The Longwell Armory: A Century of Westminster History

Night again overtook Westminster, Maryland on Sept. 25, 2015. As the chillier weather of fall began to take over, a fitting annual city tradition, Fall Fest, began its first night of festivities.

In observation, I wrote that “a sense of organized, yet enjoyable chaos overtook Main Street and set the atmosphere.” Experiencing only an isolated happening of this grand festival, a friend and I watched a jazz performance in the CUP,  with the rush of people outside reminding us of the event’s scale.

As we finished and joined the crowd, we took a stroll along Main Street, eventually coming to an open space across from the Westminster Branch Library. My attention was immediately diverted by a quiet granite stone structure.

While the city lit up with activity, and even as a parade jubilantly took place before its façade, what seemed to be a medieval fortress sat quietly. I could not help but wonder what this elaborate, yet unassuming, structure was. It oddly reminded me of a church back in Claymont, DE, close to my home in Wilmington.

This is the Longwell Armory.

Sitting at 11 Longwell Ave.  and now housing the Westminster Recreation & Parks offices, as well as a large family fitness center. Despite sitting unused during Fall Fest, this building has been a center for the community for nearly 100 years.

According to Suzanne Moore of the Maryland Historical Trust, this 19,566 square foot armory was designed by J. Ben Brown of Cambridge, MD. It was completed in 1918 at a cost of $50,000 on a 0.6-acre plot of land acquired in 1917 for $2000. The armory originally housed Company H, First Maryland Infantry, comprising exclusively Carroll County soldiers.

This unit was organized in 1899 as the Carroll County Military Company and recognized by the Maryland National Guard in 1901. In 1917, the Company was re-designated as part of the 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division, and its location was changed to Westminster in 1919.

Daniel Pyle, the Real Property Manager for the Maryland Military Department, states that this armory’s construction was part of a process of the American militia becoming the National Guard as we know it. He states, “at [that] point, the term ‘militia’ had officially evolved into the ‘national guard.’ They were building armories – houses for these National Guard units.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation seconds this, adding that “Founders of the nation were wary of, and could not afford to maintain, a large standing army.” Thus, in the early days of the U.S., a more local militia-style form of defense was practical. Nevertheless, as the nation grew, so did its military. The Trust adds, “They [the forming National Guard] lacked the space for the practice of marching and close-order drill,…”

In “America’s Armories,” Urban Studies Professor Robert Fogelson of MIT elaborates on some additional reasons necessitating these new armories. Namely, the National Guard needed secure locations for the storage of weapons, ammunition, and other equipment, larger regimental armories, and the need to eliminate the expenses associated with renting spaces. With their very own armory in Westminster, Company H had a more ideal training and storage space.

The Longwell Armory has borne witness to many festivities and celebrations beyond Fall Fest, such as the festivities at the end of WWI shortly after its completion. Moore states, “the Westminster Armory was the scene of gala victory festivities for soldiers returning from World War I, sponsored by the Carroll County Chapter of the Red Cross in July 1919.”

In 1921, Westminster resident Guy Steele recounted the a great meeting that took place at the armory upon the signing of the Armistice, the largest the building had seen, stating, “before the doors were opened people began coming from all parts of the County with gaily decorated cars, for… joy was in full sway.” Over 100 vehicles were “filled with cheering men and women waving flags, ringing bells and burning red lights,” wrote Steele.

The armory also became a meeting place for veterans. According to Jay Graybeal of the Historical Society of Carroll County, in 1932, “21 local veterans of the Great War met at the Westminster Armory to form a 29th division Association Post.” On military activity in the building, Pyle states, “on Feb. 3, 1941, the Westminster Unit… was activated for a year of training at the outbreak of WWII, so the unit was already away” when the U.S. became directly involved in WWII.

In terms of training, soldiers once met that the armory weekly. Pyle says, “Back before Vietnam, every Wednesday night… the local national guardsmen would go to their armories… and they would practice their drill ceremonies.” Soldiers would be moved, marched, and planning for annual encampments would be made.

However, the armory was a gathering place for the military and community alike. Pyle asserts, “the armories were also used as social points for the communities. They would have plays, they’d have dances there, they were set up as movie theaters, if the local town didn’t have a movie theater.”

Over the years, asserts Moore, community events such as “the annual Kiwanis Club antiques show, performances of the Municipal Band and annual community Christmas celebrations” took place at the armory.

A notable shift in the building’s history took place in 1980 upon the completion of a new armory on Hahn Road, with the unit being transferred to this new location. On this, Pyle tells that the old armory was then declared “excess.” In this state, the building fell under the domain of Carroll County.

In the end, states Donna E. Boller of the Baltimore Sun, the City of Westminster signed a 25-year lease agreement, renamed the building as the “Longwell Municipal Center,” and agreed to eventually pay the $190,000 appraised price of the building upon the lease’s expiration.

Nonetheless, by late 1992, however, the city already began planning to buy the building, as it wanted to finance renovations, but the city council was reluctant to invest in a building not owned by the city. At that point, the building housed the Westminster Police Department and recreation programs offices.

The armory, however, continued to host a variety of events, as reported by Cindy Parr for the Baltimore Sun. Even up to 1993, youth dances with DJs took place on a bi-monthly basis. Youths could also find a Teen Center on second and fourth Saturdays of each month, open to students from several local schools. For younger ones, “Open Gym programs for children in kindergarten through fifth grade [were] available from noon to 4 p.m. each Saturday.”

On Sept. 2, 1993, Boller reported that, after 16 months of negotiations, the city worked the purchase price of the building down to $1, on the condition that it would renovate the building while preserving its historic façade. $347,000 was set aside for these renovations, which would remove asbestos and old oil tanks from the building, convert former police offices into city finances offices, make the building accessible to wheelchairs, and expand recreation space.

Today, the Westminster Family Fitness Center, including the basement, former drill floor (now a gymnasium), and much of the front structure, provides a great, affordable gym space for the community. A variety of weight and aerobic equipment can be found in the building, along with a dance studio, and even a room set aside for childcare.

Visitors enter in the back of the building, where a reception desk is located, rather than by entering the intricately-decorated door at the building’s front. Visitors will find a simple, boxy stone construction in the back, topped off with mysterious sirens. A simplistic, dated door under an awning reading “Westminster Family Fitness Center” lets newcomers know they are in the right place.

Visitors enter to find that the building is not as empty as it seems – the interior is surprisingly pleasing, and the sounds of squeaking sneakers, laughter, and shouts can be heard in the gym. Several members of the community can be seen about in the several basement rooms, exercising to their own skill levels in the fitness center’s 4,500-square-foot aerobics area.

Visitors and members have access to over 30 classes, offered in both the morning and night, including step aerobics, yoga, zumba, circuit training, cycling classes, and more. Those interested even have the option to receive one-on-one training.

The armory has proved versatile in its long history – from drilling soldiers to city police, and now even a place for the whole community to stay in shape. The armory, being within the confines of the Westminster Historic District, has been entered into the National Register of Historic Places.

With its special place as a gathering point in the community for nearly 100 years, the Longwell Armory surely has many years and countless community members to serve in the years to come.