Past and Present: The Second Naval Battalion Armory in Sunset Park

Rear of the armory, which faced the water. 1907 photo. Brooklyn Public Library

A look at Brooklyn, then and now.

Armories are fascinating buildings. They were built to house National Guard units; our volunteer citizen army, and provide them with permanent places to gather, train, and deploy. Many guard units gained great fame and honor from their service in the Civil War, and a grateful state and local government decided to honor them with facilities worthy of their service. These resulted in huge castle-like buildings built to impress and intimidate.

Every community wanted an armory. They wanted the protection of a citizen militia for emergencies and to put down social unrest. The late 19th century was a time of strikes and uprisings against the economic unfairness of the Gilded Age. They also wanted the armory because it was a great civic building for the community. Armories were perfect for large social gatherings, athletic events, trade shows, and the like. Architects and builders loved armories because they were prestigious commissions, and were cash cows for everyone concerned, and a source of jobs. An armory in one’s neighborhood was a win-win for all concerned.

Brooklyn has a lot of armories. Most of them are concentrated in what we today call the “Brownstone Belt,” the older neighborhoods of the borough. They were all built for National Guard units, most for army regiments, and a couple for cavalry and signal corps. We also had an armory for a naval battalion. I’ve been writing about armories for years, and had never come across this one before. Unfortunately, it’s gone now, but like all of the armories of this city, there was quite a tale to tell for this short-lived unit. I didn’t even know we had a Naval National Guard.

The United States Navy tried to organize Naval National Guard units in the 1880s, but the bills kept being defeated by Congress. At last, in 1889, one unit was authorized in New York State. It was the First Battalion, Naval Reserve Artillery. They were officially called to active duty to protect ship passengers during the 1892 cholera quarantine at Fire Island. The sinking of the Maine, and subsequent Spanish American War caused the US Navy to call up the New York Naval Militia again, and they saw action in the Battle of Santiago, and were active in protecting New York Harbor.

By the beginning of the new century, a Second Naval Battalion had been organized, and was to be quartered in Brooklyn. Since they were a naval unit, they needed to be near the harbor. Since they were a battalion, with arms, ammo and men, they needed an armory with a drill hall for a headquarters, storage and practice area. The city already owned the perfect parcel of land on First Avenue and 51st Street, in Sunset Park. It was only steps away from New York Harbor, in an industrial area, but close enough for the rapidly expanding neighborhood of Sunset Park to take advantage of.

Of course, this being New York City, the whole process of building of the armory was very political and contentious. The state was paying for the armory, but the city was in charge of the details. In 1900, a contest was held to pick an architect and a design. This was the usual practice, and since any armory was a coup for an architectural firm, many of the city’s better firms vied for the award.

Generally speaking, when Brooklyn was an independent city, the award of armory commissions had always gone to Brooklyn firms. Now that Brooklyn was part of greater New York, the field had been thrown open. That, in itself, caused some grumbling. The city, at that time, was being run by Tammany Hall, the Democratic political machine that had run Manhattan for decades before the city consolidated.

Tammany had its paws in everything. It was next to impossible to get any kind of contract in the city without being a part of Tammany, or without paying them off. The architectural firm that won the contest for the Naval Armory was Horgan & Slattery, of Manhattan. They had strong ties with Tammany Hall. Mayor Augustus Van Wyck, a Tammany puppet himself, announced the winner in a press conference in 1901. Horgan & Slattery also won commissions for two other armories to be built for Army National Guard units in Manhattan. Strong ties, indeed.

Politics aside, the Navy was very happy. The state had gotten off the money to build the armory to the size the Navy wanted, and finally, the building could begin. Horgan & Slattery designed an armory that was in keeping with a new, 20th century model. The huge castle towers so familiar in older armories were vastly reduced. The crenellated tower design was modulated down to the administration wing of the building, in front, while the bulk of the building was given over to the drill shed, a three story tall, semi-circular hall that stretched out behind the building.

Around the same time this building was to be going up, the city was also building the first armory for a cavalry unit in Brooklyn. This was the Troop C Cavalry Armory, on Bedford Avenue at Union Street in Crown Heights. It was much larger version was designed by the firm of Pilcher & Tachau. Design-wise, it too was different from the castle armories, with a similar curved arch roofed drill shed. Both buildings were being constructed at the same time, but they would have very different experiences.

The building commenced on the Naval armory. When completed, it would have room for a full battalion of 560 men. The drill shed would be large enough for them all to train, and also house the twelve pieces of heavy artillery the unit had. There would be officer’s rooms, assembly room, locker and shower rooms, a kitchen, library, game rooms, etc.

