It was 1900 and The First Battery, a volunteer field artillery unit of the National Guard of the State of New York, was headquartered above a saloon on West 44th Street. The building was managed by their Captain, Louis Wendel. The First Battery was one of many militia groups throughout the country formed to help with domestic peacekeeping efforts during the post–Civil War era of labor-capital unrest. Captain Wendel, a colorful figure who would later be removed from office for bribery, graft and grand larceny, had connections in Tammany Hall political circles. So when the New York City Armory Board was created to establish a series of ten armories throughout the city, Wendel used his influence to secure a brand new headquarters for his regiment.
In 1901, construction began on The First Battery Armory, located on West 66th Street just west of Central Park. Despite some pushback from the representatives of the National Guard who wanted more control over the selection of the architects, the firm of Horgan and Slattery was chosen. This firm, heavily favored by Mayor Van Wyck and Tammany Hall, held a monopoly on most public projects. The New York Times having published an editorial the previous year questioning whether Horgan and Slattery even existed and if they did, what a coincidence that they seemed to have the expertise to handle every project commissioned by the city.
On February 3, 1904, the group of approximately 100 men composed of mostly German Americans moved in. The first floor housed a concrete drill room, a riding ring and offices. Below the street were stalls for 76 horses, a 50 yard rifle range and a 25 yard pistol range. The Captain’s apartment was located on the third floor. The building, with its castle-like features, consisted of a rectangular headhouse with a central tower for public entry and two end pavilions with “sally ports” to accommodate the horses. The entire block had once been part of the 18th century farm of John Somarindyn and was subdivided into lots for sale in 1852. By the time the Armory was built, the block was typical of the neighborhood being half built up, primarily with five story houses. Across the street was the St Nicholas Arena, the city’s first indoor skating rink built in 1896 (demolished in 1986) and the Durland Riding Academy which had recently opened in 1901.
In 1913, the First Battery was replaced with new tenants as the 102nd Medical Regiment moved in, serving as a medical unit during World War 1 and World War 2. They remained in this location until ABC acquired the building in 1976, transforming it into a sound stage for soap operas. Now one of 6 armories designated a New York City Landmark, the location now serves as offices for ESPN. Despite the building’s many different transformations, you can still find throw backs to the time when the First Battery of the National Guard inhabited the building. Above the first story are the letters N.G.S.N.Y. and at the top of the tower is the First Battery’s insignia carved in relief as a central shield with “1901”, N.G.N.Y. and “Semper Paratus” which means “always ready”.