National Guard Armories in Washington

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 10/16/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10452

In the early 1900s, as part of statewide Washington National Guard improvements, the state, with city and county assistance, built impressive armory buildings. The first three opened between 1908 and 1909 in the major cities of Seattle, Spokane, and Tacoma. Additional armories opened through 1922, by which time there were 10. Utilizing Depression federal relief funding, more cities built state armories during the 1930s and early 1940s. For decades, armories across the state provided sites not just for military training but also for a wide range of community events. By the twenty-first century, with modern military training requiring classrooms, computers, and simulators, these historic buildings had become obsolete as military facilities. Old drill-hall-type armories were replaced with classroom buildings. Historic armories in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Aberdeen, and Everett were sold and new uses found for the buildings.

Building Armories

In the early 1900s, the Washington National Guard sought to become a more professional organization. A statewide inspection carried out in 1901 identified units not meeting standards. The substandard units were mustered out of the guard. The investigation also revealed serious problems with renting training space. Rental facilities were usually inadequate and lacked drill space.

In 1905 and 1906 funding that combined state monies with city and county contributions provided for state armory construction. The first armories were completed in Spokane (1908), Tacoma (1908), and Seattle (1909). State armories followed in Bellingham (1911) and Yakima (1912). An armory at Aberdeen was dedicated in 1922, by which time there were 10 state armories. Starting during the Depression, with federal assistance through the Public Works Administration (PWA), three additional state armories and a naval reserve armory were built between 1935 and 1942. In addition to military training, many armories provided a venue for sports contests, musical performances, and other community events. Statewide, the armories were important in bringing musical groups to cities that had no other adequate concert facilities. The armories played a significant role in the 1950s and 1960s in the emergence of Pacific Northwest bands.

In more recent years, with advanced military technology and training needs, the existing armories have become obsolete. The National Guard has built new and more efficient facilities. A number of closed armories have found new uses and continue to serve the community. The Yakima Armory, completed in 1914, was demolished but is recorded in the Library of Congress Historic American Building Survey.

Aberdeen Armory

The Aberdeen armory, located at 3rd and I streets, opened in 1922. It served as a Washington National Guard Armory until 1978. The National Guard sold the building to private investors, and it stood largely unused for several years. In 1981 its private owners donated the building to the City of Aberdeen for public purposes. Tenants today include the Aberdeen Museum of History, a senior center, and social services offices. The museum occupies the large open former drill space.

The two-story concrete building was designed by architects Charles A. Haynes (1886-1940) of Aberdeen and Louis Svarz (1886-1976) of Seattle. They employed a Spanish Colonial style with brick facings for decoration. The impressive structure cost $90,000. Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) dedicated the armory on July 4, 1922. The 489th Company, Coast Artillery Corps, was already training in the building. Over the years, 12 different Washington National Guard units trained there. During World War II, the building served the local civil defense organization. The armory also served the local community over the years by providing a home for musical performances, basketball games, boxing matches, and wrestling.

Bellingham Armory

The castle-like armory on Bellingham Bay, at 525 N State Street, was designed by Seattle architects James E. Blackwell (1855-1939) and Frank L. Baker (1873-1939). The cornerstone was laid in a ceremony held on November 10, 1910, and the 60,000-square-foot structure dedicated the next year. The final cost was $75,000. The impressive three-story building was built with local Chuckanut sandstone blocks. Roof parapets gave it the appearance of a fortress or castle. The large drill floor held 2,500 and hosted not only military activities but also dances and community events. Companies of the 161st Infantry trained there. During World War II, an aircraft interceptor control had its headquarters in the armory.

The building served the National Guard until 1953. Then it became a roller rink for 36 years. In 1972, while the roller rink operated, the Washington National Guard sold the building to Western Washington State College (later Western Washington University) for one dollar. In 1989 the university closed the roller rink, noting the dangerous condition of the maple floor. The building became university storage.

