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Old Guard: New York State Auctioning Historic Armories
The Tonawanda armory now known as the Tonawanda Castle, a catering business, is shown in Tonawanda, N.Y., Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009. AP Photo/David Duprey.

By: Chris Carola, Associated Press Writer

GLENS FALLS, NY (AP).- The turret offers a great view of the nearby Adirondack Mountains, the weapons bunkers can serve as wine cellars and the cavernous gymnasium could be turned into the ultimate rec room.

Those are just some of the possibilities for the 38,000-square-foot Glens Falls Armory, being auctioned by New York state on Wednesday. Of course, the rehabilitation potential is a far cry from the structure's original function as a munitions storehouse, military drill hall and last stand should war revisit America's shores.

The 115-year-old fortress-like structure is one of several stone and brick state-owned armories up for sale in coming weeks as New York sheds some of these unique buildings in the name of modernization.

As the Army National Guard here and in other states continues to evolve into a 21st-century fighting force, units are ditching many of their older buildings — and the name armory — for more modern digs dubbed "readiness centers." In New York, with the nation's largest collection of the oldest and most architecturally significant armories, that means disposing of imposing structures.

The unit based at Glens Falls recently shifted to its new $11.5 million readiness center in a suburban industrial park.

The New York National Guard has 52 active armories, down from 70 a decade ago, most of them on the National Register of Historic Places. They include the Seventh Regiment Armory covering an entire Manhattan block and the castle-like Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo. Some, like Glens Falls, were designed in a medieval military style by state architect Isaac Perry in the late 1800s, others from the 1930s were designed in a more Gothic style by William Haugaard.

Nationwide, there are nearly 3,000 readiness centers, including armories of various ages, according to the National Guard Bureau based in Arlington, Va. In 2002, there were about 3,150. How many of the nation's older armories are still being used by the guard units isn't known, the bureau said Tuesday.

After a New York armory is decommissioned, it's considered surplus state property and handed over to the state Office of General Services. The properties are first offered to local municipalities, but if there are no takers, OGS puts the armories on the auction block.

"In terms of age and architectural sophistication, the armories built in New York State between 1799 and 1941 compose the oldest, largest, and best collection of pre-World War II era armories in the country," Nancy Todd, a state architectural historian, wrote in her 2006 book , "New York's Historic Armories: An Illustrated History."

Bidding on the Glens Falls Armory is expected to begin at $500,000; the same minimum is set for the Oct. 27 armory at Rochester and Schenectady's on Nov. 17. Others targeted for decommissioning include one in Newburgh in the Hudson Valley and six on Long Island.

The culling of old armories comes as the National Guard's troop strength in the state has fallen from about 20,000 to 10,400, even as the Army Guard's overall troop strength has risen since 2006 to more than 358,000. Today's Guard conducts more training in the field or at Army Reserve facilities, diminishing the need for mustering inside old armories lacking the latest technology, Durr said.

The trend is mirrored in neighboring Pennsylvania, home to some 160 National Guard facilities, most built during or after World War II, although a handful of the oldest date back to the 1910s.

"We are in a building boom right now, and we're also going to be in the process of selling some of the old armories and getting them off the books," said Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver of the Pennsylvania National Guard. "It's just not cost-effective to keep them up and running."

Turrets, dimly lit gyms and basement warrens of bunker-like rooms are just some of the common features prospective buyers see during pre-sale open houses in Glens Falls and other New York locations where armories are being sold.

At Rochester's nearly 80,000-square-foot Culver Road armory, built during World War I, interested parties touring the property are told to stay together so they don't get lost, said Chuck Sheifer, chief of OGS' Bureau of Land Management.

While initial interest is usually high once a prospective buyer walks in the door, that enthusiasm can dim considerably once the tour is over, he said.

"It dawns on them: it's a lot of area, it's a big space and it's going to take a lot of money to fulfill their vision," Sheifer said.

The armories' imposing architectural style was more than a fad when most were built, said Michael Aikey, director of the New York State Military Museum, located in the former armory in Saratoga Springs.

"They wanted to give you a sense of the power of the state," Aikey said. "A lot of these were built during a fair amount of civil unrest."

Despite their often massive size and design quirks — or because of them — many old armories have been converted to other uses. The armories in Ticonderoga and Malone are now community centers. The Hudson armory was turned into antiques center in the mid-1990s, while Tonawanda's is home to a catering business. Albany's Washington Avenue Armory is a concert and sports venue, and the former Clermont Armory in Brooklyn is an apartment complex. Armory Square, Syracuse's downtown entertainment and dinning hub, is centered around a century-old armory that houses a science museum.

Elsewhere in the nation, armories have been converted into arts centers in West Palm Beach, Fla; Pasadena, Calif., and Duluth, Minn., while the armory in Portland, Maine was turned into a hotel.

At least one former armory serves as a private residence. In Amsterdam, on the Mohawk River 30 miles northwest of Albany, Susan and Manfred Phemister have converted their 1890s armory into the Amsterdam Castle, a combination home, meeting space and bed-and-breakfast.

The New York City transplants have spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" refurbishing the 36,000-square-foot building, according to Susan Phemister, a business executive with Thomson Reuters in Manhattan.

"The joy of living in an armory is that you have the most beautiful, extraordinary building," she said.

The couple, who found the armory when it was listed on eBay by the previous owner, have the property up for sale for $1.5 million, nearly double what they paid for it in 2005.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

New York | 21st-Century Fighting Force | Armory | William Haugaard | Michael Aikey |

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