Newspaper stories about the building of any of the armories built were always rife with stories about budgets and expenditures. Armories were cash cows, and everyone who could make money from the experience did so. Cost overruns were par for the course. They always ended up costing at least twice as much as what the original budgets were. This one would be no different. Tammany Hall was certainly happy, as their people were in key construction and supply positions, and money was going to be made, favors granted and expected, and business as usual would continue. But then Seth Low was elected mayor in 1902.

Low, a favorite son of Brooklyn’s Republican elite, had been elected as a Reform mayor. He had pledged to end Tammany Hall’s iron grip over NYC politics. He began the difficult process of getting Tammany people out of city projects. There were at least four armories being built in the city at that time, and repairs and upgrades to several others were slated to begin. In Manhattan, the tower of the new 71st Regiment Armory on 34th and Park had collapsed in a heap of brick and stone. It turned out that it had been so poorly constructed that the engineers and architects had already put in complaints before the structure fell down. This triggered a full scale investigation of all the armory projects.

The investigation found, among many other things, that architects Horgan & Slattery were incompetent Tammany hacks. Low had them removed from their Manhattan project for the 69th Regiment, and also from a contract to renovate the New York County Courthouse. George Post and Henry Hardenbergh, architects of the New York Stock Exchange Building and the Dakota Apartments, respectively were selected to work on the armory. Low then had his investigators take a look at the Naval armory, being built by the same firm.

The investigators, which included several prominent architects, also found fault with Horgan & Slattery’s work there too. For one thing, the front doors didn’t have enough clearance to open correctly. Low had seen enough, and they were summarily fired from this project, as well. The well-known firm of Lord & Hewett was chosen to replace them. Since the building had already been started, Lord & Hewett made only minor changes to the overall design, but double checked all of the specs, and cleaned up the errors, and got rid of some of the built-in Tammany cost overruns and pork.

The long-suffering commander of the Naval Regiment was very patient. He had waited years for his own armory, and it took six more years, and in spite of Low’s reforms, twice as much money as originally budgeted, but in 1908, Brooklyn’s Second Naval Battalion Armory opened its doors and its troops marched in to take possession. The occasion was marked with much military fanfare and neighborhood celebration.

Over the next half century, the armory became an important part of Sunset Park life. Most of the men stationed here lived in the neighborhood. The facility, like all of the armories, became a valuable social center for the people in the neighborhood. The large drill shed was perfect for athletic events, and the armory’s meeting rooms were perfect for organizations to meet in. Over the years, the newspapers had a long list of activities that took place here.

Athletic events included meets and games given by the YMCA, Sunday School Athletic League, the Boy Scouts, the Military Indoor Baseball League, Metropolitan Rifle Championships, indoor tennis leagues, Ladies Track and Field competition, and the Norwegian Turin Society. The armory hosted winter carnivals, the annual Petty Officers’ Dance, the Armory indoor baseball team, the Armory basketball team, and various other social dances, banquets and other activities.

There were also military drill contests and exhibitions with other armories, as well as the real business of training the guard unit for sea rescues, disaster relief and battle preparedness. In 1916, the Astor family donated a seaplane to the militia, and were on hand when it was launched, as seen in the Library of Congress photos below. This was the start of the Naval Reserve Aviation program.

The Naval Militia was called to service in both World Wars and Korea. After the Korean War, the state militias began to dissolve, and the state sponsored Naval Militia men became part of the US Navy or Marine Corp Reserves. The Naval Militia technically still exists, a part of the greater Reserve forces. They also now have affiliations with the US Coast Guard, as well.

As to the Second Naval Battalion Armory? It’s gone. The newspaper reports stop after 1954, but the Brooklyn Eagle ceased publication in 1955, so that doesn’t mean that’s when the armory was torn down. I could find no other mention in any other papers, including the Times. If anyone knows, please share. Today, a non-descript warehouse that could have been built anytime in the latter 20th century, stand in the large lot. The only Naval Armory in Brooklyn is gone and forgotten.

GMAP

Rear of the armory, which faced the water. 1907 photo. Brooklyn Public Library

Rear of the armory, which faced the water. 1907 photo. Brooklyn Public Library

Site of the armory. Photo: Google Maps

Site of the armory. Photo: Google Maps

Location on 1904 map. Sorry, poor resolution. NY Public Library

Location on 1904 map. Sorry, poor resolution. NY Public Library

1916 seaplane launch. Back of armory visible. Library of Congress

1916 seaplane launch. Back of armory visible. Library of Congress

1916 Seaplane launch. Photo: Library of Congress

1916 seaplane launch. Photo: Library of Congress

Vincent and Mrs. Astor dedicate the seaplane.  1916 Photo: Library of Congress

Vincent and Mrs. Astor dedicate the seaplane. 1916 photo: Library of Congress

Seaplane dedication ceremony. Vincent Astor standing at left. 1916 photo:  Library of Congress.

Seaplane dedication ceremony. Vincent Astor standing at left. 1916 photo: Library of Congress.

What's Happening