NATIONAL GUARD ARMORIES
For more than 150 years National Guard armories have symbolized the dedication of American citizens to defend their state and nation. Americans' general aversion to standing armies led to the development of volunteer militia units, beginning in the colonial era and extending into the twenty-first century. Volunteers needed places in which to store arms, ammunition, and equipment and to train soldiers, and therein derives the concept of the National Guard armory. Armories were built in the northeastern states throughout the nineteenth century, but armory building lagged in the South and West, due primarily to economic concerns. By the 1920s approximately five-sixths of America's military strength lay in "citizen soldiers" National Guard divisions and Army Reserve divisions and the need for facilities became critical. After a 1916 reorganization of the National Guard, and particularly during the New Deal of the 1930s, armory construction became a priority for the federal government. By the year 2000 across the United States, Army National Guard and state guard units used and owned more than three thousand armory buildings, of which 12 to 15 percent were more than fifty years old.
The Oklahoma Territorial Militia and, after 1907 statehood, the Oklahoma National Guard were slow to build special buildings to serve the purpose of civil defense. Through the 1920s and into the 1930s, most Guard units met in various places such as schoolhouses and lodge halls and rented the upper floors of downtown buildings for ordnance storage. The men trained in open fields outside town. Despite scant materiel support, Oklahoma's Guardsmen provided service during numerous natural disasters and civil disturbances. They needed permanent drilling and training facilities, as members were required to meet forty-eight drills per year. The lack of secure storage made the makeshift armories easy prey for criminals, who often were able to break in and steal guns and ammunition. In general, units in eastern Oklahoma were infantry, and in the west, horse-drawn, and later mechanized, artillery.
Sad to say, Oklahomans' military preparedness benefitted from the Great Depression, while as a people, Oklahoman suffered severely from 1929 through the 1930s. State and local government, unable to muster the resources to provide relief, relied on the federal government for help. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration, established in May 1934 by the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, or New Deal, provided direct relief, and by the time the Works Progress (later, Projects) Administration came into being in 1935, 33 percent of Oklahoma families qualified for aid. The WPA created make-work projects for Oklahoma's 127,416 jobless men. Among the programs was an armory-building focus.
Approved as a nationwide project in September 1935, through the efforts of Oklahoma National Guard Commander Gen. William S. Key, the armory program began in earnest in the last two months of 1935. Key assigned Bryan F. Nolen, a National Guard major and architect, to the project. Across Oklahoma, towns donated or purchased land for the proposed armories. The first to begin construction was Wewoka, on October 8, 1935. Other towns followed in October and November, with men employed in site preparation, foundation excavation, and stone quarrying. Despite financial and political setbacks during 1936, by the end of that year the first armory was completed, at Kingfisher. By mid 1937, 126 armories had been built nationwide, of which fifty-one were in the state of Oklahoma. Each cost from $30,000 to $60,000, and all in Oklahoma were completed by March 1937. Generally, each community held elaborate dedication ceremonies, usually including a parade, a speech by Key or by Gen. Charles F. Barrett, banquets or barbecues, facility tours, and concerts or dances. The new construction infused $3.5 million into local economies and gave work literally to thousands of citizens. The Public Works Administration, another New Deal program, also built large armories in Tulsa and Oklahoma City before World War II.
Oklahoma's armories are immediately recognizable by their style. Architect Nolen used standard plans for one-, two- or four-unit armories. The buildings were either one or two story, built of stone or brick. Each had its own adaptation of Art Deco decoration that ranged from plain, such as Guthrie, or Konawa, which is detailed with extensive inlays of molded concrete. The strongly horizontal buildings are made to look military by the use of parapets, false towers at the corners, arched entryways, and castellated parapets that look like battlements. Inside each armory were a huge central drill hall and a subterranean rifle range, as well as garages and offices. Following the WPA's practical make-work philosophy, construction was accomplished by unskilled workers, and consequently, artistry and craftsmanship were minimal and depended on the supervisors' skill level and the laborers' experience level and adaptability.
Oklahoma's National Guard was originally part of the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division and after 1921 formed part of the fabled Forty-fifth Infantry Division. Due in large measure to the WPA and PWA armory-building program, the Forty-fifth Infantry Division was able to achieve a level of military efficiency and readiness that prepared it to be among the first four National Guard divisions that were federalized in late 1940 and pointed toward the nation's emerging involvement in World War II.
National Guard armories became a part of the architectural and social landscape of Oklahoma's communities, the huge drill halls providing a place for concerts, social gatherings, and exhibitions. With the onset of war, some became holding centers for German prisoners of war detailed from POW camps to perform local agricultural labor. In most cases the building was the most imposing one in town. Many of Oklahoma's armory buildings, but not all, were still in use by the Oklahoma Army National Guard in 2002. Some, like those at Tahlequah, Duncan, and Chickasha, now serve as museums or community centers.
After the war and during the 1950-90 period the WPA-built armories continued to serve the National Guard. During the Korean War and the Cold War of the 1950s, however, national security requirements dictated the building of more, and more modern, facilities; twenty-five were constructed in the 1950s and fifty-two from 1960 through 1991. Contemporary, plain, and unremarkable in appearance, these new buildings had clean lines and flat roofs and served strictly military purposes.
Oklahoma's historic armories represent a uniquely American architectural legacy. No other nation constructed such buildings to serve the needs of a citizen soldiery. At the end of the twentieth century, thirty-eight of Oklahoma's WPA-built armories had been listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dianna Everett, Historic National Guard Armories: A Brief, Illustrated Review of the Past Two Centuries (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Defense and National Guard Bureau, Historical Services, 1994). Dianna Everett and Mary Jane Warde, "Survey of World War II Era Defense Facilities in Oklahoma [Typescript]," State Historic Preservation Office, Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1993. Renee Hylton-Greene and Robert K. Wright, A Brief History of the Militia and the National Guard (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army and National Guard Bureau, 1986). OMD 2000: A Plan to Bring Oklahoma Armories into the Twenty-first Century (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Military Department, 1991).
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