The Fabulous (Second) Life of the Park Avenue Armory

Kenneth Grant/Newyorkitecture

Michael Shnayerson meets the players behind the landmark’s latest revival.

In June the Park Avenue Armory will have one, and a murderous one he is. Pass through the massive double doors, venture back to the vastest unobstructed space in Manhattan--55,000 square feet, larger than a football field, cavernous and column-free--and try to stay calm as dozens of sword-wielding soldiers do battle in torrential rain: a bold but perfect way to start Macbeth. There in their midst will be Sir Kenneth Branagh, in what will be his New York stage debut, the future and short-lived Scottish king sopping wet and fighting for his life. "Anything you thought theater was when you came in," chortles Alex Poots, the Armory's artistic director, "is forgotten."

Broadway has its jewel-box theaters, BAM has its Brooklyn campus, Lincoln Center has its plush red seats, but the Armory has the Wade Thompson Drill Hall, beautifully refurbished with state-of-the-art stage lighting, chain hoists and reinforced truss work to serve masters as varied as composer Philip Glass, choreographer Trisha Brown and visual artist Ann Hamilton, who for her The Event of a Thread hung 42 swings from the drill hall's empyreal arches--swings the audience could ride.

That space is what makes the Armory--that crenellated, redbrick colossus commanding the whole Manhattan block from 66th to 67th street, Park Avenue to Lexington--the city's grandest new showcase for the performing and performance arts. But the castle is itself a work of art, a tower from the Gilded Age, part military site, part social club for the Silk Stocking set of its day, with its 18 rooms in the Park Avenue "head house," the grandest collection of surviving 19th-century interiors in New York. This is the Armory's other great story: that this ruin of once-exquisite rooms is reemerging under loving care--so loving that simply "de-layering" one of those rooms took 280,000 Q-Tips.

For decades, the Seventh Regiment Armory, as it was originally known, lay hidden in plain sight, a relic of a long-gone age. The arts and antiques shows that rented the drill hall only further obscured it: Amid the dealers' booths, no one bothered to notice the shadowy space above.

From his Park Avenue apartment overlooking the Armory, one man wondered why the great old thing was in such disrepair, its parapets crumbling, rats ruling its roof. Wade F. B. Thompson was a mergers-and-acquisitions guy who'd pluckily revived the Airstream trailer brand. In the early '90s he took a friend to see the drill hall: Elihu Rose, scion of one of the city's leading real estate families, also a professor of military history. Thompson gave $35 million to keep the place from falling down. Eventually Rose gave substantially, too. "Friends say, 'Oh, Elly, what you saw was a military building,'" Rose muses. "It does have a great military aura about it. But it's the space that's so inspiring. The first time I saw it with nothing in it, it took my breath away."

The two knew they wanted to save the Armory. They had no idea what to do with it. In came Rebecca Robertson, then overseeing the redevelopment of 42nd Street and soon to do the same with Lincoln Center. She, too, saw the empty drill hall and fell in love. Arts, she urged them, visual and performing arts of all kinds. But no proscenium or stage. In this 19th-century space, she saw 21st-century artists doing with it whatever it inspired them to do. "She saw the heart of it was that great space," says Rose.

Not everyone in the neighborhood agreed. Private equity billionaire Henry Kravis worried that all that performance and art stuff would bring Park Avenue traffic to a halt. There were tense public hearings and a lawsuit or two. But in 2006 the newly formed Park Avenue Armory Conservancy, led by Thompson and Rose, with Robertson now on board as president, took a 99-year lease on the building from a relieved New York State. The World Monuments Fund had put the Armory on its list of the world's most endangered buildings in 2000, and the state, embarrassed, had tried to unload it. But no one else wanted a crumbling landmark that couldn't be torn down and needed tens of millions of dollars to get fixed up--one that the National Guard was still involved in, with troops occasionally deploying from the drill hall for Iraq or Afghanistan.

Now came the tricky part: bringing the Armory back from the dead. "It was a dark, heavy, almost sinister space," says Ascan Mergenthaler, senior partner of the Basel-based design firm Herzog & de Meuron, which took on the job, "but on second look you see all the details and playfulness and ornament and color."

Vanderbilts, Astors, Morgans, Winthrops and their ilk had funded the building, which opened in 1881, to house the very social Seventh Regiment. With a history that actually goes back to 1806, the regiment had provided volunteers for the War of 1812; half a century later, it had helped quash anti-draft riots in Manhattan as the Civil War raged; it took part in both world wars. Its rosters included August Belmont Jr., the financier who helped build the city's first subway line, as well as artists Thomas Nast and Sanford Robinson Gifford. The Armory was not only their place to stage drills but also their gentlemen's club in which to carouse, looked down on genially by their predecessors in military portraits that filled the walls.

The drill hall was designed to look like a great European train shed by Charles Clinton, co-architect of the beloved West Side apartment building The Apthorp. But each room in the head house belonged to a different military unit, and each unit chose its own architect. A very young Stanford White did some of the interiors; a young Louis Comfort Tiffany won one of his first commissions with a mantel mural. Different as the rooms were, most showcased the American aesthetic movement: Beauty was in, along with sensuous pleasure and dark woods; politics, history and morality were out.

