The Medieval granite fortress once on 14th Street

It rose like King Arthur’s castle on 14th Street: a stone citadel complete with arched entryways, crenellations on top of its towers, and what look like arrow loops from the very top, the better to rain arrows down on enemy invaders.

What was this imposing granite fortress? The Ninth Regiment 14th Street Armory, completed in 1896 just west of Sixth Avenue.

For eight decades, this rough-cut armory held court on the north side of the street—first amid department stores, the 14th Street Theatre, and residential brownstones, and then among a changed neighborhood of light manufacturing and discount houses.

This wasn’t the first armory on the site. It replaced an earlier one opened in 1863 that extended to 15th Street and was nicknamed the “Palace Garden.”

Both the older and newer armory were constructed as part of a great wave of armory-building in New York City between the Civil War and World War I. That’s when the US Army went from a “state-controlled, decentralized army of citizen soldiers” to a “federally maintained, centralized corps of professional soldiers,” wrote Nancy L.Todd in New York’s Historic Armories: An Illustrated History.

“Armories had three basic functions: they served as military facilities, clubhouses, and public monuments,” wrote Todd. As far as a public monument, the 14th Street Armory was a spectacular expression of power and might.

You’d think such an armory would be landmarked and preserved—for its architecture or its historical backstory.

But in 1971, New York bulldozed the castle and replaced it with a new concrete armory building (above, in the 1980s). It was described as “a gross and overbearing modern drill hall,” by the AIA Guide to New York City, according to the New York Times in 1993.

By the 1990s, the new armory had outlasted its military function; it was closed in 1993. What to do with a massive masonry building on a major street that was starting to attract new residents and retail stores?

Other New York City armories no longer used by the military were turned into homeless shelters (Brooklyn’s 23rd Regiment Armory), sports complexes (Armory Track on Fort Washington Avenue), and arts centers (the Seventh Regiment/Park Avenue Armory).

New York State, which owned the building, decided to go with a mixed-use developer. Today, the site is occupied by the McBurney YMCA and topped by apartments.

[First and third images: New York State Military Images; second and fourth photos: New York City Department of Records and Information Services; fifth photo: NYPL]

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9 Responses to “The Medieval granite fortress once on 14th Street”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    That was a nice old building I passed it many times during my roaming around NY, reminded me of the armory on Park Ave & 34, now also gone. I recall a rainstorm on 14 St and the only place to duck into was that alcove with other people who ran from the windy storm there too.

  2. Tom Dulski Says:

    What a remarkable building, I can’t believe they would bulldoze something that unbelievably cool down. Reminds me of the King Arthurs Castle toy I had as a kid.

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    I remember both versions of the armory: old and new, as I grew up at 13th Street and 7th Avenue. The new one had gigantic recruiting billboards for the 42nd “Rainbow” Division that Gen. Douglas MacArthur led in the Argonne.

    One time I remember seeing a large communications vehicle in front of the armory, and asked the troops standing around it what was going on. They told me it was classified. That made little sense to a young kid.

    It turned out the vehicle was the communications center to Guardsmen who had been deployed to state prisons across New York to fill in for striking Corrections Officers. That would become the center of the ONLY 3rd Amendment case ever heard in a federal court, as the troops used the guards’ quarters for billeting purposes.

    The union claimed that their doing so violated the 3rd Amendment. The state said that the quarters were not the guards’ “homes,” but state-provided quarters. The court sided with the guards, if memory serves, but the case did not get appealed, as the strike ended.

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Truly monumental. Another lost treasure. What a sandblasting of the exterior and rethinking of the interior might have yielded.

  5. ozmerry Says:

    It’s very surprising that there doesn’t appear to have been any opposition to its demolition in 1971, nor any preservationists in sight. And the Landmarks Preservation Commission had existed for a few years by then, too.

  6. Shankar Subramanian Says:

    The 1971 version looks like a Volvo Box Car … thankfully the newer version looks much better… thanks for sharing

  7. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Were the NYC armories to some extent a response to the Draft Riots during the Civil War? In other words, were they built to send a two-part message to the public: Don’t worry, it won’t happen again, and Don’t even think about doing that again? The new armory looked a lot like Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum in Hanoi.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Hi Bill, I haven’t come across anything showing that the armories were built in response to the Draft Riots specifically. But those terrible riots certainly could have fueled the construction of so many.

  8. meesalikeu Says:

    oh wow i have been looking for a photo of the final version of the armory forever. i would say thank you, but err, umm, lol. i swore to people it was thee ugliest building ever thrown up in the whole city. a hulking disgrace. sure the apt bldg and mcburney ymca there today are bland, but at least they are not the empty, hideous eyesore we had to live with lol.

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