New life eyed for old armory in Holyoke 

  • The old armory building at 163 Sargeant St. in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The old armory building at 163 Sargeant St. in Holyoke. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/30/2020 7:11:24 AM

HOLYOKE — When the Holyoke Armory was built in 1907, the imposing brick facade on Sargent Street was meant to replicate Hawarden Castle in England.

Nowadays, the “castle” is shuttered, its windows boarded up and a red X warns emergency responders that it is unsafe inside. A treasured building that once housed the precursor to the Massachusetts National Guard, it’s unclear what is next for the Armory. But city planners are trying to make the building’s future a little more appealing for possible developers.

In a new report presented last week to the city’s Historical Commission, the Office of Planning and Economic Development, or OPED, laid out three options for salvaging the city-owned building’s facade.

“We needed to have more clarity on how we were going to deal with this,” Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of planning and economic development, said in an interview.

The city won aid from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency, which paid for the consultants who produced the study. They considered three possible futures for the Armory: turning it into a regional farmers market, converting it to residential use, or to commercial use. The farmer’s market option would be the cheapest, at an estimated $425,000, while making it a residential or commercial building would cost $4.85 million or $5.63 million, respectively.

Restoring the building is difficult because the rear portion of the building — known as the drill hall — collapsed in 2016. The city had to do additional demolition to shore up the building, which has seen significant deterioration inside.

“Indeed, on the date the design team visited the site in December, 2019, the structural engineer fell from the main floor to the basement in a newly-failed location (and was not hurt but needed rescue assistance),” the report recounts.

The city sought Community Preservation Act funding to improve the building, but Marrero said that the project was understandably denied, given the uncertainty around the structure. The entire inside would need to be rebuilt, but Marrero said that the architecture on the outside is beloved and valuable to the community.

So, the city secured technical assistance from MassDevelopment for a study of ideas for saving the three outer walls that can be saved in order to preserve the building’s character.

The first idea is to build an open-air regional farmers market from shipping containers and tents in a courtyard configuration behind the castle’s facade. A second concept imagined building a 24-unit apartment complex in the space, complete with a parking garage. And a final idea was to build a multi-story commercial space where the drill hall once stood, with a new interior to the castle as well.

Each idea is accompanied by a series of plans that the firm Taylor & Burns Architects drew up. The idea, Marrero said, is to make the property more attractive to a potential developer interested in any of the options. But it is also meant to begin a conversation about the future of the historic building, he said.

“If we’re going to do this, we can’t just say, ‘Can’t anyone save it?’” Marrero explained. Now, he said, “we can say, ‘This is what it costs to save it.’”

Holyokers take pride in their city’s history, and Marrero said it is important to have as much information as possible when talking about preserving historic structures.

“I owe it to them to advance the conversation,” Marrero said. “Should we, or should we not?”

Paola Ferrario, a member of the Historical Commission, said the panel’s reaction to the report was mixed. She herself said she liked the idea of an open-air covered market — especially in the era of COVID-19. But she said she didn’t love any of the plans as they were drawn, and that some members of the commission suggested that any project should attract a higher-end developer.

“We all asked the question about why these were the only three possibilities,” she said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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