On Tuesday Dec 4 an application from Chabad Lubavitch to build a synagogue on the site the Mason Street Armory will return before the Planning and Zoning Commission.
The item is a “must close on Dec 13,” and the commission doesn’t meet again until Dec 18, so time is up.
The commission may or may not vote on the application during the meeting, but without an extension, they can entertain no more input from applicants after Tuesday night.
Chabad does not own the property, but would become the owner if approvals are given.
Proposed is both a site plan and a request for a Historic Overlay, which, if approved, would give the synagogue significant extra Floor-Area-Ratio (FAR) in return for preserving a historic structure.
At the last P&Z meeting, there was discussion about whether the Historic Overlay regulations “encourage” or “require” preservation. It remained a question whether it required the entire synagogue to be preserved in return for the HO or not.
The proposed synagogue would be 27,000 sq ft, whereas under a regular application (without a Historic Overlay) only a 10,000 sq ft structure would be allowed.
The proposal is to demolish some of the historic drill shed (decreasing the Armory from 11,857 sq ft to 6,729 sq ft) and construct a synagogue, preschool, rooftop playground and a two story parking garage behind the Armory.
The parking would have a 24-ft wide ramp accessed from Havemeyer and another on Mason Street.
The parking garage would connect to the lower level of Richard’s existing parking garage.
The application has gone before the Historic District Commission four times without receiving a certificate of appropriateness for Historic Overlay.
Instead, the that commission submitted a letter to P&Z listing concerns including that the mass of the structure was too big, that it lacked open space and that it had shallow setbacks.
The HDC letter also stated, “The HDC feels that no part of the entire Armory should be demolished as any part of its removal for granting Historic Overlay is a violation of the regulation’s criteria and intent.”
HDC is advisory to P&Z.
The proposal would demolish some of the Armory’s 8,000+ sq ft “drill shed” on the west side of the property to make way for more parking.
The “shed” was once used for soldiers to drill, but it was also used for flower shows, galas, Boy Scouts events, and antiques bazaars (see below). It is currently used to park 33 cars.
At the November P&Z meeting several veterans testified that they were alarmed at the prospect of the 1911 historic Armory being even partially demolished.
Also, at that meeting Chabad Lubavitch’s Rabbi Yossi Deren said his congregation had grown and the preschool program had mushroomed to the point that it has a waiting list.
The applicant’s attorney Tom Heagney said that currently 30-40 people attend Chabad’s Saturday morning services.
Rabbi Deren said it was closer to 50 congregants and that half of them walk, and the other half drive.
“That begs the question,” commissioner Yeskey said. “You’re planning 130 seats (in the new synagogue). That’s four times as many.”
The Rabbi said, “We subscribe to the build it they will come rule.”
There was discussion on whether the proposed parking would be adequate.
Mr. Heagney acknowledged that during popular events his client would need to arrange overflow parking.
History of the Armory
In 1992 Nils Kerschus compiled a history of the Armory, which was shared with Greenwich Free Press courtesy of the Greenwich Historical Society.
In 1909 the Connecticut General Assembly voted to approve a $10,000 appropriation for the purpose of acquiring a site for and building a state armory in Greenwich.
According to the research of Mr. Kerschus, the Armory was built in 1910 and was designed by Captain Frederick GC Smith and selected from four proposals.
Kerschus said the building was designed in the Lombard “Military” style, which at the time was often chosen for armories, showing fortress-like elements such as battlemented turrets and towers, and slit-like windows.
The design essentially comprised two sections. The L-shaped two story brick portion extends across the facade and north elevations. The other section is the drill shed which is notable for its windowed monitor roof, which is the raised structure running parallel along the ridge of the main roof.
The entire building measures 100 ft by 150 ft with the drill shed measuring 75 ft by 100 ft and featuring a trussed roof which allowed for a floor without obstructions.
Extending along the northern elevation the armory had an equipment room for lockers.
The first floor of the main building featured a company parlor, officers’ room, Post-ordnance sergeant’s office and a spacious entrance foyer.
The second floor included living space for the ordnance sergeant who was in charge of weapons and ammunition, large ladies cloakroom, plotting room, banquet hall and large gallery capable of seating several hundred spectators, arranged so that it overlooked the entire drill hall.
The full basement floor included a target range 50 yards long, four bowling alleys, a kitchen and mess room, toilets and showers.
The final cost to build the armory was $35,000 which was paid for by State funds.
Over the years the Armory was used as a gathering space for a variety of activities. For many years the Boy Scouts held an annual event there called “The Skills of Scouting.” The event allowed troops to showcase skills like mountaineering or first aid. The event was a successful recruiting tool. Later, the event was moved to the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.
According to a post in the New York Times, shared by the Greenwich Historical Society, in December 1950 that organization hosted their first annual Christmas Antiques Bazaar, a show and sale featuring dozens of exhibitors. “Thirty-eight exhibitors brought under one roof a wide variety of the old-time arts of cabinet makers, silversmiths, china makers, weavers and print makers from all corners of the world,” the article said.
A short piece in the New York Times in January 1924 noted that the Masonic Club’s annual ball was held in the Armory and was attended by 1,200 people.
“Many of the prominent residents occupied boxes. The hall was brilliantly decorated with lighting effects,” the article said.
On Jan 30, 1935 the President’s Ball was held in the Armory and featured a drill of Battery F and the presentation of the Legion colors. A newly organized bugle, fife and drum corps of Greenwich Legion Post 29 made its first public appearance that night.
Another special to the New York Times noted that in 1937 the annual flower show of the Westchester and Fairfield Horticultural Society, with the garden clubs of Greenwich and Rye cooperating, was held at the Mason Street Armory. The event featured thousands of flowers, fruits and vegetables from large estates. The event featured special classes in flower arranging.
In 1971 the National Guard moved to a new armory in Norwalk and the Mason Street Armory was sold to private interests.
In 2008 a developer was given permission by P&Z to demolish all but the facade, tower and archway of the Armory in order build 9 upscale townhouses with underground parking.
The demolition sign was posted on the building but the recession hit and the development never happened.
The commission noted last month that the parking requirements for 9 townhouses was dramatically smaller than that of the synagogue and its preschool.
Also, in the HDC meetings each time the applicant pointed out that there had been permission to demolish part of the Armory, they were reminded that the members of the commission were different.
Also, in the recent POCD workshops have given voice to a growing urgency to preserve Greenwich’s historic buildings.