The Connecticut State Armory and Arsenal: A History of Service

The Connecticut State Armory and Arsenal in Hartford has served as headquarters of the Connecticut National Guard and State Military Department since its completion in 1909, nearly a century ago. The building has most recently been named to the distinctive National Register of Historic Places.

The General Assembly first appointed a series of commissions to deal with the question of a new armory in 1903, as the old First Regiment Armory on Elm Street deteriorated into an unusable condition. The current location of the armory, the site of a former railroad roundhouse, was chosen after much public debate to serve as an anchor for the developing State Capitol grounds.

The building is an outstanding example of Classical Revival architecture and was designed by noted architect Benjamin W. Morris. The original site preparation and construction totaled $869,000 and was completed in three years - just a little longer that the recently completed $10 million renovation. Morris's armory design consisted of a huge gabled-roofed drill shed fronted by a large, three-story, U-shaped head house which contained space for offices, storage, classrooms, and unit social parlors. Narrow barred windows and rough granite walls captured the traditional armory character as a bastion of strength and safety.

President William Howard Taft dedicated the building on the evening of November 12, 1909 before 10,000 Connecticut citizens following a gala day of parades, ceremonies, and music - a testimony to the building's national significance. At the time of its dedication it was, by far, the largest building in Connecticut and fourth largest armory in the United States.

The outside of the building is over a quarter of a mile in length having dimensions of 325 feet long by 275 feet wide. The major portion of the building is devoted to the great drill shed, consisting of 55,000 square feet of uninterrupted floor space, measuring 269 by 185 feet and rising more than 80 feet high. Such a space could nearly accommodate the outside dimensions of the State Capitol.

Constructed by the Whitney-Steen Company of New York City, the size of the building posed considerable construction challenges, which inspired new and innovative uses for reinforced concrete in order to meet and exceed strength compression and load specifications. The complex design and structural requirements of the head house coupled with the enormous size of the 1.14-acre drill shed floor and roof tested the talents of both engineers and contractors. In the end, critics heaped superlatives on the magnificent structure, the likes of which had never been seen before in Connecticut.

Mogen light granite was used to form the exterior walls; the same stone used for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. An impressive achievement was the construction of the exterior trim, with all its intricacies, out of cast concrete using individual plaster of paris molds built right on the premises. Engineers also designed a drill-shed floor consisting of 2,058 specially fashioned, "light-weight" concrete slabs each weighing 600 pounds and hoisted individually into place, resting upon a vast network of steel trusses and girders. An innovative, enormous skylight to supplement the building's original gas lamps was installed along the ridge of the hall, measuring 152 feet by 64 feet.

From the time of its construction to present day, the Armory has served as the nerve center of the state's military, housing the offices of the Adjutant General and his staff, to numerous National Guard units during its 92 years of service. Historic units, which have been based at the Armory and Arsenal, include the First Regiment and First Infantry Medical Corps I 1910, the 169th Infantry Regiment after World War I, and the 43d Division Headquarters. 118th Medical Regiment Headquarters, 118th Veterinary Company, and the 43d Military Police Company through the 1930's. Following World War II, the state's old infantry units were gradually moved out of the building as they reorganized and transferred to other locations.

In addition to serving the needs of the state's military forces, the Armory's drill shed has seen innumerable expositions, inaugural balls, big name bands, circuses, and sporting events - a legacy of Hartford history. The Navy's first dirigible was constructed and pre-tested in the great drill shed in 1913. President Theodore Roosevelt spoke to 15,000 citizens about their duty during World War I at the Armory in November 1917. Hartford's own 1952 Olympic track winner, Lindy Remigno trained for her 1952 Olympic track victory on the building's indoor track. And in July 1944, the Armory served its saddest duty as a makeshift morgue for the 169 victims of the Barnum and Bailey Circus fire.

Over the years the harsh northeast climate and daily usage have taken their toll on the exterior and interior of the building. In 1994, the state embarked on a massive $10 million historical renovation project designed to fix many long-standing maintenance problems and restore the building to its original splendor. The primary restoration work consisted of replacing 21,000 cubic feet of exterior concrete trim individually carved Indiana limestone. Additional renovation work has included roof repairs, window and door replacements, providing elevator and handicapped access, system upgrades for fire code compliance, and restoring the entry and grand central stairway to their original condition.

Hartford architects Louis J. Colavecchio and Pricilla Eatherton were chosen to direct the detailed restoration. The NAEK Construction Company of Vernon served as the general contractor for this project. Numerous Connecticut-based sub-contractors also contributed enormous talent and time to this effort, which has succeeded in restoring the building to its magnificent condition.

None of this would have been possible without the sustained dedication and assistance of Commissioner T. R. Anson and his staff for the Connecticut Department of Public Works.

The Armory and Arsenal is now poised to continue serving as the headquarters of the Connecticut National Guard and State Emergency Command Center for well into the 21st century.

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