Armories, almshouses & accommodations: On the trail of 19th-century architect J. A. Wood

J. A. Wood’s Tampa Bay Hotel (1891)

Vassar Institute (Library of Congress | Detroit Publishing Company Collection)

A decade or so ago, New York State found itself with a glut of disused armories on its hands. In the age of intercontinental ballistic missiles, the quaint notion of the “well-regulated militia” enshrined in the Second Amendment, with its need for local stockpiles of muskets and gunpowder, had given way to a new policy of creating modern mustering and training centers for the Army National Guard called “readiness centers.” The state put many of these castlelike buildings – built mostly in the 19th century – on the market; imaginative buyers turned them into restaurants, museums, concert venues, antiques stores…even a palatial private home or two. 

Since the municipalities in which they’re located get “right of first refusal” whenever an armory is sold, it’s no great surprise that many of them were turned into community centers. Kingston’s Andy Murphy Midtown Neighborhood Center, located at 467 Broadway at the corner of Hoffman Street, is the current incarnation of one of these, built in 1879 as the Kingston Broadway Armory. The headquarters of Company M of the First New York Volunteers during the Spanish American War, it ceased to operate in a military capacity in 1932, when the 156th Field Artillery Regiment relocated to the “new” Kiersted Avenue Armory.

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The Kingston Broadway Armory was among the earliest of its kind to be adapted for use as a community center and recreational facility. Concerts, dances and athletic competitions were held there for decades. Renamed in 2008 to honor a longtime Department of Parks & Recreation official, nowadays it’s a popular, affordably rentable venue for events such as craft fairs. It’s a polling place for many Kingstonians on Election Day, and a Pokémon Go gym all year-round. And let’s face it: It’s fun just to drive down Broadway past a building with a crenellated tower.

Delve a little deeper into the history of this building and you’ll find that the architect behind it – while not exactly a household name on the order of Calvert Vaux, Andrew Jackson Downing and Alexander Jackson Davis, who also worked in the Hudson Valley – was responsible for many iconic structures in our neck of the woods. John A. Wood (1837-1910) was born in Bethel and had an office in Poughkeepsie beginning in 1863, relocating his practice to Manhattan in 1871 as his projects began to attract admiration and commissions from far and wide.

The one in Kingston wasn’t his only armory; Wood designed them for Newburgh (now housing county social services offices) and Watertown (demolished in 1966) as well. The Newburgh Free Library was one of his projects, built in 1878.

The armory in Kingston (now known as the Andy Murphy Midtown Neighborhood Center). (Photo by Dion Ogust)

Wood left his mark in many places in Poughkeepsie, specializing for a while in cemetery monuments. He designed the Poughkeepsie Rural Cemetery gates and gatehouse; the monument for Matthew Vassar’s nephew, John Guy Vassar; and a mausoleum “of prodigious proportions” for the Frost family, which included “the largest bluestone ever landed there”: a single slab measuring 17 by nine feet. “We opine it will require an extra blast upon the archangel’s trump to resurrect our Quaker friend, after he has been once entombed in his mausoleum,” a local newspaper wrote upon the demise of Thomas Frost.

The architect contributed work to the Vassar College campus, including the Calisthenium and Riding Academy and portions of Avery Hall. Both buildings that now constitute the Cunneen-Hackett Cultural Center, the former Vassar Home for Aged Men at 9 Vassar Street and the ornate Vassar Brothers Institute at 12 Vassar Street, are J. A. Wood’s creations. So was the Collingwood Opera House, whose 1869 construction date might just tip you off to the fact that you’ve very likely been inside this building – only nowadays, we know it as the Bardavon.

Also in Poughkeepsie, Wood was called upon to design the city’s Almshouse, now home to the Maplewood Senior Housing center. The Kingston City Almshouse occupied his attention from 1872 to 1874; this was the winged Italianate building at 300 Flatbush Avenue that RUPCO has been trying for several years to convert into a 66-unit senior and special-needs supported housing project called Landmark Place. As of the writing of this article, RUPCO’s application had been rejected by the City of Kingston Planning Board and a court challenge was underway. In its original heyday as a home for the poor and indigent, the Kingston Daily Freeman declared, “The house as far as cleanliness and fresh air is concerned is as good as any hotel or summer boarding house in this or any other county…the best view can there be obtained of the surrounding country in our city.”

Kingston City Almshouse (photo by Will Dendis)

Another RUPCO senior housing project in Kingston, already in operation, is housed in a building on Fair Street that was once the Stuyvesant Hotel (1910), attributed to J. A. Wood at the very end of his career. Hotels became a lucrative line of work for the architect, often manifesting his taste for the Moorish Revival style exemplified here in the Hudson Valley by Frederic Church’s Olana. During the latter decades of the 19th century, when rail travel was enjoying its peak period of expansion, Wood found many a railway baron eager to invest in the construction of a fine hotel to serve as a destination for well-to-do travelers. One of the earliest railroad resorts in the Catskills, the Tremper House (1879) in Phoenicia, was among his projects. So was the Grand Hotel in Highmount (1881) – built for steamship magnate/Ulster & Delaware Railroad Thomas Cornell – as well as the second Overlook Mountain House (1878) above Woodstock.

The former Stuyvesant Hotel (1910) on Fair Street in Uptown Kingston.

But the acknowledged pinnacle of J. A. Wood’s architectural achievements was one of many fancy hotels that he built in the South: the onion-domed, minaret-studded Tampa Bay Hotel (1891). Boasting 511 rooms – the first in Florida with electric lights and telephones – the main hotel building has five stories, is a quarter-mile long and covers six acres, set within a 150-acre park. It was equipped with the first elevator ever installed in Florida, still operational. Built for railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant, the hotel became the campus of the University of Tampa, after tourism fell off precipitously during the Great Depression. Part of the original building now houses a museum devoted to the history of the Victorian-era resort.

Wood also built several grand hotels in Georgia. Closer to home, many of his Kingston buildings are still standing: churches and carriagehouses, office buildings and music halls. An architecture buff could easily make a vigorous day’s walking tour out of visiting the remnants of this distinguished builder’s works.

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