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The 71st Infantry Armory

The 71st Infantry Armory

August 31, 2018


Historical Places of
Old Murray Hill

 

You wouldn't know it today, but New York's legacy of military service once dominated a busy city block in Murray Hill. From 1894 to 1971, the 71st New York Infantry made its home in an armory that spanned Lexington and Park Avenues to the east and west, and from 33rd to 34th Streets on the north and south. For this week's post, we've compiled a brief history of the armory and the men who called it their headquarters.

A postcard featuring the old armory on Park Avenue and 34th Street, 1906.

The 71st New York Infantry 

A Bunch of Know-Nothings 

Our story begins in 1850, when the 71st was originally formed to meet political demands for an all-American infantry regiment. Originally dubbed the "The American Rifles," and later "The American Guard," the regiment's founders had strong ties to the xenophobic "Know-Nothing" political party, and much of the animus behind the regiment's creation was to eliminate immigrants and "foreigners" from the ranks of the United States military.


The Civil War and Action at Manassas 

Barely a decade after its inception, the regiment saw action in the Civil War's First Battle of Bull Run, on July 21, 1861. The militia was organized into the Union Army's Second Brigade, commanded by the soldier-turned-industrialist and politician, Colonel Everett Burnside (a man whose face was also famous for popularizing-- that's right-- sideburns). Although the battle was won decisively by the Confederacy, the men of New York's 71st held their own alongside the Union's more seasoned soldiers. In his after-action report, Burnside singled out the 71st by name for their "bravery and steadiness. . . both on field and during the retreat." 


The First Armory 

Fast-forward about thirty years, and in 1894, the 71st New York Infantry took up residence in the heart of our every own Murray Hill-- on the corner of Park Avenue and East 33rd Street, to be exact. Just four years later, the Spanish-American War broke out, and the 71st, then called the New York Volunteers, were the first of twelve regiments from New York State to be called to active service on May 10, 1898.

A New York Times article announcing the opening of the original armory for the 71st New York Infantry, 1894

Disease and Disorder in Cuba: the Battle of San Juan Hill 

During the Spanish-American War, the men of the 71st were present at the pivotal Battle of Santiago (also known as the Battle of San Juan Hill), and many of them suffered horribly from malaria and overexposure to heat. However, owing to the regiment's vulnerable position before the Spanish troops, and a lack of clear orders from the senior officers of the regiment, the 71st never actually participated in the attack. Nevertheless, upon their return to New York on August 22, the regiment could only muster 350 of its initial 1,000 men. Just eighty had been killed in the fighting around San Juan Hill, and the majority of the men were either at home convalescing, or still hospitalized.

In the aftermath of the war, an official inquiry into the chaos at Santiago found fault with several of the officers in charge of the 71st Infantry, citing a failure to act decisively to either join the attack or to remove the men from harm's way. Several senior officers were reprimanded, and two resigned their commissions. But Theodore Roosevelt, then Governor of New York State, reviewed the board of inquiry's findings himself, and praised the common soldiers of the regiment: 
 

"The greater part of the Seventy-First of their own free will took part in the storming of San Juan Hill, and showed that no matter how cowardly their officers might be, they were willing to obey their country's call." 

Many individual soldiers of the 71st were recognized for their courage. Two men in particular made notable contributions to society after the war. Frank Keck, a Major, went on to become a prominent New York City socialite and businessman. Another solider by the name of Charles Johnson Post made a name for himself as a painter and cartoonist, and produced many watercolor paintings depicting the 71st New York Infantry and their wartime experiences in Cuba.

One of Charles Johnson Post's watercolor paintings of U.S. troops during the Spanish-American War, date unknown.

The 71st Regiment Armory 

This brings us at last to the architectural icon that loomed large over Murray Hill for most of the 20th century. One stormy winter night in 1902, a fire broke out and burned down the original armory less than 10 years after it was first erected. Famed architectural firm Clinton and Russel (whose creations include The Beaver Building at 1 Wall Street Court) was contracted to build a replacement on the same site. This new armory was to be used not only for military training, but also as a space to host important public events, with a main hall that could hold up to 11,000 people.

In true Romanesque Revival style, the architects turned to the town hall of Sienna, Italy, for a bold template that was at once distinguished and foreign for a Manhattan building at that time. The final product boasted medieval turrets, parapets, and an thin, elegant tower overlooking the entire structure.

In drafting their designs for the new armory, Clinton and Russel drew heavy inspiration from the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) of Siena, pictured here.

 

The armory ended up costing $650,000 (about $17 million today) and spanned the entire Park Avenue block from 33rd to 34th Streets. By all accounts, the structure's medieval battlements, red brick-and-stone facade, and 236-foot tall tower were as regal as they were anachronistic and strange.

Murray Hill's armory went on to serve its soldiers (who fought around the globe in both World Wars) and civilian neighbors as a dedicated meeting place, event venue, and training site for over sixty years. In 1964, it even played host to Robert Kennedy when he won the Democratic caucus' nomination for the U.S. Senate. A year after that, it provided refuge to 2,500 New Yorkers during the Great Northeastern Blackout.
 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the armory's flashy, exotic design was marked for demolition at the end of the 1960s. The site remained empty for another ten years before it was replaced with a rather plain-looking modern skyscraper, which today houses commercial offices and a local high school.

 

Today, the 33rd Street subway station contains the last remaining evidence of the armory's existence on the intersection of Park and 33rd Street. Striking faience eagles made by architectural firm Heins & Lafarge, which once signified the presence of the armory above ground, deck the station walls. A handful of similar eagle plaques can be found throughout the city's subway stations. Each hints at a National Guard armory that was once located above or nearby the station. In some lucky cases, such as the famous Seventh Regiment Armory, they can still be found today.

 

A Word From Dan and Aaron 
 

We hope you found this excursion into Murray Hill's lost armory as interesting and rewarding as we did. What would you like to see us cover next? Please don't hesitate to reach out via text, phone call or email. We love to hear from you.

Have a great weekend,
Dan & Aaron

Dan Bamberger
Licensed Real Estate Broker
917.903.7237
Dan@BambergerGroup.com

Aaron Gordon
Licensed Real Estate Agent
646.598.6428
Aaron@BambergerGroup.com

Contact Dan Bamberger
A leading Murray Hill Real Estate Broker

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Dan Bamberger

Licensed Real Estate Broker

(917) 903-7237

If you're thinking about buying or selling in Murray Hill , let's discuss your situation. It's completely free and there's absolutely no obligation.

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