Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Jean-Pierre Beugoms


Armories served as military training and recruiting sites, arms depots, headquarters, and social clubs for the nation’s citizen-soldiers. Early armories in Philadelphia were simply rented spaces in commercial buildings. After the Civil War, permanent structures for the exclusive use of the Pennsylvania National Guard supplanted these ad hoc armories as business interests responded to labor unrest by funding an armory construction boom. In the twentieth century, government-funded armories evolved into community centers as well as military sites. Armory design reflected these changes in purpose, patronage, and function.

[caption id="attachment_28698" align="alignright" width="300"]color lithograph of 1863 armory building with horsemen and pedestrians in the foreground. The First Troop armory building, seen here in an 1863 lithograph drawn by James Fuller Queen and published by P.S. Duval & Son, was on the corner of Twenty-First and Barker Streets, Philadelphia. It was the headquarters of the First City Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry, a unit that survives today as an all-volunteer group.[/caption]

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Philadelphia and other cities lacked permanent armories. Militia units such as the First Troop, Philadelphia City Cavalry, the Second Troop of Light Horse, and the State Fencibles met in hotel rooms and taverns and drilled in public parks and squares, riding schools, and circuses. For drill, these units often rented floors in multistory commercial buildings, including the Union Building at Eighth and Chestnut Streets, the cast-iron Swain Building at 503-7 Chestnut Street, and a restaurant in the Northern Liberties neighborhood known as Military Hall. However, these facilities were not structurally strong enough to support drills by large units or secure enough to protect arms and equipment from theft.

In 1857, Philadelphia became one of the first cities to possess a permanent armory when the Infantry Corps, National Guards, purchased ground opposite Independence Hall and built the three-story National Guards Hall. In addition to quarters, storage, and meeting rooms, the building contained a drill hall on the second floor that could support an entire regiment.

[caption id="attachment_28692" align="alignright" width="300"]Color photo of Oktoberfest revelers inside Armory building, October 2016 The Twenty-Third Street Armory, built for the First City Troop of Philadelphia Cavalry in 1901, has expanded its roles over time. The armory is available for rental, and this Oktoberfest celebration took over on October 8, 2016. (Photograph by Donald D. Groff for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

The First Troop constructed its first armory, a two-story structure, in 1863. In 1874, the troop commissioned the architectural firm Furness & Hewitt to design a new armory, to be built at Twenty-First and Ash Streets with funds bequeathed by wealthy members. Frank Furness (1839-1912) designed a compact three-story structure with a drill hall annex in the style of a medieval castle. According to historian Robert Fogelson, the building was one of the nation’s first castellated armories, which were distinctive for their thick walls topped with battlements, narrow windows, and bartizans. Industrialists and National Guard officials favored this style because it provided greater security for personnel and equipment in times of labor unrest. Architects embraced it because it unified form and function.

Armories Privately Funded

In an era of labor unrest, fundraising for armory construction in Philadelphia accelerated as wealthy private donors increasingly came to view the Pennsylvania National Guard as a strikebreaking force. In the wake of the nationwide Great Railroad Strike of 1877, Philadelphia gained new armories for the First Regiment, Second Regiment, and First Troop. James H. Windrim (1840-1919) designed the First Regiment Armory (built in 1884), located at Broad and Cherry Streets until it was demolished in 1979. The Second Regiment Armory (1895-97), designed by the firm Rankin & Kellogg, stood at Broad Street and Susquehanna Avenue. The First Troop’s third armory (1901), at Twenty-Third and Chestnut Streets, replaced the Furness armory, which suffered a collapsed roof in 1899 following a snowstorm. The local firm Newman, Woodman, & Harris designed the new armory, which continued to be used by the First Troop into the twenty-first century. All three castellated armories limited access to the interior with raised windows and single entranceways. As a cavalry armory, the First Troop Armory’s interior contained a spacious central hall with a dirt floor to serve as a riding ring (later paved to accommodate motor vehicles). These buildings received funding almost entirely from private donors. For example, the patrons of the First Regiment Armory included the Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation, merchant John Wanamaker (1838-1922), and Edwin Benson (1804-1909), an ex-National Guard officer and future president of the Union League.

