Monday, April 18, 2005


Somerville’s rotting medieval castle, once an armory, next to be an arts center, will not be open any time soon.

The May 14 groundbreaking reception (starting at 4 p.m. and featuring food, drink, tours and music) might suggest swiftness, but a visit to the 16,200-square-foot oddity makes it clear the groundbreaking will be just that: The beginning of work, and a ceremonial one, at that.

The building is in such an exquisitely preserved state of decay that yesterday it stood in as backdrop for fashion photography celebrating decadence amid ruins. The work, organized by the legendary Pia Schachter, is to show at Cambridge’s Zeitgeist Gallery in early May, with an opening that first Friday. It’s not yet on the gallery’s calendar.

It was only mildly surprising to find the front door push open without complaint, and, oddly, not much more surprising when voices came echoing and bodies emerged, some in eternally wet-looking black latex, some in dull black T-shirts, some in balletlike gossamer. The building is a maze, three levels of rooms tiny and sprawling connected by staircases claustrophobic and grand, and groups of models and photographers appeared and disappeared at random. The most elusive person was Pia herself, who’d always just been and always just left. No one could say for certain where she was. Or quite explain the point of the photography, other than to impart a sense it seemed valuable to capture the place before it got cleaned up.

The armory closed in the fall of 2003, and the neglect since seemed to be right, somehow, like a molting period, or a long rest before heading into a new purpose.

The mess adds to the 1903 building’s sense of mystery, the same melted stoicism as Fort Warren, the 1847 complex sunk into Georges Island in Boston Harbor. Paint is chipped, wood droops, the tile of a shower floor sags, the occasional massive metal door hangs from hinges with comic surrendered gloom. (Renovation has been estimated at $1 million above the $2.4 million paid at auction a year ago.) The shape and location of rooms only hint at their utility. And the same chill permeates, if not the same awing sense of history, as you can step over a discarded pair of khakis or note a small American flag and, many rooms later, find yourself staring at a classic moment of 1970s poster camp in faded full-color glory: four trollops in thong bikinis, seen from the rear, standing in the back of a pickup above the legend “Haulin’ ass.”

The purchase of the armory by the Sater brothers, who own Cambridge’s Middle East rock club, might have hinted in the direction of rock, but the building is surrounded by homes, and Somerville’s mayor has already declared concern over “huge crowds and noise at night.” In fact, Joseph Sater has already spoken of artists’ lofts, gallery shows, music classes and dance and musical theater performances.

It’s almost a pity the armory can’t be left exactly as it is. Just run tours. Let people lose themselves inside. And rent it out to fashion shoots.


wrecking_ball said...

How much d'you suppose they're actually going to fix up the place? I think there's a certain amount of appeal to leaving it the way you've described - kind of like the nightclubs in abandoned buildings in East Berlin, rabbit-warren-y and open to the elements. And, it's not like the Middle East "complex" is in any great state of repair, if their current style of property management is any indicator of what's to come at the Armory.

I've never been inside the place, but I did cover myself in glory there when I arrived to take my driving test and drove up onto the curb out front, in full view of the person waiting to take me on the test. Ah, fond memories...

Scape7 said...

Suggest this outright and the officials would assuredly be appalled, full of denials that any public service could be left in such a state of disrepair. But the money just for simple cleaning, paint preparation and infrastructure improvements (media reports have made reference to cracking concrete) will go very, very quickly. And what about an exterior overhaul? The metal atop the towers is rusting badly.

This is all so expensive that the interior is sure to suggest a certain shabbiness, no matter what the Saters' motives. In fact, it's likely they'll seal off some of the rooms rather than deal with fixing everything at once.

So I'd think less like Fort Warren, more like those cheap apartments or offices on Beacon Hill or in the Back Bay — where a coat of paint is considered how to get a room ready for occupancy and the paint has been slathered right over plaster cracks, picture-hanging pegs and retrofitted wires and pipes.

That's my guess, anyway.

Funny story about the driving test. But I'm sure you passed.

wrecking_ball said...

I did pass the test, although much profanity was uttered over the curb incident. By me, not the testing person.

Re the renovations: Perhaps my motto of "keep the lights low and don't look too closely" might be applicable here. And I work in one of those Back Bay offices, so I know whereof I speak.

Scape7 said...

I was thinking fondly of Emerson College's old Back Bay buildings and my equally old Beacon Hill apartments.