The Cranston Street Armory

The Cranston Street Armory

A peek inside..

Postcard view of armory, circa 1907.
Circa 1907 postcard view.

by Michael Schemaille
310 Cranston Street, Providence

Located on Providence's West Side, the Cranston Street Armory is an imposing, fortress-like building set at the back end of the Dexter Training Grounds. No longer used for military purposes, the armory (sometimes referred to as the Rhode Island State Armory) serves today as the State Fire Marshal's Office, as well as providing a secondary home and storage facility for the Board of Elections.

Detail of West door, 2011.
Detail of West door. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Builder's plaque, 2011.
"1904 Designed and Built by the Boston Bridge Works"—plaque on one of the major support beams on the parade floor. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

It's easy enough to walk around the outside of the building and see the care that went into its construction, the details that make it special. They certainly don't make them like they used to. But, while anyone can walk around the outside of the building, not everyone gets to see the interior. I've had the opportunity to explore inside a bit, and would like to shed some light on some very cool hidden details in this crumbling architectural masterpiece.

Views of the parade floor, 2011.
Views of the parade floor. Left: The white frame in the middle of the floor is for fireman training. Right: A row of suitcases for sniffer dog training. The ring of cinderblocks in the background holds cans of scented materials for further training. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Catwalk view, 2011.
A dizzying view of the parade floor from the catwalks above. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

The largest part of the armory is the parade floor, covering nearly 9,000 square feet and surrounded by an enormous steel skeleton. I'm told that during its heyday, the floor was so highly polished that you could see your reflection in it. Sadly, those days are over and today the floor is drab and dusty, patched here and there with plywood. Over the years, the floor has served a number of interesting purposes, but today chain-link fences line the sides of the floor, containing much of the Rhode Island Board of Elections' inventory of voting booths, ballot boxes, and polling place signs. Down one side of the room lies a row of suitcases and cinderblocks, used as training aids for sniffer dogs. In 2007, the parade floor was used as a sound stage for Disney's Underdog.

Training 'bridge,' 2011.
One of the "ship's bridges," designed for artillery training. Note the azimuth "scoreboard" at top left. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Perhaps the most interesting detail on the parade floor is the pair of "wheelhouses" at one end of the room. These wooden structures were built to resemble the bridges of warships, with observation ports and duty stations. Their purpose here was to train ships' artillerymen in "dialing in" their shots. Receiving coordinates from their two "spotter ships," the artillerymen would then adjust their windage and elevation settings to hit an imaginary target. I'm told that for a long time, a ship's gun sat in the middle of the floor, and that there's an enormous concrete vault in the basement that was built to accommodate the gun's weight.

A newel post detail, 2011.
A newel post at the base of one of the staircases. The anchor motif can be seen all around the first floor, but nowhere above. Likely, the artistic details were meant to be seen by visitors who wouldn't progress beyond the first floor. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

One of the corner towers, from a window, 2011.
Exterior view of one of the turrets, taken from the catwalk. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

My tour guide, one of the Marshals, was kind enough to take me all the way up to the roof. The views of Providence were extraordinary, and it gave me a chance to see some other architectural details that I would have never known about otherwise. Each of the towers has several parapets, and from the roof, each one is accessible by a small door. These were sniper nests, meant for crowd control in the event of a rebellion or riot. This makes some sense, considering that this armory was built on the site of one that stood during the time of the now nearly-forgotten Dorr Rebellion.

Roof view, 2011.
A view of the roof. Note the sniper's door in the corner turret. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Another roof view, 2011.
Another roof view. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Sadly, there wasn't much else of interest inside the towers. Years of neglect have taken their toll, and there's significant evidence that a large number of pigeons once took roost above the first floor. Light fixtures hang askew from the ceilings, everything is covered in dust, and the paint, no doubt leaded, is peeling from every wall. While there are tentative plans to open the building up to more state offices, it's going to take a lot of time and taxpayer money to get it to that stage.

Dusty room, 2011.
One of the dusty, crumbling rooms in the West tower. (Michael Schemaille, July 2011).

Because each tower only has one staircase, the building doesn't have adequate fire escapes. This means that for the foreseeable future, only the first floor is inhabitable. Putting in fire escapes would require building escape stairs into the parade floor, or, more reasonably, along the outside of the building. Given the cost of rehab needed on the building's exterior, this is also highly unlikely in the near future. The city continues to put money into repairs and upkeep, but it seems to only be a palliative measure. This historic building deserves more, and I'm glad I got the chance to see it before it crumbles further.

Commemorative plaque, 2008.
A plaque at the East entrance commemorates the commission "created to select and purchase a site" for the armory in 1895. (Christopher Martin, April 12, 2008).

Directions: From Route 95 North take the Broadway exit. Turn left onto Broadway (crossing over Route 95), then an immediate left onto Service Road. Take the third right onto Westminster Street. At the fork (with Citizens Bank in the crotch) bear left onto Cranston Street. Go about a half mile to the impressive castle-like structure on your right. That's the Cranston Street Armory.

From 95 South take the Atwells Avenue exit. At the top of the ramp continue straight on Service Road. After crossing Broadway, take the third right onto Westminster Street. At the fork (with Citizens Bank in the crotch) bear left onto Cranston Street. Go about a half mile to the impressive castle-like structure on your right. That's the Cranston Street Armory.

Hours: The Cranston Street Armory is not currently open to the public, but you may admire it from the outside, dawn to dusk.

Michael Schemaille is a former English teacher and a current freelance writer and editor. A native New Yorker, he has lived in Rhode Island since 2006 and is quite fond of his adopted state. He is an avid geocacher, a hobby that takes him to many strange and unusual locations.

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