The Westerly Armory was built in 1901, but before that on Main Street, there was a wood-framed armory built in 1860 which did not live long but perished in the flames of fire and exploding ammunition at 1:00 am on 30 April 1899.
Born in 1901 and costing $30,000, the new armory was erected in a new location on a triangle of land with Railroad Avenue and Dixon Street on two sides and West Street in the rear. William R. Walker & Son was the architectural firm used — the same firm that had already designed the Pawtucket Armory – and later, the great Providence (Cranston Street), Woonsocket, and Kentish Artillery armories. The firm also designed the riding rink and stables of the Armory of Mounted Commands on North Main Street, Providence.
The Westerly Sun reported on 21 June 1902, “A perfect mob of people inspected the building from cellar to roof. All were loud in praise of the new building. It is just what Westerly needs.” And so that has been the case.
The Armory holds a vast number of community memories. It was the scene of sports activities such as basketball with the New York Celtics, boxing matches (a few with Rocky Marciano), and even bowling. The Armory boasted a one-lane bowling alley in the basement as well as a rifle range. During the 1920s, the Westerly Rifle Club met there for practice and competition. The Armory was at one time home to the Westerly Rifles, a state-chartered militia group.
Although small in comparison with such major edifices as the Providence Armory, Westelry’s armory accommodated such community events as automobile shows, antiques shows, toy and doll exhibitions, dances, and book sales. Scouts met there, and boys and girls practiced their skills in basketball. The Armory served as a polling place for many years. There were weddings and wedding receptions which took place in the drill hall, the Armory’s 6,000-square-foot room.
Perhaps the Armory memory that makes people smile the most is mention of the annual poultry shows. Every Thanksgiving week-end (from 1901-1950s), the Westerly Armory played home to hundreds of chickens, ducks, turkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, and their proud and hopeful owners. The competition was keen and included prizes for Best Hen and Best Cock (rooster) as well as Best in Show. There were white, red, and blue ribbons as well as professionally published program booklets. The Armory smelled of hay, seed, and cracked corn, sounded of cackling and crowing, and drew entire families who devoted themselvese to making their entries engaging to the judges’ astute eyes. This was a serious competition and the social highlight of the Thanksgiving week-end. A very large percentage of the community’s population turned out to not only see the poultry but also to socialize.
An Easter Monday Ball sponsored by the Westerly Elks Club was THE event of the year in Westerly throught the early 1950s. People dressed to the nines and prepared well in advance for the festivities in the resplendent Armory hall.
The National Guard abandoned the Westerly Armory in 1996. The last unit to serve there was the 169th Military Police Company.
Today, the Westerly Armory holds its crenellated head high above the neglect of the past. Now owned by the Town of Westerly who purchased it from the State of Rhode Island in 1996, the Armory has been restored and developed by Westerly Armory Restoration, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to restoring and repurposing the Armory for its community.
In 1996, the Armory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and deemed by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission as “the model armory in the State of Rhode Island.” Ronald Thorpe, then Vice President of the Rhode Island Foundation, stated that “the Armory is a part of the soul of the community.”
In 1997, three granddaughters of William R. Walker, the architect of the Armory (Helen Walker Raleigh, Harriet Walker Scott, and Nancy Walker Collins) visited the Westerly Armory. A short while later, they donated two framed oil paintings — one of their grandfather, William R. Walker and the other of their grandmother, Eliza B. Walker.
In 2001, the Westerly Armory reached 100 years of age, still serving as a constant reminder of the history and traditions of its community. During that year, numerous programs and events were held to celebrate the centennial of the building.
In 2003, the United States Congress declared the Armory a Save America’s Treasures Site – a distinguished designation for the historic building. The Westerly Armory is one of only 18 historic armories in Rhode Island.
Currently, the Armory has found new purposes. It is the community’s museum (both community and local military memorabilia are displayed) as well as the home of America’s oldest active civic band, The Westerly Band. The Band has their practice room, a small office and storage area for their library of music, some of which predates the Civil War. Additionally, the Armory’s drill hall is now rentable for events. Last, the Westerly Armory is the largest memorial in all of South County to veterans of all wars and conflicts.
In 2014, a capital campaign is being run to raise funds to renovate the lower level. This would give HVAC to the entire Armory as well as add museum exhibition space, more room for The Westerly Band, a community room, a museum workshop, additional egress, and more rest rooms.
The Westerly Armory housed provisional and volunteer companies such as Company E, volunteers under charter and, for several years, an infantry company.
The Fifth Company was formed in 1908 and known as the Coast Artillery Corps, Rhode Island National Guard. In 1917, the Fifth was drafted into Federal service, and in March of that year, the Company (109 officers and soldiers strong) gathered in the westerly Armory to stand ready.
In the time when the Fifth Company had gone to war, the need arose and the call came for a home defense regiment. The 4th Company was an offshoot of the Westerly constabulary which, in 1917, was organized for the purpose of home defense. The Company consisted of almost all business men in addition to men too old for Federal service. At the close of World War I, the company was mustered out. Westerly was, for several years, without a military company.
in 1921, Westery raised a new company, known as the Fifth Company Coast Artillery Corp (RING). In only 10 days, a company of 52 men was both organized and federally recognized. The Company was later changed from the Fifth to the 349th Company, and then to Battery E, 243d Coast Artillery (HD), National Guard.
The Westerly Armory last housed the 169th Military Police Company, Rhode Island National Guard who abandoned the Armory in 1996 and who were dispersed into Middletown and Providence. Their motto, “Stand Ready,” echoed the sentiment of earlier soldiers who drilled in the Armory’s hall.
Many veterans of the community went to war, proudly stepping out of the great doors of the Westerly Armory.