Eccentric benefactor Ebenezer Dexter Knight bequeathed two large parcels of the land to the Town of Providence upon his death, one for the poor farm and this ten-acre tract for militia training. While a small armory was here by the early 1840s, it was supplanted just after the turn of the century by the monumental yellow-brick-and-granite building designed by William R. Walker & Son. The use of castle imagery for armories in this country dates to the mid-nineteenth century; while other examples stand in various communities around the state, this is the largest and most elaborate. It continued in military use, by the National Guard, until the late 1990s. Since its abandonment, a number of proposals for re-use have been floated, but the right programmatic fit remains undiscovered at this writing. WBNA has played an active role in both the landscape and maintenance of the parade and the search for a new use for the armory.
– 2003 Guide to Providence Architecture
The Cranston Street Armory was built in 1907 on an 11 acre plot in Providence’s West End to house the Rhode Island National Guard. The well known architectural firm of William Walker and Sons modeled the building after existing armories in Boston and New York City. The design boasts two six-story crenellated towers atop two matching four-story office blocks; a hip roof with a steel truss system and 50 by 165 feet clerestory monitor tops the central drill hall; and corbelling, copper trim and Romanesque detail adorn the yellow brick and reddish granite façade. The Armory is reinforced with three foot thick walls. Its construction, completed by M.J. Houlihan, cost $650,000.
The Cranston Street Armory is a landmark for not only the neighborhood, but also the City of Providence and the State of Rhode Island. The structure serves as a symbol and source of pride for the community of the surrounding Armory District, named for this prominent building. From 1909 until 1981, the Armory served as the Providence Civic Center. Among other functions, the building has held track meets, boxing matches, circuses, auto shows, inaugural balls, and political rallies. In 1998 The National Trust for Historic Preservation added the Armory to its 11 Most Endangered Sites List. It was the second property in the state ever to be listed (the first was the Block Island lighthouse).
In 1981 structural problems deemed the building unsafe for public use, prompting the Civic Center to close soon thereafter. The Rhode Island National Guard continued to occupy the building until October 1996 at which time financial strain necessitated its relocation. The Armory, owned by the State of Rhode Island, has since sat vacant. At the time of it was first included on the Most Endangered Properties list in 1996, the future of the Armory was uncertain. Deferred maintenance and broken windows demanded immediate repair.
Over the years, there have been several development proposals to the Rhode Island Department of Administration. The high costs of redevelopment, however, have thwarted any attempts at reuse. In 1998, Michael Corrente’s proposed soundstage fell through. Other ideas for the Armory have included reuse as an apartment complex, basketball arena, small business incubator, military museum, and state archives.
It was included on the Most Endangered Properties list 1996-2000, 2003, and 2015-2017. Throughout that period, the Cranston Street Armory has remained vacant with no immediate plans for reuse, though it was the site of Mayor Jorge O. Elorza’s first inaugural ball. For several years, the State has funded repairs of the roof, flashing, parapets and other masonry. As of February, 2019, the State has continued to work with a steering committee of community organizations, members, City representatives and others, to conduct a participatory process to find new users and uses.