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The Old Armory

90th anniversary celebration for Old Armory

By Crysta Parkinson

A lot of local history has been made inside the walls of the Old Armory, located at 320 First Ave. E. in Williston. The unique and eye-catching building has served as home for soldiers and thespians, celebrations of life and death, and every imaginable activity in the history of the city.

Old Armory

Dedicated on April 24, 1916, the building now known as the Old Armory turned 90 in 2006. An open house kicked off the 90th anniversary, celebrating the renovations which have taken place over the last 20 years.

“The history of this building is the history of the community,” said Earl Westereng, president of the Old Armory Board of Directors.

Company E of the 1st North Dakota Infantry of the National Guard organized the building, going door to door to collect donations for the project. In 1915 an architect was hired, Robert Stacey-Judd of Minot, who had also designed the original portion of the neighboring Elks Lodge. In fact, when the contractors finished the Elks Lodge, they simply moved across the street and started work on the armory, Westereng said.

In addition to serving as the National Guard armory, the building served as the community’s auditorium until 1931, when the high school was built. The armory played host to traveling theater groups, political rallies, high school commencements, dances and much more. The diverse list of events included an indoor auto show in the 1920s, when a ramp was built on the north side of the building to allow automobile access into the building.

During the World War II years, the lower level of the building served as a teen canteen. The original sign for the canteen still hangs near the elevator as a testament to that time in the armory’s history.

The building continued to serve as the National Guard Armory until 1957, when the new armory was built at 2 Main St. From then, the building was used as the community’s recreation center until 1983, when the Raymond Family Community Center was constructed.

At that time, the Old Armory was destined to be a parking lot. Members of the community rallied to rescue the landmark.

Westereng said the blue bumper stickers can still be seen on the occasional old car, proclaiming “Save the Old Armory.” With that mantra, the Veterans and Friends of the Old Armory was formed, and later incorporated into a non-profit organization. The board’s plan was to save the armory, and find a use for the old building.

That plan obviously worked, and since the 1990s the Old Armory has been operated by a governing board of seven members appointed by the Williston City Commission.

Over the past 20 years, the board of directors, Veterans and Friends of the Old Armory, members of the local theater group Entertainment, Inc! and a list of volunteers have kept to their pledge of seeing the old building renovated and saved.

Westereng said in excess of half a million dollars and thousands of hours of volunteer work have gone into the building. At this point, work has been completed on most of the major projects planned, including window replacements, insulation, a new roof and elevator repairs.

In 2003, the last major project was checked off with the completion of the west portion of the building. Heating in that part of the building was converted to a hot water system. Portable electric heat had been used in the area, which also relied on the original electrical work. The “mammoth inefficient boiler” was replaced, and handicap accessibility was implemented. New bathrooms, work on the stairway, flooring and electrical were also involved.

Most recently, a new state-of-the-art sound system, complete with headset capability for the hearing impaired, was installed, debuting in the fall of 2006 at the Entertainment, Inc! performance of “Amadeus.”

The board is also starting work on museum displays for the Old Armory. A museum curator from Gettysburgh, Penn. has been helping. The museum portion of the project will not come easy, Westereng noted. “We anticipate considerable expenditure of time and money,” he said.

While a few items have been displayed, a wide variety of papers, pictures, uniforms and more relating to Company E and to the history of the building have been kept, but are not well cataloged. Most have not been available for display.

Seasonal and permanent displays are planned, including items on the history of the building, an architectural centerpiece which has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986.

Now serving as Williston’s center for the performing arts, the Old Armory is also rented out for use by all kinds of groups. Weddings, funerals, concerts and dances are held there.

For more information visit http://www.oldarmory.org.