Gray’s Armory: An urban fortress that preserves local military history, fellowship

Those with an interest in architecture can choose many significant 19th Century Cleveland buildings to admire. One of the most notable of these is the Gray’s Armory at 1234 Bolivar Road—­the oldest independent armory in the Country.

This striking building has been home for the Grays for 130 years. The Grays organization itself is even older.

The unit was established in 1837 as an independent volunteer militia, at a time when the fear of war with Canada existed. Originally called the Cleveland City Guards, the membership in 1838 decided that the organization's name should be taken from the color adopted for their uniform (gray).

While the neighboring countries never resorted to armed conflict after the formation of the Cleveland Grays, the organization was destined to see plenty of action in America’s 19th Century wars, in the 1916 Punitive Expedition against Mexico and Mexican Revolutionary leader Pancho Villa; as well as service in France during the World War I in the 20th Century.

The Grays were the first volunteer company to leave Cleveland to participate in the Civil War. Originally designated as Company E of the 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry (OVI), members subsequently served in both the 84th and 150th OVI.

The Grays unit served from the First Battle of Bull Run in Manassas Junction, Virginia through Confederate General Jubal Early’s unsuccessful attack on Washington D. C.  in July 1864.

More than 50 years after seeing Civil War action, the unit served in the Meuse Argonne in 1918, during World War I as its final service as a combat unit.

Gray’s Armory was built in 1893 to replace an earlier armory destroyed by fire. Four stories high with a five-story round tower, the building was constructed to serve as an urban fortress—a role it continues to serve to this day.

Set on a three-ton Berea sandstone foundation block, the building features red brick, rough-hewn sandstone, iron bars, and polished granite columns adorning the solid oak doors. The armory was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. 

The armory was designed by Fenimore C. Bate, one of Cleveland’s most creative late 19th Century architects. Bate achieved success early, and after beginning as a draftsman in the office of other architects he established his own practice by 1885. A very prolific architect in his day he was known for his imaginative designs for homes for the upper middle class.

In March 1888 an article in “Cleveland Town Topics,” a weekly society, art, and literature review, praised Bate’s home designs, saying they “all show a refreshing departure from the stereotyped styles of a few years ago.” 

Unfortunately, Bate’s houses had a low survival rate, but notable examples can still be seen at 690 Lakeview Road in Glenville and 1905 East 89th St. in Hough.

Construction of the armory began on May 30, 1893, Decoration Day, with the setting of a cornerstone. The building was completed the following year and it quickly became the venue for important civic events—many related to the celebration of Cleveland’s 1896 centennial.

One of the most notable events at Gray’s Armory took place on December 11, 1918, when the newly created Cleveland Orchestra played its first concert under the direction of Nikolai Sokoloff—who served as the Orchestra’s music director for the next 14 years.

The armory also welcomed varying events like the Cleveland Automobile Show, and even resonated with the sound of gunfire as the Cleveland Police Department qualified its members on a shooting range in the structure’s basement for years.

Maintained beautifully and never modified or renovated to any great extent, the building bears an unusual distinction.

After opening its doors 127 years ago, Gray’s Armory serves the same organization under the same name, continuing to effectively perform the purpose of service to the community. Today, the organization’s purpose is to preserve the military heritage of Greater Cleveland, promote patriotism, and good fellowship. Membership is open to all people interested in military history.