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Armory for the Future

Reimagining one of Springfield’s historic treasures

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

When Melvin Edwards was a student at Springfield’s Cathedral Grammar School, he recalls, the institutions near the school—the Central Library, the Quadrangle, the Springfield Armory—“were essentially my playground.” He and his friends would head to the library to do their schoolwork (“I came up before Google and had to master the Dewey Decimal System”) and to the wide, open greens at the Armory to play sports.

While those places once were just part of the landscape of his childhood, today Edwards, who serves as Ward 3’s city councilor and is a candidate for state representative, recognizes them as “gems” that make his hometown a special place. But over the years, he said, one of those gems in particular has been underappreciated: the Armory.

Established by George Washington as an arsenal during the Revolutionary War, for 200 years the Armory played an important role in Springfield’s—and, indeed, the nation’s—history. More recently, however, the Armory, which is now a National Parks Service Historic Site, hasn’t received the public attention its fans believe it deserves. While visits to NPS historic sites nationwide have increased in recent years, for instance, the Armory hasn’t enjoyed that bump in the number of visitors, Edwards told the Advocate.

But that’s changing, thanks to a concerted effort to broaden the Armory’s appeal and draw more visitors to the site. That effort includes the recent revival of the nonprofit Armory Alliance, which supports the site through fundraising and public outreach. Edwards, who serves as president of the Alliance, is eager to connect that work to a larger effort to burnish Springfield’s battered reputation, which too often dissuades visitors and investors alike from coming to the city.

“We don’t do a good job marketing ourselves as a tourist destination,” he said. The Armory, he noted, was at the heart of an explosion of technological advances in the region. (Historian Robert Forrant, a professor at UMass Lowell who has written about the Valley’s industrial history, refers to Springfield as “the Silicon Valley of its day.”)

“We made major, major contributions to the development of this country,” Edwards said. “But we don’t polish off our gems very well.”

 

Washington chose Springfield as the site of a national arsenal in 1777. Its relatively easy access to bigger cities like Boston, New York and Albany; its proximity to the Connecticut, Westfield and Mill rivers; and its position high atop a bluff, the better to keep an eye out for attacks, made the site a good choice for the colonists to store their weapons. In 1787, a group of farmers led by Daniel Shays attempted to seize the arsenal in protest of harsh tax and debt collection policies. Although the effort was squashed, Western Mass. residents still point to Shays’ Rebellion as a sign of the region’s fighting spirit.

In 1795, the new U.S. federal government bought the arsenal property and established an Armory there, where muskets that were used in the War of 1812 were manufactured. For almost two centuries, into the Vietnam War era, the Armory produced weapons for the U.S. military. Along the way, the Armory pioneered a number of technologies—for instance, the use of mass-produced interchangeable parts—that spread throughout the region, giving rise to a once-thriving manufacturing economy that included everything from metalworking to auto factories. Perhaps the Armory’s best known product was the M1 Garand semi-automatic rifle, which was adopted by the U.S. Army as its standard-issue rifle in the 1930s and used throughout World War II, the Korean War and into Vietnam.

At its peak, during World War II, the Armory employed 13,500 workers, 42 percent of them women, according to Joanne Gangi-Wellman, the Armory’s chief of interpretation. Workers made good wages and enjoyed solid benefits. And at times when certain ethnic groups—African Americans, Irish—found themselves unwelcomed by many employers, the Armory employed a diverse workforce, she noted.

After its heyday in the 1940s, the Armory went into decline. By the 1960s, many of the weapons once made in Springfield were now being manufactured by private contractors elsewhere. In 1968, the Armory was shut down by the federal government. A decade later, it reopened as a historic site.

The new Armory has made not insignificant contributions to the local economy: according to a report released earlier this year by the National Park Service, in 2012, almost 17,000 visitors came to the Armory, and they spent more than $900,000 in the area, enough to support 12 jobs. Still, those figures pale in comparison to those from other NPS sites in Massachusetts: the restored textile mills at Lowell National Historical Park (admittedly, a much larger site) drew more than half a million visitors, who pumped $28 million into that region’s economy. The Salem Maritime National Historic Site brought in more than 750,000 visitors who spent $40 million.

“There are cities that would kill for a national park in their community,” Gavin Gardner, the Armory’s chief of resource management, told the Advocate. But when he talks to local people about the site, he said, they often say: “Oh, yeah, I’ve always wanted to go there…”

Why is visitor traffic at the Armory so relatively low? In part, it’s due to the same challenges that face every attraction in Springfield: a downtown that, to a large degree, shuts down in the evenings and weekends; a sense, particularly by outsiders, that the city isn’t safe. Over the past couple of years, the Armory staff—under the leadership of Superintendent James Woolsey, who came on board in 2012—has worked hard to get out the message that the Armory offers attractions to a wide range of visitors. (Woolsey was out of state on a temporary assignment when the Advocate visited the Armory.)

