Why this Blog Exists

To make the case for expanding the Park Slope Historic District

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Armory: "A Testament to Middle-Class Fears"

A recent NY Times article about a forthcoming book by historian Michael A. Bellesiles brought to mind an aspect of the city's armories such as our own 14th Regiment Armory here in Park Slope:

14th Regiment Armory, Park Slope
National/State Historic Register Designation Report, 1994

No one seems certain what to do with these dinosaurs from the 19th c. Current uses and proposals range from homeless shelters to recreational spaces to urban malls. They are often festooned with commemorative markers dedicated to those who served their country in foreign wars or the American Civil War.

But it should not be forgotten that the most important original function of these behemoths was to intimidate and control the local population. Built in response to domestic social unrest in the late 19th c., a time when huge numbers of immigrants were pouring into the country, bringing along such "foreign" ideas as socialism and anarchism, armories served as a kind of "Department of Homeland Security" of their day.

From the NY Times article:

NEW HAVEN - On this hot summer day, Michael A. Bellesiles is sitting outside the abandoned red brick armory here. It is, he said, a much friendlier building than the one that occupied this spot in 1877. In the middle of what was then a working-class neighborhood northwest of Yale, the old Gothic armory, made of stone with no windows on the first floor, was meant to withstand the American precursor of a Molotov cocktail, he explained: "It was a testament to middle-class fears."

The year 1877, when record peacetime bloodshed led to a new wave of armory construction, is the subject of Mr. Bellesiles's new book. There was a shocking rise in urban homicide and other crimes, a bitter national railroad strike and the forced relocation of the Great Plains Indians, as well as violent unrest over immigrants and the post-slavery status of blacks. To Mr. Bellesiles, the year is the point when class conflict replaced race as the most pressing social and political issue.
-Patricia Cohen, NY Times

14th Regiment Armory, Park Slope - postcard
Brooklyn Public Library - Brooklyn Collection

The role of armories as a function of domestic social control is also supported by their entry in the Encyclopedia of New York City, where we read:

A great number of armories were built by the nineteenth century, largely in response to events that took place in New York City after the Civil War and to the fears of social unrest that they provoked among the middle and upper classes; these included increasing numbers of foreign immigrants (many of them unskilled laborers from eastern and southern Europe), the draft riots of 1863, the panic of 1873 and the ensuing six-year depression, and the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874. -Pamela W. Hawkes, "Armories" entry

Armories were supposed to look intimidating, and they do. In the 19th c. they must have seemed impregnable in the way of a medieval castle, and they feature fortress-like features such as towers, a portcullis, and crenellation. In short their appearance was both functional, housing the State Militia troops ever ready to suppress domestic disturbances, and symbolic, representing the awesome, compulsory power of the State over the individual.

The 14th Regiment of New York's State Militia, for whom Park Slope's armory was built, saw service in the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and in World War I. In addition, the regiment was called out during the Brooklyn motormen's strike of 1895 (a topic for future research).


Eric McClure said...

Today, the traffic-calmed street with integrated protected bike path serves to intimidate the masses as armories did 130 years ago. ;-)

Great postcard of the 14th Regiment Armory -- looks worthy of a Gothic horror novel.

Suzanne said...

Very interesting article. As much as I love my local armory, the 23rd Reg. Bedford Armory, I am aware that it's castle/fortress like look had a practical purpose. It was meant to impress and intimidate. It was also highly defendable, and able to send troops out to quell any civil unrest. In my own research, there were a couple of times they were tempted, but the troops were never sent out en masse, thank goodness. Good job, and great pix!

BTW congrats on the calendaring. You've worked hard and long for this. Kudos.

Montrose Morris

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