One expects to see knights on horseback issuing forth from the gaping arch of the gloomy, forbidding structure, its slanting dark-gray stone lower walls giving way to a deep brick-red upper portion, complete with corner turrets. It seems transplanted from some medieval legend, yet its looming appearance in late-19th-century Chicago’s near south side was carefully calculated.
In 1890, the wealthy and socially prestigious First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard erected its own castle-style armory on South Michigan Avenue. It housed a parade ground, office space for all 12 companies and regimental officers, locker rooms, a gym, a library, several small parlors, and a large weapons storage facility.
Designed by the firm of Burnham and Root in 1890, the Armory is an impressive, though rather curious work from their oeuvre. According to contemporary accounts, the building was designed to serve as a true medieval-type fortification, with a heavily protected arched door, firing slits, and battlements. In addition, interior provisions were made for the training and accommodation of the regiment, as well as for its social functions. The ornamental stone and brick mass of the exterior could indeed withstand a siege, if only symbolically. The severe cubic form with battered masonry walls and a great central arch recall the earlier, more sophisticated designs of H. H. Richardson.
What did such a curious, yet outwardly forbidding, structure mean for 19th-century urban America? Such buildings were part of a cultural tradition, not only of military but of urban history. It was only in the 20th century that a corps of reserve soldiers came under federal control, an important part of the country’s military system. Up to then, “state-controlled militias of citizen-soldiers were the nation’s primary resource for civil defense and response to civil unrest.” In the decades leading up to the Civil War, such citizen militias had three primary functions:
First and foremost, it was a military body charged with ensuring both domestic and international peace; second, it was a civic entity whose responsibilities included appearing at both somber and festive public events; finally, it was an elite fraternal organization for members of New York’s middle and upper classes.
Office of Burnham & Root, Chicago, perspective drawing for the “First Infantry Armory.” Microfilm frame 153, Ryerson and Burnham Architecture Archive, Art Institute of Chicago.
“Design for First Regiment Armory, Chicago,” signed P.F. Newberry, Del. Inland Architect and News Record, Vol. 13 No. 7, June 1889, pl. 90 fol. p. 92.
Not apparent at first sight are the darker purposes of such militaristic structures: as expressions of rabidly anti-union, anti-rabble rouser, anti-socialist sentiments of such powerful men as Marshall Field, department store magnate and richest man in Chicago. The building’s appearance, fortress-like and commanding, was a product of the fear of class warfare felt by the upper classes of Chicago society. Around 1890, “new specially designed and constructed armories came to mark the urban landscape with distinctive forms.”
The Armory stood guard over the gilded aristocracy of nearby South Prairie Avenue, at that time the enclave of the very rich. Such late-19th-century armories, notes an AIA guide to Chicago, “were fortified like castles to preserve public order against possible workers’ demonstrations and other civil unrest.”
The heyday of armory building was between 1880 and 1910. The sponsors and builders of those armories expected that they would be used in preserving the peace and protecting private and public property. Because riots could happen quickly, they also felt that armories should be located near rapid transit, to facilitate a speedy assembly of the militia. Why did prominent citizens ask authorities to spend public funds on an essentially private military building? The answer is that there existed such a degree of labor strife and violence during that period, that society’s elite felt a strong threat to its world, which was thought could collapse momentarily unless proper defensive measures were taken.
In Chicago, such outbreaks of labor or anti-industrial violence included the Haymarket Riot of 1886, followed by civil unrest during the depression of 1893, and the Pullman Strike in 1894. The gap between rich and poor grew ever wider during the Gilded Age; an increasingly industrial and socially-stratified society exposed the cracks in America’s economic and social systems, and led groups of wealthy individuals to militarize urban areas against repeats of such violence.
In Chicago, Marshall Field, the department store magnate, underwrote a similar militarization. He donated land three blocks from his home on the city’s “Millionaire’s Row,” an address he shared with fellow grandees like George Pullman and Phillip Armour, for the construction of the First Regiment Armory: “The two upper stories, on top of the massive masonry of the first floor, are crowned at the angles by great bastions, from which an enfilade fire may be directed against any side of the walls,” as a contemporary observer described it. Field and his associates then furnished the police with four twelve-pound cannons, a Gatling gun, 296 breech-loading rifles and 60,000 bullets.
In other words, in the late 19th century, when the Robber Barons wanted a militarized police force to defend their wealth and power from those left behind, they often had to reach into their own pockets to supply the guns and even carry a gun themselves as a militiaman.
