Architect: Martin E. Thompson
Location: 830 Fifth Avenue
We’ve always been a money town, a business town — not a military town the way Norfolk, Annapolis, Pensacola, and San Diego have been through much of their lives. Still, the architecture of war was unavoidable, as our bigness makes us a luscious target. After a period of isolationism, the harbor was ringed with forts for the War of 1812. Because of them, the city never saw action. Washington, protected by only one fort, burned. Most receded to non-functionality pretty quickly. Armories dotted the island, as they still do, though nearly all have been put to different uses, usually cultural centers. Reminders that we still fight wars have vanished, save for the accidentally camp spectacle of Fleet Week. Today, there is only one functional military base left in the city: Fort Hamilton, and even its functionality has been chipped away over the decades through demolitions and decomissions. The last new armory, if we can trust this incomplete list, was built in 1971, vacated in 1994 and replaced by the McBurney YMCA in the next decade.
I don’t know why this is, but I can guess. Real estate’s too valuable. NIMBYism, for sure. Perhaps we’ve just shifted the burden to elsewhere in the country, much the same way we outsource the unsightly industries that make life (you call this living) possible. And the large-scale existential threats come not from armies but ICBMs launched half-way across the planet, or small groups of terrorists, or melting glaciers, things a cache of artillery will not protect against. The city’s contribution to the wars America fights are here but hidden — virtualized — in mainframes, office jobs. Perhaps without meaning to, this absence tells the world the city has nothing to do with the business of war, that we are beyond it.
The Arsenal reached a state of obsolescence early. Barely ten years after it was built, the city seized the land the Arsenal was built on, and a little later, the Arsenal itself, for what would become Central Park. Like the former armories of our own time, once emptied of armaments, the structure prompted many questions on the order of “what the fuck are we going to do with this this this THING?” with the answer often being “destroy it.” (George Templeton Strong wrote that he hoped it would be “destroyed by accidental fire.”) It wasn’t; instead, it became many things at many different times. In 1857, it was a turned into a police precinct. A menagerie, first composed of gifts of unwanted animals, bears and black swans, was placed at the rear; it eventually became the Central Park Zoo. During the Civil War, it was used as barracks. (With the noisy, smelly menagerie nearby?) The municipal weather bureau lived on the roof and the Museum of Natural History first lived on the second and third floors before being moved. The city’s parks department moved in and out and in. Today, if you were a kid, you might think the Arsenal, partially covered in ivy and adjacent to the Central Park Zoo, just looks like a fun old castle.