A community stronghold, Bel Air Armory marks 100 years

At 100 years, Bel Air's Armory is more vibrant than ever

In any given week, the doors of the Bel Air Armory are almost never closed.

During the day, workers from the Town of Bel Air and the Bel Air Downtown Alliance stay busy in their offices, while students of the county's FutureLink program, for 19-to-21-year-olds with disabilities, learn in the classrooms downstairs.

Three evenings each week, a Zumba class takes over the main auditorium, while the White Marsh-based Central Christian Church holds services Sunday mornings and a youth ministry on Wednesdays.

Weekends and holidays are when the armory really shines, bringing in thousands of people for special events like the Bel Air Gun Show, Festival of Trees, Merry Tuba Christmas and the Chocolate Festival.

"There's a misconception that the building sits vacant or idle, but, really, we run seven days a week with events here," Armory manager Dave Gigliotti said. "It's rented pretty much all the time."

The unusual looking, castle-like building at 37 N. Main St. in Bel Air marks its 100th anniversary this year.

The Town of Bel Air, which oversaw a major resurrection for the armory since buying it in 2004, will celebrate the building's centennial from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday, with an open house, a speech by local historian Carol Deibel, the town's former planning director, music and food from nearby Vagabond Sandwich Company.

"A lot more goes on now that the town owns the building," Gigliotti pointed out.

From wars to service

As recently as a decade ago, the armory was far less busy.

Gigliotti, who graduated from Bel Air High School in 1983, recalled the building hosting teen dances and the Motor Vehicle Administration for a while. But it was far from being considered an interesting place to go.

"I kind of remember the building but didn't have too much of an idea what was here," Gigliotti said.

The armory was originally commissioned for a more serious purpose, as the military's mission swept through Harford County.

The onset of World War I, in 1914, prompted the state, in 1915, to order the construction of the "imposing Port Deposit granite structure" to serve as a home for Company D of the First Maryland Regiment of the Maryland National Guard, according to Carol Deibel's book "Bel Air Chronicles."

Two years later, the federal government created Aberdeen Proving Ground, cementing Harford County's attachment to the Army.

The armory, meanwhile, was named in honor of the 64-year military career of Bel Air's Lt. Gen. Milton A. Reckord, who "served with distinction in both World War I and World War II," according to Deibel.

After seeing patriotic festivals, community send-offs and a 1918 victory jubilee, the armory became Bel Air's Civilian Defense Headquarters for World War II.

That was the last major military role the building would play, as America's post-war economic boom kicked in and the prominent Main Street facility – described in the National Register of Historic Places as resembling "a Scottish Gothic Revival castle" and "unmistakably an armory" – became primarily a community center.

Besides "seasonal dances" and plays by "the city's professional Ramsey Street players," the National Register also lists activities that would probably raise a lot more eyebrows today, such as "the annual town minstrel show."

Photos from the 1950s show the armory stage filled with young people performing in blackface.

The armory also housed town services, including the Red Cross, the county library and, until somewhat recently, a recruiting office for the modern Maryland Army National Guard.

Former town administrator Chris Schlehr said the town's takeover of the armory was the work of many people, especially Sen. Bob Cassilly, a former town commissioner, who told state officials the town wanted to acquire the building instead of just renting it.

"I was interested in getting a better use for the town. We were renting it at a high cost for very few events," Schlehr said. "That was really the first time I really thought about the town trying to acquire it."

Local leaders Bill Cox, Jim Decker, Carol Deibel and Dave Carey also helped move the project forward, Schlehr said.

"I grew up in Bel Air. When I was a small kid, the armory was a focal point. We had semi-professional wrestling in there," Schlehr recalled. "That had all been closed off by the time I started working for the town in 1992."

Now, Schlehr said, the building is back to its former glory.

"I think it's the greatest thing since sliced bread for the town. It's like it was when I was growing up," he said. "It's a resource for the town, and think about all the things that happen there."

"It couldn't have worked out any better," Schlehr said of the town's takeover.

'Kids... think there are princesses'

As a leader of the Bel Air Downtown Alliance, Craig Ward, who recently retired as head of Frederick Ward Associates, is a Bel Air native who helped shape the armory's recent transformation.

Growing up in Bel Air in the 1960s and 1970s, and graduating in 1975, Ward recalls the armory "was used as the Teen Center, with concerts on the weekends. The sound was awful."

"Whenever they would have dances and have live bands, my friends and I would go up to it," he said.

