Pawtucket Armory

A massive, Romanesque-revival style, granite and brick masonry building with an interior Drill Hall clearspan space of 80 by 140 feet

About this Property

#Redevelopment

In February 2002, the Pawtucket Armory Association (PAA) retained Taylor & Burns Architects of Boston, known for creative, community-based reuse projects, to design a new layout for the former Armory and Drill Hall. On April 24, 2002, the Pawtucket City Council voted to sell the building to the PAA for $1, and work began on cleaning and preparing the Armory for its new incarnation.

The Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts occupies much of the head house on the second and third floors. The Gamm Theatre was an anchor tenant in the garage Annex for 15 years starting in 2002. The long-term plan was to create a black box theatre space in the Drill Hall, but the Gamm departed in 2017 for larger digs at the former Ocean State Theatre in Warwick.1 They had never intended to stay in the Annex as long as they did, and had no backstage, no space under the performance area, and were limited in the productions they could stage. The Ocean State Theater closed in May and was available, with a modern stage and sound system.

The large Drill Hall’s dramatic wrought iron supports were sandblasted and repainted in 2011-2012. Since then, the annual Foundry Artists Holiday Show has held their December sales in this amazing vaulted space.

#Current Events

The Pawtucket Armory Arts Center is available for rent — rooms, dance studios, small office spaces, as well as the enormous 11,000 sf Drill Hall for large events.

#History

More images available at the Pawtucket Library Flickr collection

From the National Register Nomination Form, individual, 1983

The 1894-95 Pawtucket Armory is located on the westerly corner of Exchange and Fountain Streets in a neighborhood dominated by the 1925 Tolman High School and a cluster of turn-of-the-century industrial complexes. The armory building is composed of two distinct sections: a 3 1/2-story, rectangular main block facing Exchange Street, and a 140-foot by 80-foot gable-roofed drill hall which stretches along Fountain Street. […] Reddish-brown sandstone trim (window sills, lintels, beltcourses) is used throughout; similarly colored terra-cotta ornament is used for accent on the main block. Two non-identical round corner-towers distinguish the building’s main facade, where a dramatic, round-arched portal in the manner of H.H. Richardson marks the major entrance. […] A pair of ornate, wrought-iron gates close across the mouth of the entry portal a somewhat similar wrought iron bracket on the eastern wall of the building may originally have been used in connection with a freight hoist.

Window openings in the first story of the main block are round-headed; all other windows, except five large lunettes in the end wall of the drill hall, are flat-headed. The rectangular window openings of the second and third floors of the main block are linked vertically by slightly recessed panels; exceptions are the two sets of small, paired windows on the front facade, where two round terra-cotta medallions (representing the seals of the United States and Rhode Island) are placed between the upper and lower pairs. […]

Virtually the entire interior of the drill hall is an uninterrupted open space. A series of arch.ed steel trusses support the roof without the aid of any other interior support. A small wooden balcony/reviewing stand projects into the hall from the second-floor level of the main block; the only intrusions into the hall on the ground floor level are a pair of narrow, partitioned enclosures against the back wall of the main block.

Significance

The Pawtucket Armory is architecturally significant as a handsomely designed and little altered late nineteenth-century building type. It is significant, as well, as the work of the important Providence architectural firm, William R. Walker & Son.

[…] William R. Walker & Son (William R., and William H. Walker, the original principals) was one of the largest and most active architectural firms in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Rhode Island. Both of the original principals in the firm had strong military backgrounds. William R. Walker was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Pawtucket Light Guard, served in the Civil War and remained in the State Militia after the war, finally retiring with the rank of Major-General. His son, William H. Walker was a Quarter-master of the General Militia from 1892 through 1918. These military credentials and connections must have been important to the firm’s successful efforts to land the commissions for both the 1894-95 Pawtucket Armory and the even larger (and stylistically similar) Cranston Street Armory (1907) in Providence.

Additional History

From the National Register Nomination form for the Exchange Street Historic District, 2002

State militias had their roots in the colonial military tradition of “trained bands” of men obligated to furnish their own weapons and to defend their community. The successful combination of a regular army and the “minutemen” militia with their guerrilla tactics contributed to colonial victory in the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Constitution granted the federal government authority to raise and maintain an army, and the individual states were given responsibility for organizing and training their own militias.

After the War of 1812 the U.S. government largely ignored the militia, and by 1840 many states had done away with mustering their enrolled militia. However, groups of men interested in military drill and camaraderie formed their own volunteer militia companies, primarily urban institutions formed of clerks and businessmen. During the Civil War, the Union and the Confederacy relied on the militia to fill its armies. At its conclusion, the devastation wrought by the war left the nation largely disinterested in its militia, but veterans soon grew nostalgic for military camaraderie, and men who had been too young for the Civil War enjoyed training events, which frequently became community social occasions. During these periods militia facilities were inconsistent, and units were often housed in inadequate, often rented facilities. […]

After the Civil War the centralization of industry consolidated more workers in larger factories, concentrated much of the population in urban areas, supported large-scale immigration, and increased the number of unskilled workers in the marketplace. The Panic of 1873 exacerbated poor worker conditions. Infant labor unions were largely powerless to fight wage cuts, and strikes were usually unsuccessful. By the mid-1880s state militias had a new mission in many northern and western states: keeping order during strikes and labor unrest. Between 1881 and 1892 every state revised its military code to provide for an organized force. Most called their state militia the “National Guard”. These developments led to the need for new, more substantial, dedicated armory buildings funded by state appropriations.

Construction of the Pawtucket Armory began in 1894 and the building was completed in mid-1895. It was the first of the large armories constructed in Rhode Island. It was built for the Tower Light Infantry of Pawtucket, the Kearny Light Infantry (Company G 2nd Regiment Infantry) of Central Falls, and the Pawtucket Horse Guards First Cavalry Battalion. More than 1,000 people attended a grand ball held to commemorate the opening of the Armory on June 12, 1895.

The Pawtucket Armory fulfilled its community protection role during the streetcar riots of 1902. In January of that year the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law legalizing the reduction of the workday for street car workers to ten hours. The street car companies refused to comply, and the unionized streetcar workers struck, fomenting a boycott. This event was called Fitzgerald’s Rebellion, after Pawtucket Mayor John J. Fitzgerald, who supported the work day reduction. The situation became increasingly tense, but Fitzgerald refused to use his police force to protect the streetcars. The company hired its own security men, one of whom shot a worker in a scuffle on East Avenue, provoking riots. Rhode Island Governor Kimball placed Pawtucket under martial law in June 1902 and called out 700 militia. The Newport Naval Battalion, led by General Herbert S. Tanner and trained in suppressing street riots, marched from the Pawtucket Armory to quiet the rioters. The militia was called out from the armory again in 1922, during a textile strike for a forty-hour work week, and one man was shot in front of the Jenckes plant on Weeden Street. The Pawtucket Armory also served as a public meeting place, and was used for Social Security sign-up, circuses, Girl Scout functions, St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and dances. It was the scene of the 1976 Bicentennial Ball and was used for mayoral inaugural balls into the 1990s.

  1. “Gamm exits, stage left,” The Valley Breeze, October 3, 2017, captured March 4, 2021 from https://www.valleybreeze.com/2017-10-03/pawtucket/gamm-exits-stage-left