Postcard postmarked 1906 showing the Westerly Armory with its full complement of crenellations and battlements.

by Colonel Howard F. Brown and Professor Roberta Mudge Humble

An old soldier with a modern mission.

41 Railroad Avenue, Westerly
(401) 596-8554
www.westerlyarmory.org

Adapted from The Historic Armories of Rhode Island (2000) by Colonel Howard F. Brown and Professor Roberta Mudge Humble. Used with permission.


A venerable member of its community, the Westerly Armory is one of five armories designed by the architectural firm of William R. Walker and Son, and the second in Rhode Island. With a drill shed that measures only sixty by one hundred feet, the building is the smallest of the five, but it nevertheless has been a center of military and community activity since its construction at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Westerly Armory is not the first to serve the communities of Rhode Island's southwestern corner. It was preceded by another that was located on Main Street in Westerly and was home to a state militia unit, the Westerly Rifles (chartered in 1755), and later to several infantry companies. This wood-framed armory burned in April 1889.

A new armory was needed to serve as a base for Company E of the First Infantry Regiment of the Rhode Island Militia, so construction on the Westerly Armory began in 1901 and was completed the following year. It cost $30,000 to erect [only $840,328 in 2014 dollars; amazing what can be accomplished without modern building codes and unions—Ed]. J.C. Walsh of Providence was assigned the woodwork and masonry, while the Pawtucket Steam and Gas Pipe Company was contracted for the heating system. A.P. Randall of Westerly plumbed while H.H. Robinson of Westerly did the electrical work. Boston Bridge Works was responsible for the steel roof of the drill shed.

The completed Romanesque building has two sections: an office block in the front and the drill shed in the rear. Sitting on a triangle of land with Dixon Street and Railroad Avenue on its right and left, and little West Street at its back, the armory is only about one hundred yards from the Westerly Train Station and the tracks of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad in downtown Westerly. An eight-inch Parrott rifle, cast in 1864 at West Point, is mounted on the front lawn.

The front block of the armory is two stories high and three bays wide, set on a high cellar of distinctive Murray red granite quarried from nearby Pawcatuck, Connecticut. At the center of the armory's façade is a projecting three-stage square tower. The main entrance is in the base of the tower and is set into a massive round arch with heavy granite voussoirs. The windows are deeply recessed into the brick walls, with those on the front of the armory arranged in sets of three. [Bored by lengthy architectural descriptions? Feel free to skip ahead.—Ed.]

Corbels support turrets with arrow slits on the two upper front corners. The cornice, originally battlemented and crenellated, was marked only with a plain copper gravelstop until 2006-'07 when the crenellated parapets were replaced.

The drill shed at the rear is a single-level, hip-roofed block, built of red brick on a brick foundation. Its flat walls are divided by piers worked in the brick, and there are thirty-four rectangular windows with granite lintels and sills set in bands of three, high in the wall. Each face of the slate roof of the shed has one or two small hip-roofed dormers.

The main armory building is arranged around a wide central hall that runs from the great main doors to the drill shed. Rooms open off either side of the hall. On the left are the ladies' and men's rooms (one originally a men's room; the other, originally the captain's office), as well as the kitchen (formerly the first sergeant's office). On the right is a single large room known as the sitting room or staff room. At the back left of the center hall is a large staircase.

Like all the William R. Walker and Son armories, the interior of the rooms and hallways are simple: varnished, dark wainscoting with a heavy molding and plastered walls above. The floors are maple. The staff room has a simple fireplace with a massive round arch worked in red brick.

Steel trusses support the roof of the drill shed, and a small reviewing stand or balcony projects into the shed from the second floor hall of the office block. The brick walls are painted eggshell white, and the floors are again urethaned maple.

Upstairs there are four rooms running off a central hall. One was originally a meeting room for the troops. A second, with a tin floor, was the arms room. A third housed office staff, as did the fourth, a small room with three steps leading from the central hall to its door.

A third floor, consisting of one room in the highest part of the tower, was used for general storage. A door leads onto the roof of the main armory building.

The cellar has multiple rooms including the former vehicle storage area or garage; a vault that safeguarded the arms and ammunition of the 169th Military Police Company when they were stationed at the armory; two large, long rooms (one formerly the kitchen for the MPs, the other formerly their dining room and meeting area); and a large furnace room attached internally to another room where coal was delivered and stored. Additionally, there is a bathroom with showers on the landing between the first floor and the cellar.

The dedication of the Westerly Armory took place on Friday, December 19, 1902, with Governor Charles Kimball and former Governor Elisha Dyer, as well as many other state officers and members of the General Assembly and State Militia, present. (Company E committed a small faux pas that day by failing to go to the train station to properly receive His Excellency, the Governor.) A luncheon was served in the drill shed and speeches were made. Governor Dyer said that he did not believe that public money was more carefully spent than in the support of the militia.

That day's Westerly Daily Sun quoted Governor Kimball:

The need of a competent militia is recognized in every well-organized community. We have had one foreign war [Spanish-American War, 1898—Ed] in the past five years, and may have others. We do not have a large standing army, but instead rely on our citizen soldiers in time of trouble.

The police cannot cope with all conditions, and then the call for the militia comes and it is the duty of the state to provide well-equipped men. In accepting this armory, I can only say the [Westerly Armory] commission has done well.

