A door in the Lynn Armory displays the lineage of National Guard units based in the South Common Street facility.
A door in the Lynn Armory displays the lineage of National Guard units based in the South Common Street facility. (Thor Jourgensen)

Jourgensen: A bastion against the test of time

I love the Lynn Armory and the contribution to the architectural treasure trove that it makes to South Common Street. Driving down the Common sometimes gives you the feel of skirting the Himalayas with church spires and the armory's imposing turret looming about you.

I would love to know how many bricks are in the armory and its garage and I am grateful to Lynn Housing Authority & Neighborhood Development Planning and Development Manager Jeff Weeden for giving me a top-to-bottom tour of the massive building.

Built to last, the armory is the consummate survivor. It has managed to fend off decades of ideas aimed at changing its use and even razing the armory.

The armory lost its military connection in 2006 when the Massachusetts National Guard announced that Battery C, 1st Battalion, 102 Field Artillery, would be deactivated as part of a Guard reorganization.

Units of the 102nd as well as the 101st Field Artillery and Guard engineers called the armory home and traced their history in Massachusetts to pre-Revolutionary War times.

The armory received an attaboy from the state Legislature in 1986 when a House of Representatives study generally critical of armory operations across the state praised the Lynn Armory as one of the most cost-effective buildings in the Massachusetts Guard.

The study also offered a short-lived suggestion to build a new Lynn Armory and transfer Guard troops in Salem, left without a local armory following a fire, to Lynn.

Built in 1894, the Lynn Armory is the oldest in the state next to the Worcester Armory built in 1892. Its planned rebirth as veterans housing is the greatest but only the latest suggestion for making use of the armory.

A suggestion to turn the brick and stone behemoth into a youth center went nowhere 20 years ago and the armory was even up for sale in 1967 for $500,000.

The now-extinct Lynn Redevelopment Authority went on the record then with a plan to buy the armory and the adjacent garage built in 1949, tear down the building, and put high-rise apartments on the South Common site.

The sale proposal dovetailed with the notion of building a new armory in Lynn at a time when the Guard was expanding against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

The redevelopment authority went as far as to solicit appraisals for the armory even as local opinion on demolishing the building grew negative. Someone in the know said demolition talk didn't prevent the armory from hosting wrestling matches and even concerts.

Fire damaged the armory's second floor in 1964 and, in 1938, the Works Progress Administration brought in "10 artisans" and, later, 24 to create new doorways and ramps for trucks and artillery pieces moving in and out of the armory.

"Gangsters seeking arms" — to quote a Daily Evening Item article — managed to break into the armory on New Years Day 1932 and steal 20 .45-caliber handguns. The thieves somehow twisted an iron grating mounted over a basement window and broke the window to get into the armory.

The 1930s were tough for the armory, with state legislators branding the building a "fire trap" in 1930 and Army officers calling it unsanitary.

Perhaps the most enduring description of the armory was published in The Item in 1919: "It is a beautiful structure, but this fact is never impressed upon anyone until the building is closely inspected."

My most enduring memory of the armory stretches back more than 20 years to the day I covered a ceremony for troops freshly returned from peacekeeping duties in war-ravaged Bosnia.

One of the Guard members told me how his father and fellow soldiers in the last days of World War II in Europe advanced on a rail yard. As a new day dawned, they spotted movement in a line of boxcars on a rail siding and took cover, anticipating a German attack. They gradually made their way across the yard to the boxcars and discovered they were packed with people. Almost all of them were dead except for a handful who were struggling to free themselves from the cars.

More Stories From Lynn