Armory under new management

Landmark: Bel Air is taking over the building, and plans to fill it with events.

April 10, 2005|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In most towns, a dollar will buy you a candy bar, a soda, bottled water or a small toy. In Bel Air, a dollar will buy you a castle.

The castle is the National Guard armory.

On March 8, town officials received keys to the building under the terms of a five-year lease signed between the town and the state. Bel Air agreed to pay the state $1 per year for five years. At the end of the lease, the building will be turned over to the town permanently at no further cost.

According to Bill Riley, director of installations for the state military department, the town got a deal because the National Guard outgrew the armory.

"The armory became too small for our needs," Riley said. "It used to be that the regular Army held all the equipment, and we didn't need a lot of space. Now we have everything we need to go off to war."

Despite the problem with space, Riley said the National Guard appreciates the prime downtown location, and it signed the lease to ensure it would maintain office space.

"We wanted to have some control of the property to maintain a recruiting station in the building," he said. "We have a ... policy where we circulate property through the Maryland State Clearinghouse, and Bel Air saw it and they wanted it."

The granite building, which looks like a medieval castle, has been a focal point of the town since 1915. Although it's old, it's in good condition, and a $220,000 Community Legacy grant will cover most of the initial repair costs.

"This year, we plan to do an electrical upgrade, and clean and do maintenance on the heating distribution system," said Christopher Schlehr, town administrator.

Schlehr said the city also plans to upgrade the alarm system; install a women's locker room; renovate one bathroom and build another; and make improvements required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, including installing an elevator. Air conditioning might be installed too, he said, adding that the city has applied for a grant.

The town is enthusiastic about the building because most of the people who grew up in Bel Air have nostalgic memories about it.

"The National Guard has occupied the building for years," Schlehr said. "In the 1950s and 1960s, the armory was used for dances, town festivals and sports events. "

Schlehr said he remembers a lot of the activities, including a visit from a professional wrestler.

"When I was 10 or 11 years old, Haystacks Calhoun came to the armory to wrestle," Schlehr said. "I wanted his autograph, and I was the last one standing there waiting to get one. I handed him my program, and just then his opponent appeared and started messing with him. He turned and laid down the program. He was wearing a horseshoe around his neck and he slowly took it off and started twirling it around on the chain it hung on. I was scared to death. I really thought he was going to hurt this guy. ... That's the kind of things that I remember about the armory."

Frequent sports events and community activities continued at the armory until the 1970s, when they slowed down. The town stopped using the facility. In the 1990s, the town approached the National Guard, which agreed to allow the town to use the building, but for a fee.

Now that Bel Air has obtained the building, people who grew up attending functions there are trying to relive those days.

Jim Welch, public relations officer for Bel Air, came up with an idea for the building to bring adults downtown -- dances.

"We had our first dance [in March] and will have another in April, then May," Welch said.

"I have great memories in that building. ... When I was young, I had my first dance there. I asked a girl to go to the dance with me, and although I couldn't dance well, I did it. I wanted to get close to this girl, and I did. I won't ever forget that."

Besides a hall for dances, Schlehr said the building is to be used for community activities, theater and other performances, art activities and sports events and programs.

"We have to lease out space to pay for the upkeep and utilities on the building," Schlehr said. "We'll charge about $250 for the space on weekends and $150 for time on weekdays. The costs for maintaining the building will run about $80,000 per year. We're bringing in enough for the utility bills already. We need minimal janitorial work and don't have many expenses yet. We hope to make the building self-sufficient."

Although the city is overseeing the property, a search has begun for a volunteer building manager. Schlehr said he's searching for someone who can work at it full time, and later the volunteer position will turn into a paid management position.

"We have huge plans for the town on North Main Street," Schlehr said. "This building is an anchor for the town. We want to make full use of it, and we're very excited about it."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.