Company E was the first military unit to serve at the Westerly Armory. Later units from the Coast Artillery (5th Company, later Batteries E, A, D, and C) were based there at various times. Battery D, the 705th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion (AAA), was called up in 1950 to participate in the Korean War, and National Guard units from the Westerly Armory were activated into federal service in 1917 for World War I and in the run-up to World War II in 1940. Until 1995, the armory was home to the 169th Military Police Company of the Rhode Island National Guard.

Westerly's armory has as much social history as it does military history. Since its construction, the armory has served as a community center for Westerly and surrounding communities, including Pawcatuck and Stonington, Connecticut. The drill shed is still one of the largest available indoor spaces in the area, and has been the site of shows, fairs, meetings, exhibitions, and athletics. Professional (New York Celtics) and local basketball games as well as boxing matches (Rocky Marciano) were held there. The cellar for many years housed a one-lane bowling alley and rifle range, and during the 1920s the Westerly Rifle Club met there for practice and competition. Automobile shows and antiques shows were held at the armory from the 1920s into the 1960s. Scout troops and polio clinics regularly were found at the armory, and for several generations it was used as a polling place.

During the 1920s and 1930s when they were young men, Frederick Roever, Arthur Ferraro, and George Baton joined Battery E of the 243rd Coast Artillery, headquartered at the Westerly Armory.

"I went in primarily to play basketball," said Fred Roever, later a Lieutenant Colonel whose military service spanned forty-three years, "and then I got interested in the military side of it."

"It was like a club," Baton, later a First Sergeant, said. "The men could come in and practice basketball or play cards, pool, or ping-pong in the day room."

Arthur Ferraro, later a Command Master Sergeant, noted, "The armory used to be the focusing point for the people around Westerly, the young people. Saturday nights they used to have basketball games and a dance, and that's where everybody used to meet."

Mary McDonald smiled to remember meeting her late husband, Dennis, at a dance at the armory one Saturday evening. She danced with this stranger, and later they were married—for over fifty years. The stories are endless of people meeting new friends and eventual spouses at the armory.

People from the community still talk about events held at the armory such as the Easter Monday Ball, always held every year on the Monday after Easter. Sponsored by the Westerly Elks Club, the ball was the event of the year in Westerly through the 1940s. Local and state VIPs were seated in their own special boxes to review the dancers.

From around 1912 to 1954 the armory was the site of Westerly's regionally famous poultry show, held every Thanksgiving weekend. Hundreds of chickens, turkeys, ducks, and occasional rabbits (and their owners) from all over southern Rhode Island and nearby Connecticut actively competed for show ribbons. The competition was keen and included Best Hen and Best Cock ribbons as well as Best in Show. The drill hall smelled of straw, corn feed, and fowl and resounded with cackling and crowing, drawing entire families who devoted themselves to making their entries engaging to the judges' astute eyes. Not only was this serious competition, it was also the social highlight of the fall. A large percentage of the community's population turned out to not only see the show, but to visit with each other. It was the Super Bowl of its time.

The drill shed was also home to weddings and their receptions, book sales by the Westerly Library, doll shows, and much more. A.A. Morrone and his bride always remembered with fondness their wedding reception at the Westerly Armory and were very proud, well after fifty years of marriage, to have had this event take place in the historic structure.

In 1998 the State of Rhode Island sold the Westerly Armory (added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996), to the Town of Westerly for $1. The building was then long-leased to Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc. (WAR, Inc.), which is responsible for the operation, maintenance, restoration, and rental of the building.

Although there were some years when the community was not allowed to use it because of code restrictions, today the Westerly Armory is once again a building for the community and a veritable social hub of the area. From balls, dances, lectures and meetings, to banquets, fashion and bridal shows, quilting shows, and receptions, the Westerly Armory plays a stellar role. The armory even provides storage space for the Office of the Town Clerk, the School Department, and the Public Works Department.

On display inside is a small trove of local memorabilia and militaria, including an old radio-controlled aerial target (RCAT). RCATs were used for target practice by gunners firing quad-fifties (four fifty-caliber machine guns mounted on a carriage). In the 1950s the 705th Anti-Aircraft Artillery shot this one down during target practice specifically to bring the little red "plane" back to their armory as a memento of the unit's expeditions.

In addition, the armory is home to the oldest active civic band in the nation, The Westerly Band, and its historic music collection and music displays.

The Westerly Armory, like its brother armories, has seen the years through the eyes of its inhabitants—its military units and the residents of its community. It has weathered much abuse and lack of concern. Nevertheless, this armory has retained a strong foothold in the hearts of many, and its community embraces it for both its usefulness and its history. It stands today, like other Rhode Island historic armories, as a symbol of community and American freedom.

Colonel (ret.) Howard F. Brown is a thirty-year veteran of the United States Army who served in both World War II and Korea. Roberta Mudge Humble is a professor of English at the Community College of Rhode Island. As of 2009 Brown and Humble are an Advisory Board member and president of Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc., respectively.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow 15 minutes to an hour to look over the displays

Hours: Open Mondays and Thursdays from 9am to 4pm (minus lunch time), or by appointment or chance.

Finding it: from Route 95 take exit 1 to Route 3 (Nooseneck Hill Road) toward Westerly. Stay on Route 3 for 5.1 miles, then turn right onto Dixon Street. The armory is 430 feet ahead on your right.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to quicksand or menacing waterfowl. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited December 31, 2015

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