Everett Armory

Architect Louis Svarz was selected in March 1920 to design the Everett Armory. The National Guard restricted its architect competition to veterans of the recent war; Louis Svarz had entered as an enlisted man and rose to the rank of lieutenant. Construction started on September 1, 1920, and the two-story concrete building was dedicated in April 1921. The armory cost $150,000 and had a drill floor of 150 feet by 89 feet. A military ball with prominent invited guests celebrated the dedication. The infantry companies first drilled there on Tuesday nights. This left the armory available for community events at other times. These events included Halloween dances, smokers, and concerts.

The Washington National Guard sold the armory in January 2013 to Mars Hill Church and it became an outpost of the church.

Pullman Armory

The Pullman Armory at 540 E Main Street was a PWA project. The two-story masonry building was built in the Art Moderne-Art Deco style common to PWA projects. The armory had a drill floor, supply room, and arms vault. In the basement were showers and a rifle range. A company of the 161st Infantry trained there.

In August 2013, the Washington National Guard put the armory building up for sale.

Seattle Field Artillery Armory

The first Seattle armory, the First Washington Regiment Armory, was constructed on Union Street in 1888. It was replaced by a larger, modern facility in 1909. The second armory was built on Western Avenue south of Lenora Street and served until 1968 when it was demolished. Victor Steinbrueck Park at Pike Place Market was built in part on the southern portion of the armory site.

Another armory, the Seattle Field Artillery Armory, became the largest Seattle armory. In 1939 architect and engineer Arrigo M. Young (1884-1954) designed the four-story building, located on what later became the Seattle Center grounds, in Art Moderne style. The PWA assisted with the building cost of $1.25 million. Governor Clarence D. Martin (1886-1955) spoke at the April 16, 1939, dedication. The 146th Field Artillery trained at the armory. The building was the venue for the 1941 University of Washington junior prom with Duke Ellington (1899-1974) performing.

During World War II, the armory was remodeled to provide 500 beds for servicemen visiting Seattle. The improvements included additional restrooms, showers, and air conditioning. In addition, the Women's Ambulance Corps and civilian medical units trained there during the war. The Civilian Protection unit had its headquarters in the building. The protection unit acted as a clearinghouse for enemy-aircraft warning information. Reports were received there and alerts issued through an alarm system if unknown aircraft were detected.

In 1962 the armory building was converted into the Food Circus for the Century 21 Seattle World's Fair. An integral part of Seattle Center on the former fairgrounds, the Food Circus was renovated in the early 1970s and renamed the Center House. In 1985 the Children's Museum moved into a portion of the building. The building received a major upgrade in 1995 that included adding a stage and space for public events. A 2012 name change to Seattle Center Armory reflected the building's early history.

Seattle Naval Reserve Armory

The Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Armory at the south end of Lake Union was built as a PWA project. Its architects, William R. Grant (1880-1957) and B. Marcus Priteca (1889-1971), designed it in the PWA Art Moderne and Art Deco style. Ground was broken on October 5, 1940, but delays were encountered. However, following the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the construction pace increased and it was finished 19 months later. The final cost was $500,000.

The armory was dedicated on July 4, 1942. During the war, naval reserve units trained at the facility. An Advanced Naval Training School was established adjacent to the armory. Some 25 temporary buildings were erected to provide space for classrooms, barracks, and administration. Trainees included Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

After the war, the temporary buildings of the training center were demolished. In 1946 the Naval Reserve Armory, well-worn from wartime service, was renovated. It continued to serve the navy reserve mission. A training vessel, the submarine USS Puffer, was docked alongside the armory from 1946 to 1960.

In the late 1980s, the Seattle City Council started considering options for South Lake Union that included a park and demolition of the armory. Various proposals and concepts were considered while the navy reshaped its reserve activities and came to consider the armory inefficient, disestablishing it in 1998. The building was then used as office space for nonprofit organizations and a location for community meetings and events. In January 2011 the Seattle City Council transferred the armory to the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), which revived it into 50,000 square feet of exhibit space. On December 29, 2012, MOHAI (which had lost its prior building to highway expansion) opened in the former armory. The impressive rehabilitation project earned a number of awards, including the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation (DAHP) Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation award.

