a vision, a resource, a plausible future
On July 9th, several people responded to an invitation to an open house at the old Armory building, bordered on the south by the old Lum’s dealership, on the north by the Bowpicker fish & chips boathouse, and on the west by what’s now the Clatsop County Historical Society Heritage Museum, in Astoria. The invitation read in part “…it would be a shame to lose this incredible resource as there is nothing like this building anywhere on the North Coast.”
From the outside, the Armory building is pretty nondescript. But as you step inside, you stare up at a fine example of a lamella roof, and step onto a gym floor that looks brand new. You can imagine the stands full of people cheering on the Astoria High School basketball team; chairs filling the floor and the stands and bleachers full with Jack Benny on the stage for a USO show; lights flashing, music blaring and kids whizzing around on their roller skates; kids dancing to “Waltz of the Flowers” in pink satin tutus for Jeanne Maddox’s Christmas dance recital; or a packed house to take part in the Scandinavian Festival.
Yes, lots of history in this building. Designed by John E. Wicks and his daughter Ebba Wicks Brown, and erected from joint federal, state and county funding by local builders, the Armory building added a gym, recreation center and community armory to the existing USO hospitality house (now the Heritage Museum, and formerly Astoria City Hall) in 1942. Used as an armory during World War II, the main floor gym became the home of the Astoria High School basketball team afterwards, as their gym (now Clatsop Community College’s) didn’t have any place for spectators. Many great tournaments and games were played there, according to Jon Englund, who was AHS’s center in the 50s. Englund, now head of Englund Marine, remembers playing in the Coast League, and coming in second to Milwaukie in 1955. “In big games against Seaside, the place would be packed, with over 3000 people. It was great,” Englund told me. He said the Royal Chinooks, a semi-pro basketball team, played there in the 50s, the Harlem Globetrotters paid a visit, and there was wrestling and special events “that were a big part of my life.”
Also in the 50s, there were home and auto shows at the Armory, where the basement would be used for the cars. Skip Hauke, the current president of the Astoria/Warrenton Chamber of Commerce, remembers these shows, as well as the Astoria Regatta coronation ceremonies. In particular, he remembers being the train bearer for Regatta queen Lidia Dorn when he was 5 years old. “I still kid her about that when I see her,” he said.
Still a recreation center in the 60s, the building was a lot less used after the high school moved to its current digs on Youngs Bay – with a new athletic building with plenty of seating – in 1957. The Scandinavian Festival, now at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds, was held at the Armory during this time. “I went to my first Scandinavian Festival there. There were tarps on the floor and a small square stage where someone was telling great Ole and Lena jokes,” recounted Janet Bowler, who has been involved with the festival for decades. And there were some big rock bands that played the Armory, including “Buffalo Springfield and The Zombies in the late 60s, Deep Purple in the mid-70s, sometime after Smoke on the Water came out.. Canned Heat also played late 70s,” according to HIPFiSH editor and publisher and Astoria native Dinah Urell. Another Astoria native, Peter Huhtula, remembers a group called People! playing at the Armory in the 70s. Their cover of The Zombies’ “I Love You” peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in June 1968. So, the Armory rocked through the 70s!
But by 1980, the county was looking to sell the Armory building, and finally, at the end of August 1981, four prominent local businessmen – Darrell Davis, George Brugh, Chuck Taggart and Rod Gramson – bought the Armory building at an auction, as the only bidder. Plans were for a convention center and office space, but instead, the Expo Center roller rink opened its doors at the site on Friday, November 27, 1981.
Lillian Baeten, a recently retired school bus driver and “fancy” skater, was the manager of the rink in the 80s. She remembers good times as the public – mostly kids – packed the building on Friday and Saturday nights, and came to free Christian skate night on the first Wednesday of the month. She was part of the congregation of the Clatsop (formerly Jireh) Christian Center, with her friend David Adams as pastor. The group bought the Armory building in 1994, and retained ownership until the current owner, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, bought it in 2002. According to Adams, “We had a congregation of about 140 people, and over 1000 young people came to
know Christ during our time there. We were the holy rollers!” Adams’ plan was for a church downstairs and a youth center on the main floor. The group did manage to completely redo the gym floor, add new windows, replace the aging roof and other small remodeling efforts while they owned the building.
Liisa Penner, Archivist at the Heritage Museum, recalls that, “In the 1980s, my younger daughter had her birthday parties each year in the small room on the north side of the Armory and after the party they skated in the rink.”
The CRMM maritime museum added climate control to the basement to help with storing their artifacts, including boats. With their purchase of the old Builders Supply store and warehouse, the museum is looking to sell the Armory building, and that gave Robert “Jake” Jacob an idea. Jacob, architect and owner of the Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa, spearheaded the effort to save the Liberty Theater and helped found the Astoria Waterfront Trolley. So he began to think of ways to save the Armory building for the community. “There’s nothing like this building in our entire region. It would be great if a group of interested local and regional citizens could come together to save this unique structure. The inside of the building is stunning and the kinds of events that could take place there are so varied that it could also be an economic driver for our region. Astoria just can’t afford to lose a building like this — with the kind of historic relevance and huge space it offers. From sporting events, home shows, large concerts with a great dance floor, this space can be anything the community needs,” Jacob started telling folks.
At the open house – which was attended by City of Astoria staff and city council members, Clatsop Community College management and staff, Astoria Sunday Market chief Cyndi Mudge, members of the Shanghaied Roller Dolls roller derby team, Maurice Hendrickson (a former National Guardsman), City Lumber staff, carpenter Tim Kennedy (who was wowed by the lamella roof), Hauke, Baeten, Constance Waisanan of Partners for the PAC, other local businesspeople and this reporter – Jacob told the crowd of his vision, some of his experiences in the building, and invited others to reminisce about the glory days of the Armory. Others involved in the effort to look into community ownership of the building spoke next, including Hauke and Mitch Mitchum. “We have a real opportunity here to do something terrific. The Armory could be an economic driver for the region as well as a fun project for citizens to be involved with. The integrity of the building is excellent, the hardwood floors are in perfect condition – and with some good ideas, a little clean-up and paint, we can preserve this treasure!” Mitchum said.
The leaders called on Robert Stang, a local green developer, to work on a plan to get the ball rolling, and he’s done just that. With a promise of a 90-day window from the maritime museum to allow the newly formed Friends of the Astoria Armory to investigate the Armory building’s physical integrity and assess funding possibilities, and the willingness of Craft3, a non-profit community development financial institution with offices in Astoria, to become fiscal agent for the Friends, the ball is definitely in the community’s court.
Everyone I spoke to about the Armory thinks it would be a great community resource, an economic driver, and a chance to save an important historical treasure. It remains to be seen if Jacob’s vision will come true. We should know in a few months.
To be informed of the Friends of the Astoria Armory’s progress on the possible purchase of the Armory building for the community, or if you want to help, call 503-325-8687 and leave your name, phone number and email address. Someone will get back to you promptly.