In 2010, he also led the construction of the adjacent Frederick Ward Park, which launched the armory's new role as more of a complex than a stand alone building.

Besides a new handicap-accessible ramp, the building is fronted by one of the Hearts of Harford sculptures, while construction is underway on the garages behind it, part of the vision for the town's Armory Marketplace project to house start-ups or business incubators behind the building.

The building was originally leased to the town for $1 per year, Ward said. It was ultimately taken over from the state in 2004.

"That is when they really started to do renovations to it," he said, explaining the Alliance partnered with a town to transfer a $250,000 grant, originally aimed at Thomas Street, to the armory.

"That is when they put in the acoustic treatment, the panels, and that made the acoustics 1,000 percent better," Ward said. "That is when they really started to use that building much more as a community center."

The basement and bathrooms were renovated, and the Alliance, the town's Visitor Center and the Office of Economic Development eventually moved in.

"It's been a steady increase, ever since the mid-2000s," Ward said of the armory's use, attributing it to "the vision of Chris Schlehr to make it into a community center and make it a more dynamic landmark... It was really just an underutilized building."

As the former president of an architectural firm, Ward said he thinks the new park named after his father "softens the look" of a pretty severe building, with the castle look.

He hopes to get more programming for the park itself, such as jazz bands or "mellower events."

"We have been talking about that, and been talking to the town about getting more use," Ward said. "I think it will see more and more use over the years."

Alliance director Christine McPherson agreed.

"I hope we find better ways to use the fantastic park that is open on the side," McPherson said, adding she feels "like it's underutilized."

She also took a more romantic view of the "pretty severe building" Ward described.

"Little kids come up to it and think there are princesses and things that live inside there," McPherson said.

She called that part of the armory's uniqueness.

"I think it really is a key landmark for us, because it very much serves as a civic center for the town, so it holds quite a variety of events," McPherson said. "As an Alliance, we really lean on that building to be a staple for the town, as well."

"It's really heartwarming when, especially, older community members will come in and share stories of when they signed up to be in the National Guard [at the armory]," she said. "I am excited that, even in this modern day, we have found ways to still have a purpose for the building."

Although the town also has the Liriodendron mansion and Rockfield Manor, the armory "just has the best layout," McPherson said, explaining the building is notable for its large open space.

'A town icon'

The armory is coming full circle in some ways, as the town recently started both a Spring Fling and a Fall Fling that are open to the public, Gigliotti said.

In partnership with the Bel Air Community Band, the events have drawn 150 to 200 people, he said.

Other fairly new events include the town's Film Festival, Duke Thompson's "Lincoln's Life & Legacy" presentation, the Bay Country Gentlemen's Holiday Harmony show, the Authors & Artists Holiday Gift Sale, the Historical Society's Valentine's Day dinner and show and its "What's In Your Attic?" antiques appraisal event.

Gigliotti noted The Mill was recently invited to hold its Wild Bird Dinner at the armory after it lost its originally-planned facility in Jarrettsville.

The diversity of activities at the armory is regularly on display, from a Persian rug sale to the town's police camp taking over the space every summer.

On a recent Sunday morning, about 100 people came to a service for Central Christian Church, which also organizes a public Sunday meal and a youth ministry out of the armory.

"It's right in the center of town and we wanted to be part of the community," Pastor Buddy Kauffman said about why the church decided to set up shop there in 2009.

"We have built a great relationship with the town, so that has been very good," Kauffman added. "It's awesome to see a 100-year-old building that has had multiple uses, and for us, now, God is using it to impact the community."

Gigliotti hopes to see the variety of events continue to grow.

"I think I want to continue bringing events that are positive for the community and things maybe like the Lincoln show, where we are joining forces with the Historical Society or other groups, talented musicians like Duke Thompson," Gigliotti said.

"It's always been a town icon, in the sense of the building itself and the architecture, but now it's also serving as a cultural center for the town," he said. "Everyone knows where it is; everyone knows it's where things happen."

With the park and garage project, "it's starting to take the shape of a complex," Gigliotti said.

Bel Air Mayor Robert Reier lauded the Armory during a town commissioners' meeting Nov. 2.

"The Armory has certainly been a tremendous venue for us, and it's a fantastic facility," he said.

Reier said the building is used "it seems like, every weekend."

"It's one of the signature structures and buildings that make Bel Air, Bel Air," he said.

Reporter David Anderson contributed to this article.

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