Our Armory–to be or not to be?

Public officials from the Rockford Park District and Riverfront Museum Park have said they have not decided whether Rockford’s former National Guard Armory will be demolished or preserved.

The fate of the Armory may depend on public input at a series of separate meetings planned by Riverfront Museum Park officials and Rockford Park District representatives. Preservation activists want the building preserved and used as an inexpensive municipal auditorium—in addition to downtown’s MetroCentre and Memorial Hall. However, Riverfront Museum Park’s preliminary plan calls for demolition of all but the building’s front wall to make way for parking and a sculpture garden for a new Rockford Art Museum, classrooms and other facilities.

For several years, Rockford Park District Executive Director Webbs Norman and The Rock River Times Editor and Publisher Frank Schier have been discussing the possibility of converting the Armory to a Museum of the Rock River Valley.

Schier’s idea for the museum features municipal, cultural and industrial history, geology, folklore, and significant individuals from the source of the Rock River above the Horicon Marsh to its mouth at the Quad Cities. Similarly, Dubuque, Iowa will build a $188 million Mississippi River Museum Project, funded by federal and state grants and private contributions.

Schier also advocates the educational showcasing and application of renewable energy in the entire proposed campus. Schier would also like to have a large segment of the Armory reserved for public gatherings.

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Schier will present his ideas at the public meetings to be held on the Rockford Park District’s future.

Whether consensus may be achieved about the Armory’s destiny is as unclear as who currently owns the building. How soon the current owner/steward of the building is determined may also decide its fate.

Preserve the past

According to retired Illinois Army National Guard Col. Joe Vecchio, the Armory building at 605 N. Main St., was completed in 1937. Bradley and Bradley architects designed the building, and Sjostrom and Sons constructed the art deco/Gothic facility in 1936.

Since that time, the building has hosted many functions such as political rallies, car and coin shows, dances, concerts and community gatherings. However, the building has been vacant since May 1999, when OIC Vocational Institute shut down its job training operations after opening in 1996.

Vecchio said he was responsible for the operations of the building for 25 years as part of his duties with the Illinois National Guard. Vecchio wants the building preserved and used as a municipal auditorium because “not everyone can afford the MetroCentre.”

The Rockford Historic Preservation Commission also wants to preserve the Armory. At the commission’s meeting Dec. 10, Chairman Gary Carlson said Armory buildings in other cities have served as centers for new activities. Carlson specifically cited Armory buildings in Memphis, Tenn., and Syracuse, N.Y., as examples.

In Memphis, the city spent $4 million to convert the 33,000-square foot structure into a children’s museum, according to Carlson.

In Syracuse, Carlson said the Armory served as the “centerpiece” for a downtown revitalization project. Syracuse converted the Armory into a museum and IMAX theater while still maintaining the building’s status on the National Register of Historic Places.

In January 2000, Rockford’s former Armory building gained status as a local historic landmark after a Rockford City Council vote. According to preservation activist Sylvia Pagel, the building’s historic status requires the owner to meet three criteria before any demolition may proceed:

1. Approval from the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency must be obtained by the owner before demolition of the building.

2. Public funds may not be used by the owner for demolition of the building.

3. The owner must file a claim that they can not afford to maintain the building.

Make way for the future

Regardless of the Armory’s fate, Webbs Norman, executive director of the Rockford Park District, and Maggie Allen, general manager for the Riverfront Museum Park, want the public to know that they are committed to a democratic process that consists of listening to the public and responding to its needs.

As evidence of their commitment, Norman and Allen are holding a series of separate public meetings. Both leaders have said the meetings will help determine not only the Armory’s fate, but what is the best for the area.

Park district officials are holding a series of meetings to help them determine the district’s priorities. The park district wants to discuss safety, security, maintenance of parks and facilities, programs and services and community projects under construction. At the meetings, Norman said he also welcomes discussion about the Armory. He also described Schier’s ideas as “creative.”

The next Rockford Park District community meeting will be at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 7, 2003, at Ellis Arts Academy, 222 S. Central Ave.; and at 7 p.m. Jan. 14, at Midway Village & Museum Center, 6799 Guilford Road. For information, call the park district at 987-8851 or 987-8853 (TTY).

Norman explained that the park district was not involved in the preliminary planning that called for the Armory’s demise. Norman said Riverfront officials’ initial plan, which called for the Armory’s destruction, was never meant to be a finalized version, but a starting point from which the museum campus could evolve.

Norman emphasized that even after Riverfront officials finalize their plan, they must make a sales pitch to the park district board. After Riverfront officials’ presentation to the park district board, Norman said the park district will probably seek more feedback from the public.

Riverfront officials will meet Friday to decide dates, times and places for their meetings. The purpose of the Riverfront-sponsored meetings will be, “to explain the campus museum vision and get feedback from the public,” Allen said. Details of the meeting will probably be released next week.

Riverfront’s initial idea indicates that demolition of the Armory will provide more parking space and a sculpture garden for the museum campus. The preliminary plan has 78 other recommendations.