Spokane Armory

Completed in 1908, the Spokane Armory had the appearance of a fortress or castle with its roof battlements. Above the central entrance was a twelve-foot-high terra cotta eagle. President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) spoke there on September 12, 1919, before a capacity crowd. Bing Crosby (1903-1977) performed there on October 22, 1937, with 3,500 people in attendance.

On June 17, 1943, Patrice Munsel (b. 1925) of Spokane performed for servicemen in the armory. The former Lewis and Clark High School student had, in March 1943, sung at the Metropolitan Opera. A coloratura soprano, she was the youngest singer to star at the Met. On September 22, 1945, she christened the cruiser USS Spokane. Patrice Munsel went on to be an opera and television star and later a musical-comedy performer. Private First Class Russell Danburg (1909-1994), a former Washington State College professor of piano theory, played the piano during her performance at the armory.

Over the years dances, concerts, and sports events were held at the Spokane armory. Professional wrestling was a popular event. Boxing matches brought local and national boxers to Spokane. The armory was renovated in 1957 with stucco siding and new windows. Twenty years later the National Guard sold the building to the City of Spokane for $22,714. In 1979 the City leased it to the River City Jaycees, who developed activities to support youth programs, with bingo nights to raise funds. This effort failed and the building fell into disuse. In 1993 the decrepit building was sold to private ownership. In 2013 it was home to recreational businesses.

Tacoma Armory

The Tacoma Armory, located at 715 S 11th Street, was completed in 1908. The massive castle-like structure had a 20,093-square-foot drill hall. Cavalry units were the early occupants, with infantry and field artillery training also occurring. During both world wars troops mobilized at the armory. In addition to regular troop drilling, the armory served the public with many social events. A New Year's Eve ball in 1908 drew a large crowd. An estimated 5,000 attended the elaborate July 13, 1909, funeral for Washington Congressman Francis W. Cushman (1867-1909). Three sitting presidents -- William Howard Taft (1857-1930), Woodrow Wilson, and Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) -- visited. President Truman gave a speech on October 2, 1952. Dances and other social events were frequent. During World War II the United Services Organization (USO) held dances. In the 1960s, battles of the bands rocked the place.

The armory was declared a Tacoma historic landmark in 1976. The National Guard closed the facility in 2011 and in 2013 sold it for slightly less than $1 million to Fred R. Roberson (b. 1929), a developer who had successfully redeveloped other historic properties.


Sources: Historic Property Inventory Form, Naval Reserve Armory, 860 Terry Avenue North, Seattle, copy available at "Find a Historic Place," State of Washington Department of Archeology and Historic Preservation website accessed October 16, 2013 (http://www.dahp.wa.gov/learn-and-research/find-a-historic-place); The Official History of the Washington National Guard, Vol. 6: Washington National Guard in World War II, undated pamphlet published by Washington National Guard; "Five Thousand Attend Beautiful Services for Congressman Cushman," Olympia Daily Recorder, July 13, 1909, p. 2; "Architects Complete Armory Plans," Bellingham Herald, May 15, 1910, p. 17; "General Contract for Erection of Armory at Everett Awarded," Ibid., August 24, 1920, p. 4; "Plans for National Guard Armory at Pullman Are Approved," The Spokane Daily Chronicle, October 14, 1935, p. 3; "Everett Armory Architect Picked," The Seattle Daily Times, March 7, 1920, p. 20; "Named Armory Custodian," Ibid., May 1, 1921, p. 13; "Two Nations at Dedication of Field Artillery Armory," Ibid., April 16, 1939, p. 1; "Service Men to Get Centers," Ibid., October 26, 1941, p. 5; "5,000 See Cruiser Spokane Christened by Miss Munsel," Ibid., September 22, 1945, p.1; "Sings Again at Armory Tonight," The Spokesman-Review, June 17, 1943, p. 5; "City Poised to Auction Historic Armory Building This Spring," The Spokesman-Review, February 10, 1993, p. A-8.

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