In 1899 George L. Heins replaced Issac G. Perry as state architect; he held the office until 1907. Heins designed armories in the castellated/Richardsonian Romanesque style. During his tenure he designed numerous armories, but to date, seven are known to survive. Heins’ armories incorporate features of castle-like fortresses, including: soaring towers, crenellated parapets, massive sally ports, and iron portcullises. Hein’s armories; however, tend to reflect a more modern and stylized interpretation of medieval forms and details.
The Main Street Armory is by far the largest and grandest armory designed by Heins and is among the most sophisticated early 20th century armories in upstate New York. Reflecting Rochester’s prominent position in the state at the turn of the century, the East Main Street Armory is worthy of comparison to some of New York’s finest pre-World War II armories.
The Main Street Armory, built in 1905 as headquarters for western New York’s 3rd Battalion, is also historically significant for its association with American military history. The volunteer militia (ie: the National Guard) has been and to an extent still is the backbone of the American military system since the colonial era. The Main Street Armory, like virtually all other National Guard armories, remains a prominent visual reminder and monument of the pivotal role played by the volunteer militia in American military history.
The Main Street Armory was commissioned by the state at the turn of the century and constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. A castle was chosen to represent the Main Street Armory to historically commemorate the original design used by the Corps. Soldiers on their way overseas to fight in World War I and World War II passed through the armory for final training and processing. The East Main Street Armory was used by various divisions of the National Guard and other reserve forces in the Rochester area over the years. The last personnel to inhabit the armory were personnel from the 209th battalion and the 2nd division of the 174th Infantry Battalion of the National Guard. In 1990 the military decided that renovations to the building would be too costly and built another armory in Scottsville to continue military operations.
In the early 20th century, the 35,000-square-foot main arena (designed originally for drill exercises) hosted circuses, concerts, balls, and auto shows. It was the home arena for the Rochester Iroquois indoor lacrosse team in the 1930s. The Iroquois’ most famous player was Jay Silverheels who played Tonto in the Lone Ranger television series from 1949-57. Silverheels played lacrosse under his real name of Harry (Harold) Smith.
The building was also the home of the Rochester Centrals, the city’s first professional basketball team from 1925-31. The Centrals played in the American Basketball League for six seasons. The ABL was the country’s first professional basketball league. In addition to professional basketball the Armory also hosted many high school games and served as the home court for Rochester East High School. Two future National Basketball Association players came out of East High School in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Walter Dukes (Seton Hall, Detroit Pistons) and Al Butler (Niagara University, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics) played their home games for East High at the Armory.
When the Rochester Community War Memorial Arena (now the Blue Cross Arena) opened in 1955 most of the Armory’s signature events shifted venues. The Damascus Temple Shrine Circus left after their 1960 performance. The Main Street Armory remained for mostly military use up until 1990.
It was later auctioned off to Jeff Brongo who for a brief time hosted events in the armory, but was later shutdown for not having a sprinkler system. At this time the armory sat mostly unused for over ten years, until it was reclaimed by the state for non-payment of back taxes.
The building was then purchased at another auction by local entrepreneur Scott Donaldson, in 2005. He paid only $1,000 for the 138,000-square-foot, 7-story building, as no one else bid for it. The arena floor was covered in pigeon droppings, the birds having been the building’s primary occupants for fifteen years, and the building’s roof, floors, windows, and interior systems were in severe need of repair. Donaldson, who is blind, was told he never would have bought it if he could have seen it. Since his purchase, he has invested thousands of dollars into repairs and refurbishment, making the building a functioning venue for events.
The Armory’s first sporting event was Next Era Wrestling’s Fatal Attraction show on February 3rd, 2007. It had an attendance of 450 fans, despite a major snow storm that hit that night. The main event saw WWF Hall of Famers Jimmy Snuka and Tito Santana in action.
The Armory’s first concert event was held on February 4, 2006, a sold out performance by O.A.R. More concerts followed later that year, as the refurbishment continued. The main arena was restored to accommodate an occupancy of 5,000 people. Part of the basement has been converted into a paintball facility and plans for a full arcade and private gun club are underway. The first floor’s west wing is currently being converted into a restaurant with an Italian-American Cuisine. This restaurant will be able to cater all future events and will operate before, during, and after events. The second floor has been turned into office space and banquet rooms, while the 3rd floor and remaining areas remain mostly untouched. Plans have been developed for usage of the rest of building, but remain plans until more funds are acquired.