Fearing a potentially violent working class uprising, the residents of Prairie Avenue placed political pressure on politicians to construct an armory to protect Chicago’s most prominent businessmen. Daniel Burnham and John Root were commissioned to design the First Regiment Armory at 1552 S. Michigan Avenue.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, 1911. First Regiment Armory is at upper right.
Side view: Ryerson and Burnham Architecture Archive, Bldg. 51 Museum Archives
The above images are from microfilm of the original plans by the offices of Burnham & Root in the Ryerson and Burnham Architecture Archive.
Armory plans. Ryerson and Burnham Architecture Archive, Art Institute of Chicago; reproduced in Hoffman, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root, p. 141.
Interior: The Main Hall
Constructed 1889-91, the Burnham and Root-designed structure stood at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Sixteenth Street until its destruction in 1967.
To the First Illinois Regiment Armory John Root imparted the Richardson (or, better, the Romanesque) feeling for great wall spaces and small penetrations. Massiveness and vigor are combined with romantic charm after the manner of a master. The building is wholly without ornament, obtaining its effect, as architecture should, by dignity of proportion and the complete solution of the problem.
The Armory boasted thick stone walls, rounded turrets, and slots for firing rifles when defending military troops stationed inside. The structure stood about 75 feet high, roughly three stories, its sides measuring between 163 and 172 feet. A canted base of rusticated sandstone stressed the building’s solidity, while the upper walls of vitrified brown brick rose 35 feet above this base. The arched opening or sallyport (the only entrance into the ground floor) measured 40 feet wide and 10 feet deep, “scaled to accept sixteen men marching abreast.”
The entrance opened onto a drill floor 150 by 168 feet. The roof featured skylights that provided natural light to the interior. A lengthy description [available in the HABS Report at this link] of the Armory appeared in “Design for First Regiment Armory, Chicago,” Inland Architect, vol. 13, June 1889, p.92. It noted:
A pleasant feature is to be the social life in the armory. The floor of the main hall is of hardwood, highly polished, and will be kept in excellent condition for dancing. With this in view the men will be required to wear rubber-soled shoes while drilling. The only feature requiring criticism is the hanging of the great main door. This weighs twelve thousand eight hundred pounds, and is balanced by a large weight, making the entire strain twenty-five thousand six hundred pounds, which is supported on five single pulleys, attached to a light beam, secured to the ceiling of the second floor.
Root’s design found its source in the medieval architecture of France; it was compared to such structures as the 14th-century keep at Vincennes.
The sandstone masonry was magnificent, especially where the wall returned at the surrounds of the sallyport, a detail reminiscent of the granite angles at the base of the Rookery. In the brickwork, the first register of stilted window openings was beautifully ordered by the relieving arches above and rifle slots below.
Andrew Rebori, architect and writer, described the building as “an individual version of Romanesque,” but in “the free and Romantic style which aims not primarily at elegance, but at an effect of massiveness and vigor, and which has for its first object to break in upon the spectator’s apathy.”
The new structure was destroyed by fire in 1893, and immediately replaced, presumably to the original plans. Contemporary photos show the building in what appeared to be in a state of ruin.
Construction (or reconstruction) in the mid-1890s, following a fire which gutted the building.
The anticipated threats to the citizens of Prairie Avenue and vicinity never materialized; the high society crowd instead attended lavish social events at the Armory. The venue hosted auto shows in the first decades of the 20th century, as well as the occasional dog show. It was used for training and assembly of soldiers destined to be shipped off to the Great War. Prairie Avenue itself had ceased to be popular by the late 1890s, hastened by the encroachment of industrial buildings and a “notorious vice district just to the west,” the Levee District, which rose during the 1893 World’s Fair. By the early 1900s the grand houses were being sold off for business space or converted to apartments. In the next few decades, many of the mansions would be demolished.
The Armory was used for multiple types of public events. Left: Auto Show 1906; right: Dog Show n.d.
First World War, 33rd Division 1st Infantry regiment leaving armory, Chicago. Image: https://www.pritzkermilitary.org/explore/museum/past-exhibits/lest-we-forget-doughboys-sammies-and-sailors-great-war/first-infantry-chicago-armory
1965. Richard Nickel photo
Later photos of the First Regiment Armory show a huge painted Chevrolet advertisement across its face, while on one corner a For Sale sign is displayed. Just prior to and during its 1967 demolition, the Armory’s interior and exterior were documented by Chicago architect John Vinci and photographer Richard Nickel.
