Armory given to an uncertain city

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116118809927946.jpg’, ‘Photo by Stuart R. Wahlin’, ‘National Guard Armory on North Main Street in Rockford.’);

The Illinois National Guard Armory is in the hands of the City of Rockford after it was donated by Chicago real estate developer Jocelyn Blair-Stoller at an Oct. 11 press conference. The structure, at 605 N. Main St., was purchased by Stoller’s Mirador Group LLC in 2003, but has been vacant since.

“When I first saw the armory, I fell in love with it,” Stoller said of the historic building. “When you walk in there, you can just feel and imagine what has occurred in there.”

AMCORE bid $200,000 at foreclosure auction on OIC Vocational Institute in 2003, transferring ownership to Mirador later the same day. Stoller could not recall how much she’d paid for the facility. County records show a sale price of $0.

Construction of the Art Deco achievement began in 1935, and the doors opened two years later. Besides being the area’s original National Guard headquarters, the armory served as a predecessor to the MetroCentre, hosting dances, political rallies, concerts and sporting events. The last time the property was put to use was in 1996 as a short-lived job training center.

The armory earned landmark status and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.

Also present at the event was Helmut Rechslag of Bradley & Bradley, the Rockford architectural firm credited with the armory’s innovative design. The building was recognized for being one of the largest open-span buildings of its kind in the country at the time of its construction.

“We have all the talent here in town,” Rechslag explained, “to realize the full potential of this building and maximize its addition to the ever-evolving cultural corridor. We’ve asked for the ball. Now it’s in our hands, so to speak, and it’s time to take that shot and score.”

For years, the armory’s future has been uncertain. While it still is not known exactly what will become of it, Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) said he is hopeful the property will complement the Riverfront Museum Center and be connected to the planned Riverwalk. Morrissey added the initial development investments would likely come out of the nearly $2 million in state grants set aside for that project.

“The distinct advantage that we have now is that we have control over a piece of property that we’re able to receive at a very nominal cost,” Morrissey said, “and we now can add that into a growing group of assets on our riverfront.”

The mayor said the city’s only cost in acquiring the 80,000-square-foot facility would be less than $40,000 in back taxes.

Morrissey suggested redevelopment tools such as a historical preservation tax credit or the creation of a tax increment financing (TIF) district could spark the necessary revenue stream to breathe new life into the historic armory.

“If we find a private sector partner, and we can create a TIF district,” Morrissey explained, “we could support additional revenues into the overall campus development.”

The mayor said this was an important step in fully realizing what he called “our riverfront renaissance.”

Not everyone is happy with the prospect of developers deciding the armory’s fate, however. Historic preservation activist Sylvia Pagel, whose work earned the armory’s landmark status and a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, said the armory’s future should be decided by the people of Rockford.

“The first thing they need to do is establish a board of trustees like Memorial Hall has,” Pagel said. “Before they start talking about hiring any consultants or finding out what developers think they might do with it, they should ask the public what we want to do with it now that we own it.”

Pagel said she was glad the armory was back in the hands of the public and added it was never intended for private ownership.

Because it is not yet known what will be done with the property, costs associated with renovation are uncertain.

Armory timeline

1934: Site is chosen, project begins with Bradley & Bradley as architects.

1936: Sjostrom & Sons begin construction, Benson Stone creates distinctive stonework facade.

1937: Armory dedicated.

1938: The armory is recognized by the AIA for innovations in construction and design.

1941: The armory sees its 1 millionth visitor.

1987: State of Illinois budgets $490,000 for new roof and repairs to walls, windows, doors and more.

1989: Repairs are made to bring the armory up to code

1993: The Illinois National Guard moves into its new $4 million Machesney Park headquarters. Gov. Jim Edgar blocks the sale of the armory to Chicago investor Ken Goldberg, who offered $61,000. The state cites building code violations on Goldberg’s properties.

1994/1995: AMCORE gives OIC Vocational Institute $300,000 in loans against its Accounts Receivable. OIC expects federal grants for being an educational/job training non-profit organization. According to the State Board of Education, OIC was never accredited. The National Guard leases the armory to OIC.

1996: State Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) paves the way for OIC to purchase the armory for $1. According to the National Guard, that dollar was never paid. OIC agrees to stipulation in quit claim deed that it will use the armory for 20 years as an educational/job training facility, or the armory will revert to the state. OIC uses the armory less than two years.

1997: Syverson and Rep. Doug Scott (D-Rockford) successfully co-sponsor an amendment to remove the reverter clause. Now out of state hands, AMCORE places a lien on the property.

1998: Armory is put up as collateral, loans are consolidated and renewed.

1999: OIC Administrator Carl Towns claims the National Guard had left the armory in disrepair. Towns and Syverson said OIC, not the state, had paid for repairs. Retired National Guard Col. Joe Vecchio said both claims were false. OIC abandons the armory and goes bankrupt. AMCORE forecloses and looks for a buyer. Historic preservation activist Sylvia Doyle (Pagel) seeks landmark status for the armory.

2000: AMCORE lawyers urge the Historic Preservation Commission to recommend the Rockford City Council deny landmark status. The armory is declared a local landmark by the Rockford City Council, despite opposition from Ald. Dave Johnson (R-4). Doyle (Pagel) gets the armory placed on the National Historic Register.

2001: The armory is removed from a Winnebago County delinquent tax sale after taxes are paid. Delinquent taxes are also paid in subsequent years to spare the armory from the auction block.

2002: Doyle (Pagel) nominates the armory for the List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

2003: AMCORE bids $200,000 for the armory at forclosure auction. Mirador LLC takes ownership, and the armory remains vacant.

2006: Jocelyn Blair-Stoller (Mirador LLC) donates the armory to the City of Rockford.

For more information about Rockford’s historic National Guard Armory, visit

From the Oct. 18-24, 2006, issue

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