Save the Rockford Armory!

Save the Rockford Armory!

By Sylvia Doyle

By Sylvia Doyle

Historic preservation activist

The National Guard Armory (605 N. Main St.) will be nominated for the 2002 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. I am filing the nomination and hope this great building makes the list.

The list, which will be announced June 24, spotlights examples of American heritage threatened by neglect, deterioration, lack of maintenance, insufficient funds, inappropriate development or insensitive public policy.

Our armory certainly fits in that sorry spotlight.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting historic sites through education, advocacy of better policy, and leadership in all 50 states.

The Rockford Historic Preservation Commission will also nominate the Armory for the Illinois list of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Places 2002. This program was begun by the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois to draw attention to the most critical preservation problems faced by the state each year.

Last year’s list included historic sites such as offices, theaters, depots, farms and the Mound City Marine-Naval Yard.

Although declared eligible when it was still occupied by the National Guard, the Rockford Armory was listed on the National Register of Historic Sites in August 2000.

When the Armory was rented to OIC as a job training center in 1993, special provisions were included in the lease to protect the historic integrity of the property.

When it was sold to OIC for $1 in 1996, an historic preservation covenant was included in the recorded deed, by which the owner agrees to maintain and preserve the property in accordance with the National Park Service guidelines for sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

The historic preservation covenant, which “runs with the land in perpetuity” states that “no construction, remodeling or any other thing shall be permitted to be undertaken which would affect the structural integrity, appearance or setting of the Armory without the express prior written permission of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.”

The 1996 deed also states that if the Armory ceases to be used for public or educational purposes, the title shall revert to the State of Illinois.

OIC abandoned the Armory in 1999, leaving nearly $500,000 in liens against the property, which has been vacant since that time.

In November 1999, the Rockford Park District blocked off parking and access to the north side of the Armory, and a foreclosure judgment was entered against OIC in favor of Amcore Bank.

The Armory was included in the Winnebago County list of property to be sold by the Treasurer’s Office for delinquent taxes in 2001. It was assessed for property taxes by Rockford Township for the first time in the 65-year history of the Armory. The National Guard was automatically exempt from property taxes, and while OIC was a registered nonprofit corporation, they were eligible to apply for a yearly exemption.

Since OIC (which now lists its address as 4402 Stratton Bldg.) has left the Armory, it is now classified as “commercial office – C1” rather than school/educational. Ironically, the current tax assessment of $268,938 is very close to the original total cost of $256,125 to build the Armory in 1936. The total delinquent 2000 taxes and penalties of $9,432 were paid off before the tax sale in October 2001, so the Armory was removed from the property list.

A garage sale was held at the Armory by the OIC just before Thanksgiving. The sale was performed by a youth group from Faith Center, apparently at the behest of OIC. Diane Killion, the last director of OIC, was not available for comment as to whether or not the proceeds went to Amcore Bank to help reduce the debt.

Following a warning notice from the City of Rockford Building Department, most of the broken windows were finally boarded up with plywood. Some had been broken for more than 2 years. The Water Department also has a lien against the building, and it has not been heated for the past two winters.

Editor and Publisher of The Rock River Times Frank Schier took a tour of the armory recently.

“Amcore bank was kind enough to show myself, Larry Morrissey and Cal DeWeerdt, all of us past or current River District Board members, around this great building,” Schier said. “The River District Association is very concerned about the Armory and all the historic buildings in our downtown district.

“We must move now to save the building. While it is in generally good repair, two roof leaks have damaged the interior, particularly the one above the stage floor.

“This building is so unique with its Neo-Gothic Art Deco facade, and it is one of the very first steel-span roof constructions in the county—the largest at the time.

“The building’s architect was Harold S. Bradley. He also designed Wilson, Kennedy and McIntosh schools, plus many other projects. Bradley served on the commission that set the original fire and safety construction standards for all schools in Illinois. He also was the purchasing agent for all the building materials that went into the World War II Camp Grant.

“His father, C.W. Bradley, designed the original Camp Grant, Garrison School and the Tebala Temple, to mention just a few of his landmarks. C.W. was involved in the commission that was put in charge of the disaster when the original courthouse dome collapsed during construction, killing more men than any other industrial accident in U.S. history to that date.

“Bradley and Bradley Architects have been in business in Rockford for 106 years, and their heritage reflects what we should preserve.

“The building is very functional. I don’t think many realize the full extent of the offices on the second level of the Armory, or the full extent its backstage, kitchen or quarter basement.

“As noted in an editorial last week, the Armory is a perfect solution for the storage dilemma of the Rockford Art Museum, and its wonderful auditorium/drill hall is perfect for a museum on the history of the entire Rock River Valley. The Mississippi River Valley museum that is going to be constructed received a $250 million grant—let’s apply!” Schier said.

Larry Morrissey, who has been an active proponent involved in other preservation projects, said that the first step is to dispel the myth of uselessness that some have tried to attach to the Armory. Under the current system that allows 20 percent tax credits, deals can be structured for both private owners and nonprofit groups, which can make historic preservation projects financially feasible.

Morrissey, who has met with other downtown stakeholders and legal experts in the areas of historic preservation and financing, has heard many innovative suggestions that could benefit both an Armory project and the taxpayers.

“It can actually save money to put our historic buildings back into use,” he said.

The question of whether any public money should be used for demolition of an historic site if none can be made available for preservation should be answered by our elected representatives before the future of the Armory is decided behind closed doors.

If you would like to help with preservation efforts for the Armory, please call 963-1962.

The Rockford Historic Preservation Commission will meet at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 9, in City Hall, Conference Room B.

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