From: The Record, Monday, May 2, 1983

Our Neglected Armories:
New Jersey's Armories Are Fading Into Decay And Disuse 

By The Record's staff

Old Armory in PatersonThe Paterson National Guard armory, where Civil War veterans proudly gathered on Memorial Day 1894 for the laying of the cornerstone, is boarded up, spotted with grafitti, and for sale. The last troops moved out of the block-long, brick castle two months ago.

At the armory in Teaneck, a New Deal symbol of American resilience, water from recent rain soaked from the second floor roof to the basement. Since 1968, the town has considered the building unsafe for public events.

These buildings and New Jersey's other National Guard armories once were symbols of security, culture, and civic pride. Today, while the National Guard itself enjoys a recession-driven resurgence, some of its homes have aged into decrepit hulks.

The armories, which average 33 years old, are falling apart, Maj. Gen. Francis Gerard, state Defense Department chief of staff, recently told a state legislative committee. He asked for $10.8 million over 10 years, including $1.3 million next year, to renovate 23 of the 40 state-owned armories.

Teaneck armoryThe plan would further stretch the state budget, possibly at the expense of more visible programs with larger constituencies. Compared to education or welfare, said an aide to Governor Kean, "there is not the same emotional issue" in the armories.

The problem extends beyond New Jersey. Nationwide, renovation and construction run about $800 million behind needs, said Col. Donald Perkins of the National Guard Association of the United States, a professional and lobbying group in Washington, D.C.

"It seems like we're falling farther and farther back each year," he said, acknowledging that armory repairs are hard to sell "when you're short on B-1 bombers and MX missiles."

In the years before high-technology warfare, when the armories offered more tangible security, their militias were important militarily and socially. It was the golden age of the citizen soldier in the golden age of the city.

Over the years, the 75,000-square-foot armory in Paterson presented events for all: The Paterson Orpheus Club performed Handel's "Messiah"; Enrico Caruso sang; Clarence Darrow spoke; Joe Louis and Gene Tunney fought, though not each other.

As Paterson native Al Bizaro strolled past the building one afternoon last week, he recalled, "I've seen a lot of good circuses here. All your best circus performers came through here."

Teaneck armory seats 12,000Teaneck's heyday came later. Built in part with money from the Works Progress Administration, the 133,000-square-foot armory opened to a dog show in March 1938. For the next 30 years its calendar offered everything from a campaign rally for Dwight D. Eisenhower to midget-auto races.

That halted abruptly in 1968, when the town council stopped issuing use permits. The council cited the lack of emergency exits, a fire detection system disconnected about 1950, and vehicles with filled gasoline tanks parked in the basement garage.

Despite the faults in the Teaneck armory, Capt. Anthony Palazzini, who once saw the New Jersey Americans play basketball in the drill hall and now is the building's administrative officer, said he still turns down requests to use the facility, which can seat as many as 12,000.

The National Guard wants a little more than $1 million to repair the Teaneck armory, which is used by about 800 troops of an engineer battalion, medical battalion, and infantry company. The money would be used to replace the electrical system with its chattering circuit breakers, the leaky galvanized-pipe plumbing, and a heating system run on three mammoth oil-fueled boilers. The budget does not yet include a new roof.

Those troubles are common among the 23 buildings on the repair list: The 23-year-old Lodi armory, which houses two maintenance companies, would get $68,000 for a new heating system. In Jersey City, the building at 678 Montgomery St. - and the problems - are similar to Teaneck's.

The declining condition of the armories may endanger New Jersey's troop strength, which is now at 92 percent of its authorized 13,500 soldiers, the National Guard says. Recruitment is strong, thanks to the recession. The National Guard, in its promotional literature, says the $8.4 million which the state spent for National Guard activities last year was "a valuable and cost-effective investment."

The state Defense Department's information officer was more direct: Five armories have closed in six years, including Paterson's, causing troops to be shuffled to other facilities, said Maj. William C. Lowe. If the trend continues, he said, New Jersey will not have enough armory space and will have to send some units to other states.

"That's equivalent to endangering a major industry in New Jersey," he said, adding that federal dollars could be lost.

If Gerard is to launch the 10-year renovation plan, he must get from the legislature what he could not from the administration: Kean's proposed budget allows $596,000 next year for armory construction and maintenance, with virtually every dollar spoken for.

Assemblyman Robert Janiszewski, D-Jersey City, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Revenue, Finance, and Appropriations, called the Jersey City armory "an absolute disgrace," but added, "I could cite example after example of dramatic underfunding that the committee is sensitized to."

Despite the condition of its armories, last year New Jersey guard units marched in 26 Memorial Day parades. They also participated in several walkathons, supplied emergency water, and dispatched medical teams to sporting events.

"We're involved in the community, like the Knights of Columbus, the Elks, or the Moose," said M. Sgt. Lucas Casbar, noncommissioned officer in charge of recruiting for north-eastern New Jersey. "The only difference is, when you join this organization, you get paid for it."

As part of its efforts, the 104th Engineer Battalion from the Teaneck armory installed a 10-ton sign and anchor for an American Legion post, cleared parkland in Madison, and built a road to a camp for the retarded in Haskell.

Despite those efforts, the National Guard's relationship with Teaneck is "just kind of cordial acceptance," said Mayor Bernard Brooks.

"At the moment, I would say it [the armory] is not an integral part of the town at all," he said. "It is looked on purely as a piece of state property, and that is it." 

In Paterson, the armory has generated friction. Paterson has made "at least 15 overtures" to the state to buy the armory and convert it to a youth center, said Mayor Francis X. Graves. "They sat on it and sat on it and sat on it," he said. "What game they're playing, I don't know."

The ornate Paterson armory, once the home of a proud regiment, no longer offers town residents security, culture - or anything else until a decision is made on its sale. Graves said, "They just can't put their act together."

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