Goffe Street’s Landmark, Reimagined

 The class, scheming in the Armory. Artspace Photo. 

The class, scheming in the Armory. Artspace Photo. 

The Goffe Street Armory is getting a new team to reimagine its facelift: New Haven Public School students who have grown up with it in their backyard. That is, as long as the Yale graduate students they’re working with listen to what they have to say. 

That’s the idea behind “Excavating The Armory,” a City-Wide Open Studios commission that pairs six New Haven Academy students with a graduate class at the Yale School of Architecture (YSOA) to reimagine the future of the capacious, abandoned Armory building on Goffe Street. Supported by Artspace, the class is taught by YSOA Professor Elihu Rubin with help from Marium Majid, Youth & Schools Engagement Coordinator at Artspace, and Nadine Horton, chair of the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver Hills (WEB) Community Management Team. This Saturday and Sunday, students will present the project at CWOS’ “Armory Weekend.” 

 Artspace Photo

Artspace Photo

Held in stall 221, “Excavating the Armory” will include a series of workshops like “Architecture and Space,” “Armory Futures,” and “City Mapping” between 12 and 5 p.m. both days. For a complete schedule of events, check out Artspace’s website. There is also an ongoing “Excavating the Armory” blog.

Sitting majestic and empty between County and Hudson Streets, the New Haven Armory was first built in 1930, as a home to the 102nd Regiment of the Connecticut National Guard. The building—still intact, with a lot of wear and tear—includes a sprawling drill hall, meeting spaces and large offices (some of which still have National Guard lettering on the doors), locker rooms, and a once-functional kitchen. It is one of 31 armories in the state, most of them built during the first half of the 20th century.

In 2009, the National Guard abandoned the building, and handed it over from the state to the city. There were rumblings about what to do with it: A community center, incubator kitchen space, and new home for the city’s Board of Education were all floated by community members, including then-alders Claudette Robinson-Thorpe and Sarah Eidelson. In 2012, the city applied for a $2.8 million Historic Restoration Fund grant through the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development, but that grant never came through. As it stands, a full restoration looks like “tens of thousands of dollars,” said Economic Development Administrator Matthew Nemerson by phone on Wednesday evening.  

Since, little bits of money from various sources have flowed into it, but have not been enough for a major project. In 2013, Artspace began renting out the space for one weekend of its October City-Wide Open Studios festival, a tradition that has now continued for four years. Recently the New Haven Land Trust opened a community garden on one side of the building. Last year, city Architectural Capital Projects Coordinator William MacMullen began to reimagine the building’s future, but noted a need for funding. 

 The Armory from Goffe Street. Paul Bass for the New Haven Independent. 

The Armory from Goffe Street. Paul Bass for the New Haven Independent. 

Reached by phone Wednesday evening, city engineer Giovanni Zinn said that the city has bond funds (in August, the amount was $250,000) to do work on the Armory, and is conducting a code analysis on the roof. He added that further projects are on hold as the state works through an ongoing budget crisis, and the city tries to cut back on expenses wherever possible.

“As soon as the state budget mess clears up, we’re going to hit the ground running,” he said. “It’s a building that has a lot of promise … we’ll see what the implications are for all the different options. What the universe of options is out there.” 

For the moment, it’s also getting new, young eyes—even if the money for a transformation isn’t yet there. The classes’ merging of town and gown is part of a greater effort to involve community members this year, said Artspace Director Helen Kauder at a CWOS preview event last month. 

But recently, two sessions into the class in a basement classroom on York Street, those two parts of New Haven were having trouble seeing eye-to-eye on the same vision.  

 Students got a closer look at details, like this interior buttress. YSOA/NHA Photo. 

Students got a closer look at details, like this interior buttress. YSOA/NHA Photo. 

As YSOA students presented slides on Armory rehabs across the country, New Haven academy students took notes at the back of a dark room. The hulking, castle-like 1903 Somerville Armory building flashed up on the screen. In 2004, it was transformed into an arts center following a $2.6 million grant from the state of Massachusetts. 

Slide change. Students looked up to see the Bedford-Union Armory in Brooklyn, for which a proposal for luxury housing has come under fire in recent months. Then the St. Louis Armory, part of a proposed $47.1 million redevelopment project that will turn it into offices and an entertainment center. The list continued, with examples from Savannah and Saratoga Springs to San Francisco. 

“We want these precedents to do work for us—each should be establishing some kind of insight,” Rubin said. 

YSOA students made suggestions based on the precedents. Tasked with architectural strategy, Priya Sheth proposed projects that would embrace “the potential of neighborhoods at an adaptive scale.” She pulled up a building in Poland, an old Armory with new arts opportunities. Then another one, with new affordable housing units nested inside. A number of non-American armories followed, each with a starkly new feelsandwiched inside the old. 

Seated at a desk in the front of the room, Horton brought the project back to New Haven’s reality. 

“One thing that’s really striking is the difference between the old and the new. You can always tell a Yale School of Architecture Building in the neighborhood,” she said, referencing homes built through the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project. “What they are doing in Europe — we are so far behind.”  

New Havener turned Yalie Jonathan Hopkins focused on the task at hand: How to present “Excavating the Armory” to a larger group during CWOS, with other local landmarks as a point of reference. He pulled up a map onto which he’d dropped pins for other candidates for adaptive reuse, including an old police precinct in the city’s Hill neighborhood.   

Could a re-envisioned Armory look like this, he asked? Did the group want to give CWOS visitors a similar visual? The room was silent for a moment. 

The presentations raised pressing questions, said Rubin from the front of the room. Like: What are the types of social and political tensions that come up when you have new visions on old, sometimes historic, property in packed urban spaces? What are the pros and cons of working with real estate developers? What is affordable housing, and to whom? 

Then NHA students weighed in. Rubin asked them what a schematic should look like, for visitors entering “Excavating The Armory” during CWOS (they have since installed schematics and boards in their space at the Armory).

 “I feel like the future should be a blank canvas,” said Daniel Rodriguez.  

“I think it should be welcoming to the eyes,” added Karynn Hardy. “So people can really understand how we made it better — not only for the community but for ourselves. So people can say: ‘I wanna go again.’”

Other input was more direct. Horton grew up in the neighborhood; she now lives there with her 27-year-old daughter, and tends to the Land Trust’s community garden on Saturday workdays. She noted that everyone in the neighborhood uses the Armory as a point of orientation whether they know what it is or not — but everyone in the neighborhood does not attend Armory weekend. After CWOS is over for the year, she asked, what kind of discussion are students going to have with the community? 

“You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Who is this exhibition for?’”,” she said. “You’ve gotta remember that you’ll be getting people who are not from the neighborhood, or people who have never been in here [the Armory].”

Horton suggested that the group present not only at CWOS, but again at a meeting of the WEB Community Management Team in October or November. Rubin said he’d consider doing that after this weekend.