Roy Smith has been an integral part of Preservation Pennsylvania’s story for many years and we’re delighted that he’s shared a love letter to a Pennsylvania place that’s very special to him. His place is also a stellar case study of creative financing used to develop what might have been a white elephant building (a former armory) into a lively community arts hub. We’ll be presenting a tour and/or webinar later in the year!
About Roy Smith
Roy Smith has been involved in preservation activities for over fifty years, beginning when he moved to Wilmington, Delaware, in 1970. Since that time, he has served on the Boards of many organizations involved with historic preservation: New Castle County Historic Review Board, Preservation Delaware, Preservation Action, Preservation Action Foundation, National Trust for Historic Preservation Advisor, West Chester Historic Architectural Review Board, West Chester Downtown Foundation. He has been associated with Preservation Pennsylvania for the past twenty years, both as a Board Member (Chair from 2009-2013) and Advisor. He was the recipient of the F. Otto Haas Honor Award in 2013 in recognition of his long legacy of preservation work. He currently serves as Secretary/Treasurer of the current Preservation Pennsylvania Board.
Oh yes, and he loves to travel and scuba dive. The photo at right captures him on his 100th dive! (To see him without a mask, have a look at the feature photo collage at the top of the post.)
Amore for the Armory
(Or, Why I love the Uptown!Knauer Performing Arts Center)
In 1747, Benjamin Franklin formed the Associated Regiment of the Foot (the “Associators”) for the protection of settlers as they moved west from Philadelphia into what was thought to be hostile Indian territory. Men from the West Chester area [Chester County] joined the “Associators” in what would eventually become today’s BRAVO Company, 1st Battalion, 111th Infantry, 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. Over the period of time from then until now this and all the previous National Guard units have served in every armed conflict the country has been engaged in.
In the early 1900’s a young graduate from Bucknell University, John C. Groff, came to West Chester to practice law. Recognizing his duty to America, Groff joined the Army and served in both the Mexican Border Campaign and World War I. Upon returning to West Chester after his WWI service he was instrumental in the 1916 construction of the National Guard Armory on North High Street. It was built for roughly $40,000. The Armory was designed by Philadelphia architect Philip C. Johnson, who designed a number of armories in SE Pennsylvania. It was named the Major John C. Groff Memorial Armory shortly after Groff’s death in 1928. (Interesting sidelight. Between 1905 and 1908, there were two John Groffs living in West Chester, both of whom served in WW1. The “other” John Groff continued a military career, rising to Brigadier General in the Marine Corps.)
The West Chester, Pennsylvania, National Guard Armory
In addition to providing quarters for the National Guard units, the facility played an important role in the life of the West Chester community. This was anticipated when the Armory was originally built, as evidenced by an article in the April 20th, 1916 local paper which wrote “Besides furnishing quarters for the local military organization, the armory will be rented for dances, conventions, suppers, fairs, etc.” In the 1940s it was the site of the first Chester County Historical Society Antiques shows and it routinely hosted Saturday night dances, including one featuring the band of Spike Jones, Jr. Other organizations using the Armory included the Health & Welfare Council, Goodwill Industries, Kiwanis Clubs and the Civil Air Patrol. In 1956 it hosted a Championship All-Breed Cat show. And, almost right up to the time the Armory became surplus, young people could be found on weekends playing basketball in the Drill Hall.
In May of 2012, the Guard broke ground on a new facility in northwest Chester County and the historic Armory was declared surplus and put up for sale. The Uptown!Bravo Theatre, LLC, purchased the Armory in December 2015. The roughly year-long construction project to rehabilitate the Armory into the Uptown!Knauer Performing Arts Center began in May 2016.
This video offers a “before” tour of the transformation effort underway.
So much of the responsibility for the Uptown!Knauer Performing Art Center is due to the foresight and determination of four people – Richard May, Linda Foster and Connie and Tom McEvoy. They founded the Uptown!Entertainment Alliance (U!EA) in 2011 with the vision of bringing a movie theater back to West Chester – in the 1930s there were three movie houses in the center of town. As they began to assemble support for their efforts, they learned there were dozens of arts, educational, and cultural organizations in the area with no place to exhibit their works and stage their performances. The initial movie theater vision was expanded significantly and now U!EA is the operator of the facility, providing a variety of arts and cultural offerings, along with the West Chester Studio @ Uptown!, a theater school for all ages.
One of the things I am proud of is that we were able to convert the Armory from a National Guard facility into the Uptown!Knauer Performing Arts Center while at the same time maintaining almost all of its historically significant architecture. Even keeping the lower level mess hall fireplace while the area was converted to the men’s lavatory. It was not a simple task, but well worth the effort. Alas, not everything could be saved and the lower level four-bay shooting range target area had to go in order to provide a stairway up to the stage immediately above.
Missing architectural elements (like drill hall windows) were replaced in kind using the same materials, muntin shape and pane configuration as found on the existing windows.
The excellence of the historic rehabilitation has been recognized with four awards: a Bricks and Mortar Construction Award from the West Chester Downtown Foundation, a Public Impact Award from Preservation Pennsylvania, a Grand Jury Award from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and a 10000 Friends of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Award. In addition, the general contractor, Bancroft Construction (Wilmington, Delaware) was awarded an Excellence in Construction Award from the Associated Building Contractors of Eastern Pennsylvania.
Perhaps what I love most about the Uptown!Knauer is nestling down in one of the 327 comfortable seats in the Bravo Main Stage Theatre, the converted Drill Hall, and watching a performance, be it comedy, music, movies, dance, stage play or an invited speaker.
Having been involved in the rehabilitation process from nearly day one, there is a great sense of satisfaction knowing that there is a new, exciting life for the Armory – the Uptown!Knauer Perfiorming Arts Center. All those involved with the conversion of the Armory from bullets to Broadway can be justly proud.
Learn more about West Chester in this Spring 2022 article from Preservation Magazine by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.