Pawtucket has long been challenging Providence as the cultural capitol of the state, and this development certainly helps put Pawtucket closer to the top. The Pawtucket Armory Association in association with the Gamm Theatre will reinvent the historic Armory, an eye-catching castle, into a performing arts center, to be anchored by the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre (SFGT) and the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
In February 2002, they retained Taylor & Burns Architects of Boston, known for creative, community-based reuse projects, to design the new layout of the structure. On April 24, 2002, the Pawtucket City Council voted to sell the building to the PAA for $1, and work began on cleaning and preparing the Armory for its new incarnation.
The first step was a renovation of the Armory’s annex for the Gamm’s use starting with the 2003 season. Next, the large Drill Hall’s dramatic wrought iron supports had to be cleaned and re-coated to stop the flaking of possibly lead-based paint that has been going on previously. Since then, the annual Foundry Artists Holiday Show has held their December sales in this amazing vaulted space.
The final phase of reconstruction will take the form of a 340-seat performance space in the large Drill Hall area. Completion of this design will provide a new and permanent home for The Gamm as well as a state-of-the-art facility for other regional and community arts groups, making the City of Pawtucket a cultural hub within easy reach of larger population centers to the North and South.
From the National Register Nomination form
Construction of the Pawtucket Armory began in 1894 and the building was completed in mid-1895. It was the first of the large armories constructed in Rhode Island. It was built for the Tower Light Infantry of Pawtucket, the Kearny Light Infantry (Company G 2nd Regiment Infantry) of Central Falls, and the Pawtucket Horse Guards First Cavalry Battalion. More than 1,000 people attended a grand ball held to commemorate the opening of the Armory on June 12, 1895.
The Pawtucket Armory fulfilled its community protection role during the streetcar riots of 1902. In January of that year the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a law legalizing the reduction of the workday for streetcar workers to ten hours. The streetcar companies refused to comply, and the unionized streetcar workers struck, fomenting a boycott. This event was called Fitzgerald’s Rebellion, after Pawtucket Mayor John J. Fitzgerald, who supported the workday reduction. The situation became increasingly tense, but Fitzgerald refused to use his police force to protect the streetcars. The company hired its own security men, one of whom shot a worker in a scuffle on East Avenue, provoking riots. Rhode Island Governor Kimball placed Pawtucket under martial law in June 1902 and called out 700 militia. The Newport Naval Battalion, led by General Herbert S. Tanner and trained in suppressing street riots, marched from the Pawtucket Armory to quiet the rioters. The militia was called out from the armory again in 1922, during a textile strike for a forty-hour work week, and one man was shot in front of the Jenckes plant on Weeden Street.
The Pawtucket Armory also served as a public meeting place, and was used for Social Security sign-up, circuses, Girl Scout functions, St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and dances. It was the scene of the 1976 Bicentennial Ball and was used for mayoral inaugural balls into the 1990s.
The Pawtucket Armory was the first of several Rhode Island armories designed by the Providence architectural firm of William R. Walker & Son. William Russell Walker (1830-1905) served as a lieutenant colonel in the Pawtucket Light Guard with the Union Army in the Civil War; and eventually reached the rank of major general in the state militia. He began practicing architecture in the 1860s. In 1881 his Pawtucket-born son William Howard Walker (1865-1922) became a partner in the architectural firm, and, singly or together, they designed the Westerly, Woonsocket, Warwick, and Providence (both Cranston Street and North Main Street) armories, as well as town halls in Cumberland, Warren, and Warwick, Rhode Island. William H.Walker eventually became the firm’s principal upon his father’s death in 1905. He was active in Rhode Island Masonic and military organizations and served as a. quartermaster of the general militia from 1892 to 1918.
Undoubtedly the Walker family’s military connections were influential in obtaining the commissions for thesearmories. William H. Walker’s son, William R. Walker II (1884-1936) succeeded as head of the firm in 1922. The drill hall roof with its unusual arched trusses was designed and fabricated by the Berlin Iron Bridge Company, a noted Connecticut bridge and structural fabricator of the mid-1870s.
Armory buildings were constructed to provide state militias with administrative, storage, and training space. The Pawtucket Armory is an excellent example of a late nineteenth-century “castellated” state armory,a round-towered Romanesque Revival structure characterized by fully integrated Medieval defense features.Part of the use and acceptance of the “castle” motif for armory construction is a reflection of the eclectic architectural atmosphere that prevailed in the nineteenth century. Additionally, social conditions during the 1880s and 1890s made castles and fortresses appealing historic metaphors for armories whose role was the defense of property, law, and order. Engineering advances pioneered in railroad station construction were important models that influenced the design and layout of armory structures. Armories of this period consisted of two major components, a drill shed and head house. To meet the design requirements of an area large enough in which to drill a company of men, architects looked to the clear-span, metal-truss railroad train shed for a solution. Armory designers also, adopted the form of the railroad station head house (a single building that spanned the end of the tracks) to house the armory’s administrative offices. Head house facilities were reserved for militia officers, while the drill shed basement contained-storage space for equipment.