The draft calls for at least $35 million to level the Armory, build a new Rockford Art Museum, bike path, exhibit hall for Jane the dinosaur, outdoor amphitheater, water fountains, IMAX theater, more classroom space and other changes and additions.

Critics of preserving the Armory have called it an “eyesore,” including state Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34).

Question of ownership

In 1993, the National Guard vacated the building. In 1996, OIC and its former administrator, Carl Towns, who has recently been appointed to the Illinois Tollway Authority by Syverson, bought the building for $1 from the state.

The deed to the building in the county recorder’s office identifies OIC as the owner. However, OIC no longer exists. AMCORE doesn’t want to continue with foreclosure proceedings and attain formal ownership because it would have to pay the liens on the property, according to Pagel. Pagel said the IRS, the accounting firm of BDO Seidman LLP, textbook publisher International Thompson Publishing and others have liens on the property.

At the Dec. 10 meeting, the Rockford Historic Preservation Commission members were also unsure who is responsible for deciding the Armory’s fate.

A bank, legislator and administrator

In a Dec. 15, 1999, article in The Rock River Times, Joe Baker wrote:

“Col. Frederick Lyman (Ret.), of the Illinois National Guard, said the Armory was twice advertised for sale, but offers were rejected because they were well under market value of the building. In 1996, without the knowledge of the National Guard, the state law was changed by Syverson.

“Syverson said because OIC was a school, it had to bring the Armory up to code to be approved for operation. ‘They didn’t have the resources,’ Syverson said. ‘They went to their bank and asked for a mortgage. The bank said no.’ The reason for the bank’s refusal was what Syverson called a reverter clause in the state law.

“It said the Armory must be used for educational purposes for 20 years, and if OIC or some other group failed to do that, the building would revert to the state. OIC needed a mortgage. ‘They asked me to work to get the reverter removed,’ Syverson said. ‘The state was more than willing. It didn’t want an old building back. It would cost them and the taxpayers too much money to maintain,’ he said.

“OIC borrowed more than $300,000 from Amcore Bank. That was in March 1994. They put up the Armory as collateral, but they did not acquire the building until August 1996, making the loan suspect.

“Now OIC is trying to sell the building. Syverson said the Riverfront Museum has first right of refusal on any offers. ‘If they get an offer, it has to be approved by the museum. They would like the building for themselves,’ Syverson said.”

In the Dec. 22, 1999, edition of The Rock River Times, Baker wrote:

“The Illinois Department of Education said it has no record that OIC ever was accredited as a school. Presumably, that was the reason it could not obtain state grants. Although OIC has declared bankruptcy, it is still a valid non-profit entity. The Illinois Secretary of State’s office said its records show that OIC filed the necessary registration papers on March 25 of this year. Amcore Bank, earlier this month, presented a letter to the Rockford Historic Preservation Commission objecting to landmark status for the Armory. The letter was presented and accepted at a commission hearing on that issue, despite the fact that the bank does not formally own the property. Accordingly, how is Amcore considered a legal objector?

“It stated a foreclosure judgment was entered Nov. 24 in favor of Amcore in the amount of $372,103.25. Additional liens on the property amount to $96,000, bringing total debt to more than $400,000. One interesting sidelight: the record of the foreclosure judgment would be found normally in the circuit clerk’s computer. It was not. It turned up in the chambers of Judge Ron Pirrello.

“The bank said it will be difficult to sell the building, contending it needs repair, has limited parking, a poor location, and several alterations would be needed to use it for any business purpose. Syverson said he could think of no use for it.”

Factors for decision

The decision to try to move forward with the museum campus plan may have been catalyzed by Amcore’s desire to alleviate “undue economic hardship both to Amcore and to others who have liens on the property,” according to a Dec. 7, 1999, letter from Amcore’s lawyers, Maggio and Fox of Rockford.

AMCORE officials were unavailable for comment.

Schier said, “Why doesn’t AMCORE donate the Armory to the park district? Since the park district has a federal 501-C3 designation, such a donation would be an excellent tax write off and show their continuing commitment to the community, which AMCORE always positively demonstrates.”

Another factor that may have played a role in the decision-making is Rock Valley College (RVC) President Roland Chapdelaine’s hope to lure the Rockford Art Museum from downtown to the east side of town at RVC.

In January 2002, RVC officials talked with Rockford Art Museum officials as part of Chapdelaine’s plan to house the art museum in RVC’s planned Arts and Instruction Center. Chapdelaine’s plans were ultimately rejected by art museum officials.

The last factor may be the discovery of Jane the dinosaur’s skeleton in Montana in July by Burpee staff and volunteers. The discovery appears to have stressed the need for a special exhibit hall. Jane may answer questions on the evolution of the tyrannosaurus family tree.

To learn more about the Armory and its history, click on the Web site: http://mywebpage.netscape.com/savearmory/armory.html.

Details about Riverfront Museum Park’s public meetings will be made available when they are released.

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