June 6, 2017 | Liz Austin

Everyone in St. Louis has seen the Armory looming alongside Highway 40. But have you explored the fascinating history behind it?  LEARN MORE

If a curious traveller happened upon the St. Louis Armory, they might find themselves underwhelmed. Tattered and tired, with boarded windows and surrounded by industrial flotsam, The Armory in its current form is hardly a must-see attraction.

But the building is actually a significant cultural and historical landmark for the city, and legendary athletes and musicians have walked its hallowed halls. Time and wear may have reduced this iconic building to a shadow of its former glory, but thanks to restoration plans, it will soon begin its second act.

From Drill Hall to Civic Space

The St. Louis Armory was built in 1937-8 for use by the 138th Infantry Missouri National Guard. It originally fronted Market Street — a once bustling St. Louis street that has since been overshadowed by the adjacent Highway 40 and looming double deck of Interstate 64.

Over the years, many other civic groups used the Armory for their activities. In 1948, the Armory played host to organizations including the Post Office Drum and Bugle Corps, St. Louis Tennis Association (which used the facility’s five tennis courts), St. Louis Archery Club, and St. Louis University (which held dances there).

By the 1960s, the National Guard opened the Armory up for rock concerts, including a two-night stint by the Grateful Dead in May of 1968. In 1971, the 138th Infantry left its home at the Armory and moved to new quarters at Jefferson Barracks, the historic army post south of the St. Louis city limits.

Athletic Aspirations

In considering how the newly vacant building should be repurposed, the city considered using the Armory for its health department or juvenile detention center, but ultimately opted against both. In the spring of 1972, the building was leased to the Armory Sports Center for use by the community. The Sports Center offered low-cost use of facilities for tennis, handball, swimming, and more.

Three time grand slam winner and number one world ranked tennis player Arthur Ashe spent his formative years honing his skills on St. Louis Armory’s hardwood indoor tennis courts. Fellow tennis legends Jimmy Connors and Butch Buchholz also spent significant time improving their game there. But due to the high cost of maintenance in the expansive facility, the Armory Sports Center was out of business by 1975.

By the 1980s, the State of Missouri was under increasing pressure from legislators to sell the “white elephant” of a building, and it was sold to a private owner in 1987. The building remained in use until 2005 for indoor sports, concerts, and other events, but has since fallen vacant. Despite the eventual closure of the sports facility, the Armory’s underground parking garage is still in use today.

What Lies Ahead

But the Armory is not yet past its prime. Green Street St. Louis recently announced its plans for a $83.4 million redevelopment of the Armory building, and is currently working to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places. The Armory’s restoration is part of a coordinated effort to develop and revitalize St. Louis neighborhoods while taking full advantage of the existing infrastructure.

Proposed redevelopment plans include three floors of expansive office space and an underground parking area that will house 200 cars. The Armory’s future amenities will include a rooftop green space, a spa, and wellness center. After completion of the project, the entire area surrounding the Armory will be appropriately renamed the Armory District.

The aim of the restoration project is to turn the Armory into an entertainment center that will connect surrounding neighborhoods, create new business and retail spaces, and serve as one of many new and coming attractions for the influx of entrepreneurs and millennial employees flocking to the St. Louis tech and startup scene.

With so much in store, the best may be yet to come for this iconic St. Louis landmark.

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