Successive generations left their marks, some more helpful than others. When electricity came along, the regiment members put it in. They painted over stenciled ceilings, added sconces and chandeliers. Then there was the Board of Officers Room touch-up of 1932, says Mergenthaler with a shudder: Too terrible to discuss. "If we could get to the original layer," he says, "we always went there." When part of a wall was destroyed--usually by leakage--the team extended the original pattern over the fixed blank stretch but with a subtle crosshatch to show what they'd added. They could have made their work look like the original, Mergenthaler explains, but that "would have been like plastic surgery: people trying to look young even though they're old. This building has aged, it has a history, and we felt we shouldn't neglect that."

Last fall the third and grandest of the rooms done so far was unveiled. In its original glory, the high-ceilinged Board of Officers Room, designed by the legendary Herter Brothers, had been likened to a royal apartment. A century of neglect had left it a lowly coat-check room. Design detectives that they were, Mergenthaler and his team discovered and restored the intense red Honduran mahogany wainscoting, gave the walls back their original deep-green hue and dark floral stenciling, rehung the massive pocket doors and restored the baronial fireplace. Now the Board of Officers Room hosts a series of intimate concerts, a whole arts center in itself.

The Armory's schedule has grown each year, from one or two major productions to several, never less than bold. For the brutalist opera Die Soldaten, audience seating slid forward and back on railroad tracks, toward and away from the opera's rapist Santa Clauses. Visual artist Tom Sachs built a lunar landscape for Space Program: Mars. Paul McCarthy's WS showed seven hours of film around a full-size ranch house, with the artist flinging blood, excrement and alcohol as he took on one target after another. British playwright Matt Charman's The Machine depicted chess grand master Garry Kasparov's mano a machino with IBM's Deep Blue.

Along with the multimedia performance art has come a healthy infusion of Shakespeare. In 2011 the Royal Shakespeare Company went so far as to build a life-size replica of its theater in the drill hall and put on a series of five plays. "The next thing we know," muses Rose, "Shakespeare is all over New York." As indeed, this year, it is.

For Branagh's Macbeth, the 1,000 seats in the drill hall will be filled one day entirely by public school children. Cassidy Jones, formerly of the Roundabout Theatre, heads a program of arts education as vital to the Armory as making new art. Last year 2,500 students saw the productions. Student interns work as ushers, set designers--some even embark on their own arts projects. All these programs play to Robertson's staunch conviction that the Armory should be for all. That can lead to startling contrasts: well-dressed New Yorkers entering the Armory, students showing them to their seats as the night's contingent of 80 homeless women heads up to its renovated fourth-floor shelter.

To date, the transformation of the Armory has cost $120 million. Most of that money has gone to shore up the exterior and put in new plumbing and electricity, new windows and water boilers--"all the things people don't want to give you money for," as Robertson notes. She and Rose speak confidently of reaching their $200 million goal, the balance needed to bring back those 15 other head-house rooms. Sadly, Thompson is no longer with them, dead at 69 of cancer in 2009. But his family gave $15 million more for the Board of Officers Room; Rose continues to help, and more funds come from an annual gala that now ranks as one of the city's hottest tickets, thanks to David Monn.

Monn, 50, is a top-tier event planner, building extravagantly creative settings for New York's most elegant soirées. He was, in fact, working up the backdrop for one such event to be held at the Armory when suddenly the lights went off. The vastness and silence of the space alarmed him--scared him, even. But it also inspired an idea that became the Armory's gala production last fall. "I started with that feeling you get in the pitch dark: overcome with fear, your heart in your throat," Monn says. "And then, if we're in the dark long enough, we start to see some light."

So evolved Into the Void, a performance-art show with 180 Alvin Ailey dancers. Monn saw it as life's journey, from the darkness of the womb to daylight and back to darkness again. The 600 guests arrived to find not tables of eight or ten but one long serpentine table undulating through the drill hall. They may not have realized it represented an umbilical cord. "Humans are the only creatures that physically sever the umbilical cord," Monn says. "The others naturally detach. That's where our life journey begins. I think we spend the rest of our lives trying to connect."

With the dinner plates cleared, music filled the hall and the dancers, choreographed by Ailey's Matthew Rushing, materialized from the shadows, performing within inches of the startled guests. The dancers had to get over their own discomfort at having to perform so close to the audience, and of dancing in a space that had no side wings, no exit and no entrance. They took the chance and found it as moving as the diners did.

For Monn, who had never done a live production, Into the Void was a huge risk. It was for the Armory, too. Everyone was thrilled--so much so that Monn is planning a new production for October's gala. He already has a tentative title: Masquerade.

For Robertson, letting the space inspire the work is what the Armory, at its core, is all about, and where it's going. This winter marks another such step. Tears become... streams become...began as most Armory productions do now. Poots, the Armory's artistic director, brought visual artist Douglas Gordon together with pianist Hélène Grimaud in the drill hall to feel the venue. "What would you like to do here?" he asked them. Grimaud imagined giving a recital in a whole new way, using the grand space to convey the essential aloneness of the performer. Gordon, the Turner prize–winning video artist, proposed to surround Grimaud with water and refracted light, magnifying that aloneness. What if the drill hall became a whole water-filled environment, Gordon suggested, letting him play off the music with themes of reflection, imagery and memory?

Water immersing the drill hall: Wonderful, said Poots. But how? Gordon smiled. He had a water guy, an expert in artistic plumbing. The expert's name, Gordon said, was Noah.

Noah. Of course. Poots relaxed. Everything would be fine.

Macbeth runs June 5–22; 643 Park Ave.; armoryonpark.org.