[caption id="attachment_28694" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white photo of the front of the First Regiment Armory. James H. Windrim designed the First Regiment Armory (1884), at Broad and Callowhill Streets. It was demolished in 1979 and for years the site served as a parking lot. In 2017 an apartment building was taking shape there.[/caption]

By the end of the century, Philadelphia boasted six permanent armories. In New Jersey, meanwhile, officers of New Jersey’s Sixth Regiment successfully lobbied the state legislature to approve construction of a new armory in Camden to replace the old one at Bridge and West Streets (which remained standing until destroyed by fire in 1906). A Philadelphia contractor completed the new armory in 1897, and it remained in use as an armory, and after 1953 as a convention center, until its demolition in 1977 to create a site for a Veterans Administration hospital. For state officials and guardsmen, protecting the men and stores from attack by a mob was the primary purpose of the armory. Toward that end, architect Charles A. Gifford (1861-1937) designed the Camden Armory on Haddon Avenue to look like a fortress and a line of railroad track was laid alongside the structure to allow for the safe transport of troops out of the city. Gifford’s design for the Second Regiment Armory (1905), in Trenton, likewise retained many of the features of the castellated style. In the early twentieth century, Camden gained an additional armory on Wright Avenue to serve as the headquarters of a field artillery unit.

[caption id="attachment_28696" align="alignright" width="300"]color postcard of the armory in Media, Pennsylvania. Public funding for armories commenced in Pennsylvania when the legislature created its armory board in 1905. The influx of this new source of funding led to a surge in construction in the Philadelphia suburbs, including this one in Media, Delaware County, in 1908, depicted in a postcard. It became home to Company H of the Sixth Infantry Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Unlike Pennsylvania, New Jersey built its armories mostly from public funds. The state legislature passed armory bills—five in the span of a decade—that authorized appropriations and established a state armory board that supervised the construction of new facilities. Pennsylvania followed suit when that state’s legislature created its armory board in 1905. The influx of this new source of funding led to a surge in construction in the Philadelphia suburbs, with armories sprouting in Media (1908), West Chester (1916), Reading City (1919), and Norristown (1928). Delaware also shifted from private to public funding of its armories. Troop B, First Delaware Cavalry, was able to raise money from private sources to build its home at the Wilmington Armory, located on Twelfth and Orange Streets. From 1890 to 1925, this “State Arsenal” served as quarters for all of the city’s National Guard units. When guardsmen complained that the space was too cramped, the Delaware legislature authorized a State Armory Commission to build a new armory and appropriated $250,000 for that purpose.

Military Use Gives Way to Civilian Use

[caption id="attachment_28693" align="alignright" width="300"] James H. Windrim also designed the Third Regiment Armory (1898) at Broad and Wharton Streets, in the Romanesque style typical of the day. But it also included the features of a medieval castle, such as crenellations. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

As the perceived threat of a revolution by labor subsided and the federal Militia Act of 1903 transformed state militias from industrial police forces to reserve forces for the regular Army, the purpose and form of armories underwent a marked change. With armories no longer considered targets of attack, federal, state, and city governments hired architects to design new armories with civilian functions in mind and adapted existing armories for public use. Armories in a diversity of architectural styles superseded the fortresses of the late nineteenth century. In Philadelphia, Windrim designed the Third Regiment Armory (1898), Broad and Wharton Streets, in the Romanesque style typical of the day but also included the features of a medieval castle, such as crenellations. The armory became the site for circuses, prizefights, and fraternal club meetings, and was converted into loft apartments in 2003. Philip H. Johnson (1868-1933) designed two armories in the Classical Revival style: a three-story cavalry armory (1916) resembling a railroad station at Thirty-Second and Lancaster, later adapted into a gymnasium by Drexel University, and the two-story General Thomas J. Stewart Memorial Armory (1928) in Norristown. Delaware architect Edward Canby May (1889-?) chose an Egyptian Revival style for his design of the Wilmington Armory (1928), located on Tenth and DuPont Streets. During the 1930s, the armory construction program of the Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration continued this process toward civilian-oriented armory functions and design. To save taxpayer money, economy of design became the watchword, in stark contrast to the monumental privately-funded armories of the nineteenth century. Armories typically followed standardized designs with T-shaped or I-shaped plans in Art Deco or Art Moderne style. The New Deal dramatically increased the amount of federal funds disbursed by the states for armory construction. As a result, armories proliferated across the region, especially in towns and suburbs. Examples include the Hamburg Armory (1937) in Berks County and the Special Troops Armory in the Ogontz neighborhood (1938-39) of Philadelphia and company-sized armories in Milford (c. 1938) and New Castle (c. 1934-35?), Delaware.

