Located on Park Avenue between 66th and 67th Streets, the Armory was constructed from 1878 to 1881 for the prestigious Seventh Regiment and remains the only armory in the United States ever built with private funds. Various military uses and requirements changed throughout the years, prompting a series of renovations and adaptations throughout the first half of the 20th century that have altered the interior and exterior of the building. Though still used as the home of a National Guard division, the Armory fell into disuse and disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century.
In 2000, the World Monuments Fund designated the Seventh Regiment Armory as one of the top 100 most endangered historical sites in the world. Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Company, and renowned architect Stanford White decorated much of the armory’s interior in the style of the American Aesthetic Movement, amalgamating exotic motifs and decorative techniques from around the world.
The dilapidated and deteriorating Armory boasts Tiffany stained glass, wrought iron chandeliers, tiled fireplaces, bronze statues, and other antique fixtures. In recent years, the property has been used for a variety of purposes including use as a women’s homeless shelter, the 9/11 National Guard command center, and a venue for art, craft, and antique shows.
Ownership of the Armory had been in dispute for several years. In 2004, the State passed legislation giving itself ownership of the armory, which it had previously claimed over veterans’ objections. The Empire State Development Corporation (ESDC) then leased the building to the newly formed Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy. On November 14, 2006, the Seventh Regiment Armory Conservancy finalized a 99-year lease with the State and assumed control of the landmarked building at 643 Park Avenue after receiving final approval from the Offices of the State Comptroller and Attorney General.
The Conservancy plans to spend about $150 million to restore the Armory’s decaying rooms. According to a Senior Project Director at the Armory, $100 million had been raised by the beginning of 2009, including a $30 million grant from the State of New York and a $5 million grant from the City of New York for infrastructure.
Armory Board Chairman and Thor Industries CEO, Wade F. B. Thompson, donated $35 million to the renovations that began in 2007, making one of the largest single donations to restore a U.S. historical site in American history. The 55,000 square foot drill hall is slated to be refashioned into a 1,500-seat visual and performing arts space. Tours, lecture series, and large exhibitions are already forming an active calendar of events at the Armory.
The Conservancy initially formed an alliance with the Seventh Regiment Veterans under the auspices that the armory would be transformed into a military museum for the public and a venue to benefit military veterans. However, the Conservancy’s plans changed into developing an exclusive cultural-arts center, which the Veterans claim will be used primarily by wealthy customers.
Seventh Regiment Veterans resisted the state’s plan to turn over the building to the Conservancy and attempted to be named the building’s permanent stewards, yet they have met a series of defeats in court, and plans for a cultural arts venue continue. Some Upper East Side residents have opposed the conversion, citing traffic concerns and demanding a full environmental impact statement. Others are happy to see movement towards resolving the sanitary and environmental problems that have plagued the dilapidated Armory.