Features

A Mighty Fortress

The PARK AVENUE ARMORY has become one of New York City’s most exciting arts venues.
by Matthew Sigman. 

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The Armory’s Drill Hall, set for the 2015 realization of Bach’s Goldberg Variations by artist Marina Abramović and pianist Igor Levit
© James Ewing

IN 1819, WHILE VISITING the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, the novelist Stendhal was so overcome by Giotto’s frescoes that he experienced a bout of delirium. “Life was drained from me,” he wrote. Psychiatry would later coin “Stendhal Syndrome” to describe fainting spells resulting from ecstatic reactions to art. Proust has one of his characters swoon while admiring Vermeer’s View of Delft. Dostoyevsky collapsed in front of Holbein’s Dead Christ.

A visitor to the Veterans Room in New York’s newly restored Park Avenue Armory would be well advised to bring smelling salts. The chamber, a cacophony of Belle Époque decorative arts, was executed in 1880 by a collective led by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Stanford White. The floor-to-ceiling fusion of Greek, Moorish, Egyptian, Persian and Japanese elements is as dizzying as it is dazzling. To celebrate its consecration as a performance space, the Armory invited jazz pianist Jason Moran to curate a concert series including composer/accordionist Pauline Oliveros, drummers Milford Graves and Deantoni Parks and psycho acoustician Camille Norment with electronic musician Craig Taborn. The kaleidoscopic entertainment deliberately “riffs off the room,” says Rebecca Robertson, president and executive producer of the Armory. 

Down an imposing, three-story-high corridor lit by massive iron chandeliers and lined with stoic portraits of its original blue-blood members is the Board of Officers Room, a sedate space with classic Herter Brothers mahogany wainscoting, vintage wallpapers and an intricately painted ceiling. Here the Armory’s programming is more restrained, with instrumental, chamber and vocal recitals. 

Across the corridor is the centerpiece of the Armory’s $200-million renovation (a work still in progress) and the focal point of its mission—the 55,000-square-foot Drill Hall, a cross between a grand European train station and an airplane hangar. Buttresses, reinforced to support all means of scenery, lighting and hangings, fly three hundred feet wide and eighty-five feet high. With no fixed stage or seating, the vast space is the largest blank canvas in New York. 

It was here, in 2014, that Simon Rattle led the Berlin Philharmonic in Peter Sellars’s immersive production of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, with vocalists placed among the audience. “I have seldom felt so much a participant in the musical drama of this staggering masterpiece,” raved Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times. Alex Ross of The New Yorker called the 2015 installation of Laurie Anderson’s Habeas Corpus, with its massive disco ball, projections and electronic music, “a cool, dark, hypnotically enveloping environment—an echt-New York happening.” 

Echt indeed. “We don’t want traditional theater that darks out, where the grid is fixed, where you sit in your seat and don’t move and watch a box,” says Robertson. “That’s not us.” The space has accommodated Stockhausen’s Gruppen, which enveloped the audience with three orchestras, and Marina Abramović’s production of pianist Igor Levit performing Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations on a moving stage. This fall, multi-disciplinary artist Taryn Simon will install a new work incorporating performance, sculpture, architecture and sound. 

Such events are well within the norm of New York’s fringe culture, but there are boundaries, Robertson says. “We’re not interested in spectacle qua spectacle. We are interested in giving artists a chance to work at scale, with artistic intent and artistic values.” 

Pierre Audi, the Armory’s artistic director, is no stranger to audacity, having transformed London’s Almeida Theatre, the Dutch National Opera and the Holland Festival into incubators of imagination. Yet even he allows there are limits for the Drill Hall. “There are certain things I would not program,” he says, “but if something has integrity and core values with pure intention, then any audience can appreciate it, even though not everybody may understand or approve or respond in the same way. You have to enter into a dialogue with the audience.”

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The Peter Sellars production of the St. Matthew Passion in the Drill Hall, 2014
© Stephanie Berger

THE VISION FOR ADAPTIVE REUSE of the Armory began with the late Wade F. B. Thompson, a recreational-vehicle mogul, whose Park Avenue apartment looked out on the vast edifice. “He would see the building deteriorate day by day,” says Alan Siegel, who now runs the Thompson Family Foundation. “He thought it was a travesty. And his personality was such that when he focused on something he would use all his emotional and intellectual energy to achieve it.” 

Designed in the Gothic Revival style and completed in 1881, the Armory was built by the Seventh Regiment, nicknamed the “Silk Stocking Brigade” for its high-society membership. Members hired designers of their Fifth Avenue mansions and Newport “cottages” to create the opulent public spaces and club-like company rooms. The Drill Hall was designed to train a private militia that would assist the police in suppressing gang warfare, labor riots and sundry insurrections. It also served as a venue for elaborate balls and musical extravaganzas. An 1882 Wagner festival reportedly included an orchestra of nearly 300 and a chorus of 3,000 performing excerpts from Götterdämmerung. The legendary Austrian soprano Amalie Materna was brought over for the event.