[caption id="attachment_28695" align="alignright" width="300"] This armory in Hamburg, Berks County, Pennsylvania, is an example of WPA-era armories around the country. (Boston Public Library/Tichnor Brothers Postcard Collection)[/caption]

At the turn of the twenty-first century, a few of these suburban and small town armories were turned over to local communities to use as they saw fit. For example, the Borough of Media donated the Media Armory to the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum and the West Chester Armory was converted into a theater for the performing arts.

National Guard armories in the region developed in tandem with architectural fashion, the mission of the citizen-soldier, and the role of government in the social life of the nation. The ornate castellated armories of Philadelphia, Camden, and Wilmington provide physical evidence of domestic turmoil and close links between the National Guard and their wealthy patrons during the post-Civil War era. Guardsmen’s reliance on private funding for armory construction not only helped turn state militias into a police force for industry, but also enabled local architects to develop a distinctive style for a building type that had never had one. The shift to public funding in the twentieth century armories meant that armories were often the product of pork barrel legislation or took the form of government make-work projects. States responded to the public desire for more civic spaces by expanding construction to small towns and suburban neighborhoods. Architects, in turn, embraced contemporary styles and the armories lost much of their aesthetic distinctiveness.

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is a Ph.D. candidate in History at Temple University. He is working on a dissertation about the logistics of the U.S. Army during the War of 1812.


For much of the nation’s history Philadelphia held a preeminent position as the provider of logistical support to the U.S. Army, and federal arsenals played a considerable role in the economic life of the city. The Schuylkill Arsenal and Frankford Arsenal were, respectively, the largest manufacturers of uniforms and small-arms ammunition in the country, often employing more workers than private industry. The Frankford Arsenal was also the site of innovations in mass production and munitions development.

The Schuylkill Arsenal, established by Act of Congress on April 2, 1794, occupied an eight-acre site between the east bank of the Schuylkill River and Gray’s Ferry Road. Constructed between 1802 and 1806, in its early years the arsenal operated as a storage depot for gunpowder, arms, and other supplies. (In 1803, the arsenal issued clothing, blankets, tents and equipment to the Lewis and Clark Expedition.) The functions of the arsenal changed after the War of 1812 and the opening of a new arsenal in Frankford in 1816. While Frankford superseded the Schuylkill Arsenal as an ordnance depot, the older site evolved into a clothing arsenal because of its proximity to textile mills. It ceased storing arms in the 1830s, and in 1842, after the Quartermaster Department acquired the site from a defunct supply agency, the Schuylkill Arsenal became a center for manufacturing, procuring, and distributing clothing, footwear, and camp equipage.

The Schuylkill Arsenal provided the Army with supplies either by contracting out requisitions to private firms or, when the contract system proved deficient, by manufacturing goods onsite. The arsenal’s bootee- (an ankle-length boot) and tent-making establishments, in particular, produced items superior to those acquired by contract. The arsenal also employed a large female workforce, which varied from 400 to 10,000 depending on military demand. While the men worked as packers, cutters, tailors, and laborers, women found jobs as seamstresses. Working from home, the seamstresses who obtained work directly from the arsenal sewed cut textiles provided to them, returned with finished uniforms, and received wages on a per-piece basis. Seamstresses hired by contractors, on the other hand, often worked in crowded sweatshops and received a fraction of what the public employees earned.

The low wages of seamstresses in Philadelphia and other cities drew criticism in 1833 from Philadelphia economist and publisher Mathew Carey (1760-1839), who argued in a series of essays that the women made too little to support themselves or their children. Seamstresses also began forming trade unions, organizing strikes, and writing petitions to improve their lot. In 1835, seamstresses and women employed in other trades organized the Female Improvement Society to protest inadequate wages. During the Civil War, arsenal seamstresses petitioned the War Department to set a minimum wage for both public and private sector workers and called for an end to the Army’s use of contractors. Although the petitioners met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) and government workers received a pay raise, the practice of subcontracting continued.

[caption id="attachment_18854" align="alignright" width="233"]National Guard troops guarding the Schuylkill Arsenal against saboteurs during World War I. During World War I, troops from the Pennsylvania National Guard protected the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot.  (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

By the time of the First World War, the Schuylkill Arsenal’s site had become too small to meet the demands of outfitting the American Expeditionary Forces. The arsenal, renamed the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot, moved in 1918 to a new location on Twenty-First Street and Oregon Avenue. From 1921 to 1941, the depot housed a quartermaster training school for commissioned officers, officer candidates, and enlisted personnel. It lost this function, however, when rapidly increasing enrollment during World War II resulted in the school’s removal to Fort Lee, Virginia. The arsenal served as a storage site until its closing in 1958.

