A Historic Preservation Battle Fought & Lost: The R. Thornton Brodhead Armory
I purchased a book about historic buildings in Michigan a few months back and while looking through it I found a pamphlet from a tour of the Brodhead Armory from the late 1990s. I have explored the armory a number of times, so here is a combination of photos I have taken and information that I have learned from the pamphlet.
In the late 1920s Lieutenant Commander R. Thornton Brodhead, the head of the Michigan State Naval brigade, led a drive to establish a new naval armory. The state of Michigan appropriated $250,000 for construction, and the City of Detroit provided the land and additional funds.
On October 6, 1930 the Detroit Naval Armory was dedicated. The structure, standing on the Detroit River just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, was designed by the Detroit-based architectural firm Stratton & Hyde, featuring an Indiana limestone-faced exterior and ceramic tile crests made of Pewabic Pottery. William Stratton was a veteran of the Michigan Naval Militia’s USS Yosemite Crew during the Spanish-American War.
Upkeep of the building was limited to primarily state funding, and as the armory opened during the Great Depression the Navy was forced to take advantage of the space they had to make money, hosting sporting events, rallies, and auto shows. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at the armory during his first campaign for the presidency and Joe Louis fought in the main area of the building in 1932.
During the Great Depression the Federal Government paid a number of different artists to create works inside the building. These works gave the building the most extensive Works Progress Administration art collection of any other building in the state of Michigan. David Fredenthal began painting murals in the wardroom and officer’s bar of occupational and leisurely activities of sailors in 1936. Edgar Yaegar completed murals on the mess deck in 1937, portraying vessels that served Detroit’s Naval Reservists. John Tubaczuk carved extensive wood pieces all throughout the building, but most notably carvings of marine fantasies on the bannisters, and room-specific carvings on wooden-doors and insets. Gustave Hildebrand carved a number of unique plaster pieces on the first floor of the building, depicting occupational themes in scenes of sailors swabbing, plotting courses, and “holystoning” their decks smooth.
The anchor from the Yanic, a ship built in 1863 and used by the Navy until 1929, is centered in the front yard of the building. Brass portholes from the USS Dubuque, the first of two ships to hold said name, were installed in a steel bulkhead at the base of the stairwell leading to the wardroom.
During World War II the building became a training center for electrical and diesel engineers, housing and training over 1000 sailors that would ship off to Europe, Africa, and Japan. Captain Brodhead died in the late 1940s and the State of Michigan honored him by renaming the Detroit Naval Armory in his honor. It has been named the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory since. The Navy used the building until sometime before 1989, when it was leased to the Marine Corps. At the time this pamphlet was printed, which is hand dated 1998, the armory was home to the headquarters element of the 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment (1/24) and their medical support unit, Naval Reserve 5th Marine Division (1/24). It also served as the Marine Corps Mobilization Station, where unassigned reservists mobilize in times of war or national emergency. The armory was also home to P.A.L.’s Youth Basketball League, high school graduations, and special sports activities, often free of charge. It appears to have been left abandoned sometime around 2004, ownership being transferred to the City of Detroit some time thereafter. Support beams were stolen by scrappers, caving in the roof sometime around 2014. Most of the ornate woodwork has been stolen by thieves, but some of the murals still sit somewhat intact.
The pamphlet I found was produced by the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society, a group that was established in 1998, "for the purpose of coordinating efforts to rehabilitate and maintain the armory as a historic structure and to raise funds for that purpose.” The group, based out of Royal Oak, realized that the Marines would do all they could to maintain the armory, but also knew it would take a lot of money to restore and conserve the artistic treasures the building housed. It appears they were running tours of the building to gain public awareness of the beauty it held with the Marine Corps’ permission, accepting donations to help upkeep the more ornate portions of the building. Although it appears the men and women of the Brodhead Armory Preservation Society were fighting the good fight, as you can see by the photos shown here they were unable to stave off the destruction due to scrapping, neglect, and the weather. This should be a reminder that although we have lost so much here in Detroit, we cannot let such events put a damper on our attitude towards historical preservation, as there are still a lot of battles to be fought.
Knowing how to get involved with historic preservation can be a little daunting at first, but in Detroit we have a number of ways to make it a little easier. A great way to make a difference is to consider donating your time or funds to an organization like Preservation Detroit. A great way to keep updated on current events is to follow HistoricDetroit.org on Facebook, and also check their website periodically. Crain's Detroit and the Motor City Muckraker are also good sources of information as well.
For more on the Brodhead Armory, check out this article from Detroit Urbex. It shows a number of before & after photographs of the wooden carvings and murals.
Written by Eric Hergenreder. Photos taken by Eric Hergenreder in December of 2015.