D.C. Armory a Versatile, Unsung Event Venue

Posted October 22, 2009 at 1:37pm

Only one location in Washington, D.C., can boast having been host to inauguration balls spanning from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama.

If you guessed the D.C. Armory, at the eastern edge of Capitol Hill, you would be right. Constructed in 1941, the facility is a Washington icon. But despite edging toward its 70th anniversary, the Armory’s history — in fact, its very existence — remains enigmatic to many Washingtonians.

Perhaps, this is in part because the Armory’s unique history is not the only thing that stands out about the building.

“You have so much history here, but you also have convenience and versatility,— said Erik Moses, senior vice president and managing director for the Sports, Entertainment and Special Events division of the Washington Convention and Sports Authority. “If I had to sum up the Armory in three words, it would be convenience, versatility and history.—

Its versatility will be on display tonight when it hosts the Longest Yard Football Classic, a charity game pitting Members of Congress (aided by former NFL stars) against the Capitol Police. The teams will square off on a 60-yard artificial turf field.

The authority manages the sports and entertainment use of the Armory as well as the surrounding festival grounds. Additionally, the authority owns and manages RFK Stadium — which is next door to the Armory — as well as Nationals Park and the Washington Convention Center.

Even as flashy, larger venues have come to Washington, it is hard to argue with the Armory’s convenience. Unlike many other locations in the District, getting to the Armory is a breeze with its adjacent 10,000-car parking lot. The facility is also a stone’s throw from the Stadium-Armory Metro station.

But as the facility has aged, its convenience has become easy to gloss over. It lacks air conditioning, for one, and its bathrooms are frequently criticized for their 1970s feel.

“There are always improvements going on, but there aren’t any long-term plans to add in air conditioning,— Moses said. “It’s something that everyone would like to see done but would be very hard to do.—

The Armory is most frequently associated with its 64,722-square-foot drill field, which is where most sports and entertainment events there are held. The size of the facility complicates the feasibility of installing air conditioning.

But the Armory’s versatility is possibly the main reason why the building goes unsung. It is just impossible to categorize what exactly the Armory is used for.

As a primary function, it is used as a training ground for the D.C. National Guard. For that purpose, the building’s drill field offers a space like no other in Washington to train guardsmen.

But it is more commonly known for the range of events that have been held there. The Armory has housed any number of trade shows, concerts and auto shows in its long history.

Initially, entertainment use of the Armory was facilitated by the D.C. Armory Board, which was formed in 1948. In its 36-year existence, the board would oversee the use of both the Armory and RFK Stadium. In 1994, the board was dissolved and the city’s use of the Armory came under the umbrella of the D.C. Sports Commission. More recently, the commission merged with the Washington Convention Authority to form the Washington Convention and Sports Authority.

Use of the Armory was first made prominent with presidential inaugurations. Frank Sinatra sang for a ball there in celebration of JFK’s 1961 inauguration. Since then, the Armory has been a regular site for inauguration balls. In January, Obama held a “Southern State Ball— there for Florida, Texas and nine other Southern states.

But inaugurations aren’t the only thing politicians have used the facility for. In 1961, JFK attended a horse show at the Armory along with his wife, Jackie Kennedy, and all seven of Robert F. Kennedy’s children (RFK’s family continued to grow). On July 4, 1963, a rally was held at the Armory in support of then-Sen. Barry Goldwater’s (R-Ariz.) run for president. The facility was host to a $100-a-plate “Salute to President Johnson— in 1964. And over the course of his administration, President George W. Bush held several fundraising events at the Armory.

Events ranging from professional wrestling to the circus have been more common than presidential visits to the Armory. But the facility has also played host to the downright strange and even bizarre.

In 2007, mixed martial arts, a loose combination of boxing and wrestling and martial arts and jiujitsu, made its Washington debut there. Ten years earlier, thousands of angst-ridden teenagers descended to the Armory for a Marilyn Manson concert, while parents sat nervously in a quiet room provided.

During the summer of 1986, 6,500 Barbie aficionados stalked aisles of Kens and Barbies at the World’s Fair of Collectibles.

Back in 1994, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam came under fire for denying entrance to women at an anti-violence lecture he held in the Armory.

The Armory has also been used in a number of emergencies, as the drill floor’s space makes for easy use in humanitarian efforts. When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, hundreds of New Orleans evacuees were housed in the Armory. In the mid-1980s, the D.C. City Council proposed using the space as a shelter for the homeless.

In the upcoming weeks, the Armory will host events varying from a step show to a Halloween party, in addition to competitions by the D.C. Rollergirls. Proclaiming “With liberty and justice to brawl!— as a slogan, the roller derby league recently kicked off its second year playing at the Armory.

In the future, one of the goals of the new authority is for Washington venues to host more return events. For the Armory, one of the more promising examples includes FanFest, which is held in conjunction with RFK Stadium’s EagleBank Bowl. Introduced last year as the first-ever college football bowl game in Washington, D.C., FanFest serves as a way for fans to tailgate before the December game.

The Longest Yard is not actually the first time indoor football has been played at the Armory. Earlier this year, a new indoor professional football team — the D.C. Armor — played a season at the Armory. Although the authority said the Armor are unlikely to return next year, officials hope things will be different with the Longest Yard.

“We’d love to see it continue every year at the Armory,— Moses said. “We want to be part of things that people can depend on coming back to year after year.—