Philadelphia’s second arsenal, in Frankford, served different purposes. Established by the Ordnance Department on May 27, 1816, the arsenal occupied twenty-two acres on the north bank of the Frankford Creek, near its confluence with the Delaware River. Equipped with a wharf, the site provided waterborne access to the Worrell gunpowder mills. Initially, the arsenal included four stone buildings arranged around a parade ground, and open land in the surrounding area offered the possibility of future expansion.

During the antebellum era, the Frankford Arsenal functioned as a depot for storing, repairing, and cleaning military equipment and weapons. On a small scale, the arsenal also manufactured ordnance, including paper cartridges, percussion caps, and musket balls. Arsenal commanders also awarded contracts to private firms such as the DuPont Company, whose gunpowder they inspected before shipping it to other posts.

[caption id="attachment_18852" align="alignright" width="223"]Image of Alfred Mordecai, a prominent commander at the Frankford Arsenal. Alfred Mordecai turned the Frankford Arsenal into a proving ground for experimental weapons. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

In the 1830s, the site began to develop from a small post used mainly for storage and procurement into a bustling industrial and scientific complex. In 1835, the Secretary of War made the arsenal the Ordnance Department’s only proving ground for gunpowder, and the site nearly doubled in size with the purchase of adjacent land in 1836 and 1850. Previously manned by about twenty-five soldiers plus a temporary civilian workforce, the arsenal expanded to employ hundreds of civilian workers.

During the Philadelphia nativist riots of 1844, the Frankford Arsenal faced the only threat to its security in its 161-year history. On May 8 in neighboring Kensington, mobs destroyed the Roman Catholic churches of St. Augustine and St. Michael’s and several homes belonging to Irish immigrants. The arsenal's  commander sent arms and ammunition to Philadelphia County Sheriff Morton McMichael (1807-79). Rumors of an impending attack on the arsenal and a nearby church prompted the War Department to deploy reinforcements from a unit based in Fort Columbus, New York. Nothing came of the rumors, however.

In the ensuing years, commanders expanded the arsenal with a rolling mill, a laboratory for conducting experiments in ballistics and explosives, and a factory that produced more than one million percussion caps a month by 1853. Steam-powered machinery, introduced in 1852, hastened the transition from hand craftsmanship to industrial production. By 1864, the arsenal had become a manufacturing center that employed 1,226 civilian laborers and artisans, many of them from the neighboring community of Bridesburg.

Given the Frankford Arsenal’s role as a scientific testing ground, fires and explosions were common. In 1861, an explosion at one of the laboratories resulted in two fatalities and, in 1862, another destroyed part of the percussion cap factory. Arsenal commander Major Theodore T. S. Laidley (1822-86) responded to events such as these by constructing new buildings with wrought-iron frames, an innovation that allowed the beams and columns to withstand explosions even if the roofs collapsed and the walls blew out.

[caption id="attachment_18853" align="alignright" width="300"]Men manufacturing ammunition for small arms and artillery. The Frankford Arsenal also served as a center for ammunition manufacturing for the U.S. Army. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Ordnance Department purchased more land and added an array of new buildings, including an optical shop for developing instruments and munitions. Engineers and scientists contributed to the arsenal’s already substantial catalogue of innovations by developing the Gatling gun, smokeless powder, 75mm and 105mm recoilless rifles, the rocket-powered pilot ejection seat, and laser rangefinder, to name a few. Production of munitions increased dramatically during the Spanish-American War, the two world wars, and the Korean War. At its peak, in 1942, the arsenal employed 22,000 workers and produced nearly all of the nation’s wartime supply of small-arms ammunition for that year.

In November 1974, the Department of Defense announced that the Frankford Arsenal would be closed. The move, part of a nationwide base reduction and consolidation process that began under Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009), drew criticism from residents and local politicians and became a bone of contention during the 1976 presidential election campaign. On Election Day eve, vice-presidential candidate Walter Mondale (b. 1928) visited the arsenal and promised to keep it open if the voters elected Jimmy Carter (b. 1924) president. The site had grown to more than 200 buildings on 110 acres of land and maintained a workforce of 2,000 people. The arsenal closed in the fall of 1977, but it later reopened as a business park.

The Schuylkill Arsenal and Frankford Arsenal played critical roles in U.S. military supply system during times of war and peace. They also contributed to Philadelphia’s status as one of the nation’s principal manufacturing and commercial cities.

Jean-Pierre Beugoms is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Temple University. He is working on a dissertation about the logistics of the U.S. Army during the War of 1812.

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