just to house military organizations.  Exhibitions of all variety; boat, dog, and antique shows; concerts, dances, inaugural balls, and conferences; and community events like those hosted by the Black Coalition of Greater New Haven to support its civic programs have all transpired there.

After the Foot Guard left, the Armory entered a period of dormancy.  This can be an important moment in a building’s lifecycle.  On the one hand, certain elements of neglect, like weathering and patina, can be beautiful.  Moreover, dormancy gives us the time and space to recognize new potentials.  This is the necessity of ruins.  It’s not uncommon that artists and cultural workers are among the first to explore and occupy these spaces.

In this case, the local non-profit Artpsace has for the past several years organized an “Armory Weekend” as part of City-Wide Open Studios.  It was in this context, as an Artspace Commissioned Artist, that I had the opportunity to engage students in my Urban Research seminar in the production of a public installation that sought to excavate the past, observe the present, and imagine the future of this building.  Six high school students from the New Haven Academy also joined us as collaborators.

Our  interactive exhibit, “Excavating the Armory,” took the positon that the Armory is a civic resource that should be preserved.  We started with a collective social history that asked participants to add their own memories of the Armory to a timeline.  Next we introduced an architectural vocabulary to empower people with language to describe the building.  Our lexicon included technical terms as well as definitions for words like Access, Agency, Equity, and Resilience—concepts we wanted to associate with the building.  We produced an urban diagram that placed the Armory in broader context and invited participants to map their own relationship to the Armory.

Our graphic constellation of case studies suggested what has and hasn’t worked for armory reuse in other places.  Ansonia, for example, recently received $500,000 in state funding to repair its armory, built in 1921, for use as an indoor recreation center.  In Brooklyn, community groups have resisted private proposals to redevelop the Bedford Union Armory as housing.  Or consider the San Francisco Armory where a company called Kink was until recently producing pornography. Lots of different things can happen in these places and under any number of stewardship models.  There is not a single metric for success, however, and we asked participants to vote for the examples they liked.

One of the most impressive precedents is the Park Avenue Armory, which our group visited on a field trip.  A Conservancy was founded to finance a lavish restoration designed by Herzog & de Meuron and stages unconventional art, opera, dance, and theater in the drill hall.  Some of the rooms are still used by military organizations; others can be rented for events.  At the same time, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House runs a women’s mental health shelter on the top two floors of the Head House.

Finally, we created a “Futures Canvas” for participants to share ideas and engage in conversation around the next chapters for the Armory.  My students also produced a scale model of the Armory with dioramas representing different uses that could be arranged in the model.  Kids loved it, which is great because we seek to preserve the Armory for the next generation in New Haven to be able to use it.  They are exactly the people we want to empower to imagine its future.

Over the course of Armory Weekend, my students engaged with upwards of three hundred people.  Due in part to our efforts at “Excavating the Armory,” a community-based planning initiative is underway and momentum is building to hold the City accountable for making repairs.  You can follow our progress at campus.yale.edu/excavatingthearmory and please be in touch if you want to get involved.

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Presenting the display boards at the Whalley Edgewood Beaver Hills Community Management Team meeting, November 21, 2017. Photo by Lucy Gelmmann.

 

 

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