“The people who come here love it. But the trouble is getting the word out,” Gangi-Wellman, who’s worked at the Armory for 20 years, said. “People don’t know the history. That’s our job.”

 

Visitors who do make their way to the Armory, which sits on the campus of Springfield Technical Community College in the heart of the city, find a beautiful and surprisingly tranquil spot, with historic red-brick buildings ringing a large green. Its main building is divided into two large display areas, one filled with examples of the many firearms made there over the years, the other highlighting the site’s history and the role it played in the region’s economy, as both a major employer and a center of manufacturing innovations.

In its early years, the historic site took a fairly straightforward approach to showing its collection, displaying firearms in endless rows that gave it a certain resemblance, Gangi-Wellman recalled, to a grocery store. In the late 1980s, the industrial history elements were added in order to appeal to a wider range of visitors. The change, she noted, had its detractors: “The old guys would come in and say, ‘You ruined it.’”

While the Armory has, historically, appealed largely to firearms and military history enthusiasts, that’s changing, Gangi-Wellman said; a visitor survey last year showed a pretty even split between people who came to see the firearms collection and people drawn by other features of the site, such as the local history displays. That’s something the Armory staff and the Alliance keep in mind as they work to draw more people to the site. For instance, the Armory is hosting an exhibit, connected to the larger “Steampunk Springfield: Re-Imagining an Industrial City” on display at the Quadrangle, called “Steampunk Springfield Armory: Reimagining Our Nation’s Weaponry.” The exhibit highlights pieces from the Armory’s collection alongside Steampunk-style art that echoes the authentic pieces.

The exhibit creates an entry point for an audience that might not otherwise even think of visiting the Armory. “We’re getting people who never would have walked in here before,” Gangi-Wellman said.

The Armory also has offerings geared specifically to children, such as a Junior Ranger program—part of a large National Park Service program—that emphasizes more kid-friendly aspects of the collection, such as the “life-saving gun,” developed by Armory employee David Lytle, used to rescue passengers on ships in distress. Essentially a small cannon, the gun shot not bullets but rather a projectile attached to a line that stranded ships’ crews could use to make their way to shore or another ship.

The Armory has also established a strong social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. A regular “Six Degrees of History” feature, for instance, highlights other National Park Service historic sites and their connections to the Springfield site—for instance, battlefield sites where soldiers used weapons manufactured at the Armory. “Putting us more firmly in the family of national park sites is something I’ve been trying to do,” said Gardner, who developed the “Six Degrees” feature.

Similarly, the Armory hopes to forge more connections within the local community. “There’s always been somewhat of a perception of the Armory up on the hill, [in] its own little world,” Gangi-Wellman said. To counter that perception, the staff has been working to develop partnerships with other local institutions, from contracting with Putnam Vocational High’s student print shop to produce Armory brochures to hosting with WGBY a community commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address this spring.

The Armory, Gangi-Wellman said, “isn’t just the guns it produced. It’s the land, the history.” And the site, she added, is “a people’s resource.”

 

That’s a message the Armory Alliance is eager to get out, too, Edwards said. The site has 55 acres of green space ideal for community picnics and celebrations—maybe a reunion for former Armory workers and their families, for instance, he suggested.

One of the group’s first efforts is to restore the landscaping on the property to what it looked like during its heyday, including victory gardens, albeit with a slight twist—because of the high levels of lead in the ground at the site, these victory gardens would grow flowers, not food, Edwards said. The Alliance has also pushed to open more gates to the Armory site—for years, access was limited to the STCC entrance—to make it more accessible, to, say, nearby workers who might like to eat their lunch on the property, he said.

As the Alliance reestablishes itself after years of dormancy, “We want to create some low-hanging fruit,” Edwards said. “Our conversation started with what can we do in the short term that will be impactful” and build early momentum for future, more complex projects.

In addition, he said, the Alliance is focused on opening the Armory to a wider range of visitors. “We have no problem drawing people who are into arms and guns,” he said. But he’d like to see more emphasis on the broader historical elements of the site—for instance, the technological innovations pioneered there and how they helped develop the region’s manufacturing base, or the various immigrant groups that found employment at the Armory over the years.

Studies show that when visitors come to the city to visit multiple attractions, they’re more likely to stay for longer periods of time and to pump more money into the local economy. The Armory, Edwards said, should be one of those attractions: “The Armory Alliance is determined to polish this gem.”•

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