The Armory’s golden age ended with World War I, when hundreds of members of the Seventh Regiment, redesignated the 107th Infantry, were killed or wounded in France. The building continued to serve more muted social purposes, and it was called into service for World War II, but it was eventually turned over to the State of New York and fell into decline. By the time Wade Thompson came to the rescue, the façade was covered in urban grime, water sluiced through leaks in the roof, and multiple generations of varnish and paint obscured what authentic interiors had survived.

To restore the building to its glory, Thompson assembled an ad hoc brain trust, including Elihu Rose, scion of the philanthropic real-estate family; Rebecca Robertson, an urban planner who had led the transformation of Forty-second Street and was managing the redevelopment of Lincoln Center; and historic preservationist Kirsten Reoch, who had assisted on Disney’s restoration of the New Amsterdam Theatre. The team negotiated a ninety-nine-year lease from the state and in 2000 formed a new 501(c)(3) nonprofit to restore the property and forge a mission. “The original goal was to save the Armory,” says Rose, now co-chairman of the board, “but very early the question arose—‘Preservation for what?’ Are we going through this magnificent restoration for antique shows?” Reimagination as a performing-arts center was a natural conclusion. Citing the building’s historic embrace of design and performance, Rose says, “The arts are in our DNA.” 

Rose hastens to point out that the Armory’s mission is not static. “We consider ourselves an institution, not a venue. We produce on our own, we commission, we coproduce, we partner. We do it all.” The diverse spaces allow for a flexible festival environment, rather than a fixed season, while leaving capacity for rental revenues from private events and elegant New York mega-fairs—the Winter Antiques Show, in January; the Art Show and the Antiquarian Book Fair, in March.

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The Armory’s newly restored Veterans Room
© James Ewing

ROSE PRAISES ROBERTSON'S “extraordinary knowledge of the arts” and also lauds Reoch, who, working with the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, has supervised design and construction with passionate fidelity to history. Kristy Edmunds curated programming from 2010 to 2012, followed by Alex Poots, founder of the Manchester International Festival, who served as artistic director until he was recruited to start up the Culture Shed arts center rising in Hudson Yards. Pierre Audi took the helm in 2015.

Audi made his directorial debut at the Met in 2010 with a new production of Verdi’s Attila and returns this October for Guillaume Tell. He says his primary vision for the Drill Hall is “to program across the arts—visual, theater, music dance, whatever form is suitable for the room.” What it will not be, he insists, is an opera house. “A lot of people think since I was appointed I was going to turn it into an opera house. I have an opera house. I can contribute unusual projects, but I haven’t taken the job in order to set up a tent in New York to do opera. It can have a place in the portfolio, but it is not going to dominate the programming.” 

Nor will the Drill Hall be limited to gigantism. “It’s an awesome space,” Audi says, “but with a wonderfully warm atmosphere. It’s very big, but at the same time I found that, strangely enough, you can stage very intimate things there as well. A big space is not necessarily made just for big things.” 

WITH THE ARMORY EXPANDING and the Culture Shed rising, even as Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, City Center and BAM strain to fill seats, one wonders if there are sufficient audiences and dollars to support the expanded capacity. Rose, who certainly knows real estate and the arts, isn’t worried. “New York can never have enough performances or performance spaces,” he says. Reynold Levy, who served as president of Lincoln Center for thirteen years, believes projected metropolitan population and tourist growth will raise all cultural boats: “The indicators are upbeat for an energetic, determined approach for the arts to serve a large public,” he says. Concomitant with that growth is the rise of deca- and centa-millionaires, who traditionally reserved their largesse for education and health care. “A decade ago it was difficult to find contributions of fifty million dollars to the performing arts, museums or public spaces,” Levy says. “Today it’s a major climate for mega-gifts.” Membership in the $100-million club now includes David Geffen, David Koch, Stephen Schwarzman and Leonard Lauder. Wade Thompson and his family foundation are now members of that club as well, having cumulatively given nearly $130 million to support the renovation and endowment of the Armory, newly christened the Thompson Arts Center.

And while Thompson’s dream has been realized, and the Armory now celebrates all that once again glitters in New York, it still retains certain civic obligations that hark back to its golden heritage. Among the organizations with a presence in the building are the New York Army National Guard, Veterans of the Seventh Regiment and the Knickerbocker Greys, a youth cadet program founded in 1881. The Armory also serves modern-day civic purposes: its upper floors house a women’s shelter run by the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a community-service organization. On a recent public tour, a plaintive spiritual could be heard wafting down a grand staircase—an incandescent reminder of the Armory’s ability to cross barriers of time, space and culture. spacer 

Matthew Sigman writes for Opera America, Chorus America and American Theater and is a three-time winner of the Ascap–Deems Taylor Award for Music Journalism. 



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