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A Historical Look at the Park Avenue Armory

Vienna Vernose
Photo credit: Jack E. Boucher

From CR Fashion Book

From world-famous ateliers to designer hotspots, Historical Interiors is your weekly column for iconic decor, rare residential imagery, and cultural fashion landmarks.

As we know it today, the Park Avenue Armory occupies on an entire square block facing Park Avenue between 66th and 67th street in Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side neighborhood. The massive space houses some of the city's most exclusive cultural and fashion events, from over-the-top exhibits and galas to runway shows. The fashion world knows it as a reoccurring home to some of the top shows during New York Fashion Week, including Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs. Yet the towering structure has a long past as an institutional building in New York, marking it as a true historic and modern relic of the city.

If you keep your eyes peeled, you'll spot New York's historic armories just about all over the city, stretching from the Bronx to Brooklyn and everything in between. The Park Avenue Armory was formerly home to the National Guard's prestigious Seventh Regiment, also known as the "Silk Stocking Regiment" due to majority of the members belonging to the city's social elite. Built between the 1877 and 1881, the building served as a one of several military units in the United States with storage of artillery as well as housing for New York State militia. The building cost around $650,000 (about $21 million in 2019), was one of two armories in the country to be built, and furnished with private funds.

Photo credit: ArmoryTour
Photo credit: Pinterest

The architecture of the building itself was designed by Charles W. Clinton in Gothic Revival castle-like style. There are various rooms in the building including a reception room, the library ("Silver Room" or "Trophy Room"), the veterans room, and staff offices for 10 regimental companies. Among the rooms is a 55,000 square-foot drill hall designed to look like a European train station platform which is currently used predominantly for events.

Several designers from the American Aesthetic Movement were commissioned to furnish the rooms. This period defined at the late 19th century represented a flourishing artistic culture in America with a particular attention to furnishing aesthetics. Designers including Louis Comfort Tiffany, the first Design Director of his family company Tiffany & Co., worked alongside architect Stanford White who would later design buildings like the Washington Memorial Arch in Washington Square Park. Tiffany stained glass lined the windows in ornate glowing blues and reds. Candace Wheeler, one of America's first female interior designers, coated the interiors with her iconic textiles and wallpapers. The year the Park Avenue Armory opened, the a New York newspaper declared it “undoubtedly the most magnificent apartment of the kind in this country."

Photo credit: James Ewing
Photo credit: Park Avenue Armory

The building became a historical landmark in 1986, with the non-profit group Park Avenue Armory taking over the space in 2006 and implementing a series of interior and exterior restorations on the space. The restoration project is estimated to have cost around $8 million, as people meticulously working on one room at a time with Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron. Since 2007, the organization has utilized the space, organizing a series of immersive performances and installations that have drawn critical acclaim and popular attention.

Several over-the-top events and exhibitions have been staged at the Armory over the years. In 2010, for the Armory's first gala, a carnival was held with a 50-foot-tall Ferris wheel, vintage rollercoaster rides, games, and performers from the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus. That same year, conceptual artist Douglas Gordon set up a reflective pool in the Armory's massive Drill Hall, which was filled up with 122,000 gallons of water. On a little island in the middle of the pool, pianist Hélène Grimaud performed an hour-long rendition of songs by Debussy and Liszt for guests at the show.

Photo credit: James Ewing

Following the death of Bryant Park and Lincoln Center as the hosting site for New York Fashion week around 2010, New York-based designers looked to conceptual spaces to house their shows. As more theatrical elements were added to fashion shows, designers sought out grand spaces that were able to accommodate their visions. The Park Avenue Armory's magnificent 55,000 square-foot drill hall became home to some of fashion month's greatest shows, including Rihanna's biker inspired Spring/Summer 2018 Fenty x Puma collection, complete with a motocross sand dune onto which the superstar herself rode out.

Photo credit: Brian Ach - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris - Getty Images

Visual artists additionally gave name to the space, including French artist Christain Boltanski, who displayed his piece No Mans Land in 2010 with an exhibition composed of 30 tons of discarded clothing on 45 plots of clothes, which rose from the floor of the Drill Hall like a mountain.

Photo credit: Stan Hondra - Getty Images

Hailed by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission as “the single most important collection of 19th century interiors to survive intact in one building,” the Park Armory stands today as a physical piece of history highlighting aesthetics in American culture. The magnificence of the space continues to make history today in facets of design and performance that make it one of New York's best hidden historic gems.