Above 3 images: color slide images taken by John Vinci in 1966. Source: Bldg. 51 Museum Archives https://www.urbanremainschicago.com/news-and-events/2019/03/05/a-rare-look-at-burnham-roots-first-regiment-armory-captured-through-color-photographs/
1967: demolition; Richard Nickel photo
1967: demolition; Richard Nickel photo
 “Armories,” Encyclopedia of Chicago History. Accessed at: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1736.html
 “Significance,” Historic American Buildings Survey, c. 1933, HABS IL-1069. Retrieved from: https://www.loc.gov/item/il0108/
 Shepard, Cassim, “The Armory and the City: Civic Spaces of the National Guard,” Urban Omnibus. Accessed at: https://urbanomnibus.net/2013/09/the-armory-and-the-city-civic-spaces-of-the-national-guard/
 Todd, Nancy L., New York’s Historic Armories. State University of New York Press, 2006, pp. 20-22. Cited in Shepard, Cassim, “The Armory and the City: Civic Spaces of the National Guard,” Urban Omnibus. Accessed at: https://urbanomnibus.net/2013/09/the-armory-and-the-city-civic-spaces-of-the-national-guard/
 Encyclopedia of Chicago. Accessed at: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1736.html
 AIA Guide to Chicago. University of Illinois Press, Cited in: https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM8RNY_National_Guard_Armory_reliefs_Chicago_IL
 Mahon, John K., History of the Militia and the National Guard. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1983, p. 264. Cited in: Nelson, Cristina R., “The Armory Movement,” A Tale of Two Armories: Preservation Politics in New York City. M.A. Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1985, pp. 4-5. Accessed at: https://dspace.mit.edu/bitstream/handle/1721.1/76395/14066875-MIT.pdf?sequence=2
 Paul, Mark, “Assault Rifles and Ice Buckets,” The California Fix. http://www.thecaliforniafix.com/thecaliforniafix/2014/8/20/when-militarized-cop-were-charity
Marshall Field owned the land on which the Armory stood and held a 99-year lease on the property:
August 10, 1940 –The land beneath the First Regiment Armory at the northwest corner of Michigan Avenue and East Sixteenth Street is sold by the Estate of Marshall Field to the Standard Realty and Mortgage Company for an estimated $40,000. The sale is subject to a 99-year lease that Marshall Field made in 1890 with the First Infantry Armory Association at an annual ground rental of $4,000. The first armory was built on the property in 1893, but it burned down less than a year after it opened. It was replaced in 1894 at a cost of a half-million dollars, raised by popular subscription….
Connecting the Windy City.. http://www.connectingthewindycity.com/2018/08/august-10-1940-first-regiment-armory.html
 Moore, Charles, Daniel H. Burnham Architect and Planner of Cities. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1921, Vol. 1, pp. 29-30.
 Hoffman, Donald, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 142.
 “The Armory of the First Regiment, I.N.G.M,” Industrial Chicago, Vol.2 (Chicago: The Goodspeed Publishing Company, 1891), pp.537-89. Quoted in HABS descriptive data, report ILL-1069, p.4. Accessed at: https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/master/pnp/habshaer/il/il0100/il0108/data/il0108data.pdf
 Hoffman, Donald, The Architecture of John Wellborn Root. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 142.
 Rebori, Andrew N., “The Work of Burnman & Root, D.H. Burnham, D.H. Burnham and Company, and Graham Burnham & Co.” Architectural Record, vol. 38 no. 7, July 1915, p. 41.
 Connecting the Windy City. http://www.connectingthewindycity.com/2018/08/august-10-1940-first-regiment-armory.html
The HABS Report ILL- 1069 confirms that a cornerstone on the building’s southeast corner carried this inscription: “FIRST INFANTRY ARMORY BUILT 1890 BURNED APRIL 25th 1893 REBUILT 1894.”
 “Levee District,” WTTW Chicago Time Machine. Accessed at: https://interactive.wttw.com/timemachine/18th-street-and-prairie-avenue
Chicago architect John Vinci was there in 1966 (alongside Richard Nickel) to document first hand some of these rarely seen second floor vistas. in color and never previously publicized, these slides show the ornament of the second floor soldiers’ rooms, relatively untouched since they were last inhabited by tenants.