by by Adrian Randall

illustration by by Nick Carter, Martin Foster & Liana Ogden

Rhode Island brims with architectural gems: hundreds of Industrial era mills, the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, colonial houses dating back to Roger Williams's time. But what stand out amongst the postcard backdrops are some of the state's most outlandish-looking buildings. From the mid 19th-century until the First World War, 18 armories were built around Rhode Island to house the state militia. Some of the rural ones are no bigger than a two-car garage while others are gargantuan, fitting whole city blocks. Their
crenellated parapets and brick towers mix medieval Europe with vintage colonial. As great wars and local insurrections began to diminish, though, most of the armories lost their militia and struggled for purpose. Now they stand out as strange vestiges of the past, always in a place between Rhode Island's modern and archaic landscapes. For many of the armories, the exotic facades hide a century's worth of disrepair, amounting to millions in renovations. This problem has become only more exaggerated in the face of receding finances.
Yet there may be hope. Below are three of Rhode Island's most notable armories. Each has a unique design, a telling history and an uncertain future. All hold a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, yet none are fully functional. The armories, once stately and authoritative landmarks, will have to adapt to the needs of a new century.

BUILT 1903-07


Built on Civil War-era grounds, the Cranston Street Armory was once the center for Providence's military training. Among the largest armories in the country, the medieval gothic 'Castle for the People' housed the state's National Guard until 1997. Before the Providence Civic Center was built downtown, the armory held early car shows, dog shows and circuses. Now listed as one of "America's Most Endangered Historic Places," the Armory has been maintained through community support, but is still far from its $16 million interior renovation. Local groups abandoned a plan to use the space as a Hollywood soundstage. Instead, the building will be turned into commercial offices.

BUILT 1840
DRILL SLED: 40' X 70'


The Arsenal's history is as intriguing as its dark façade: In 1908, the Arsenal's militia was called to Mexico to assist in the search for Pancho Villa. Some years later, under the pretense of a religious conference, the Ku Klux Klan used the Arsenal for a meeting on May 17, 1924. And from the 1950s-70s, the Arsenal was an ominous, private dance school. Around that time, the Arsenal moved 200 feet north from its original College Hill location, holding onto its 999 year lease to the Providence Marine Corps. Now the building is closed, still holding dusty cannons in its basement.

The Pawtucket Armory
Built 1894-5
Drill Sled: 140' x 80'


Out of Rhode Island's 18 armories, the Pawtucket Armory seems to have the brightest future. Built in Romanesque revival, its crenellated parapets are covered with copper sheathing, topped with terra cotta and--in a bid for historical accuracy--have holes to pour boiling oil on attackers. After the National Guard left the site in 1994, it was used as a police garage until a local group took over in 2002. The building's annex currently houses the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm theatre, which emigrated from Providence five years ago. After six years of renovations, the main armory will hold an arts center, a full-size theatre and an arts high school. The high school, to be opened next year thanks to a $1.5 million endowment, was voted in unanimously by the Pawtucket school committee last month.