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Historian Warns City: Armory Could Collapse

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The Leigh Street Armory is a National Historic Landmark erected in 1895 in the city's historic Jackson Ward neighborhood. It has served as a space for black troops during the Spanish-American War and World War II, a public school and the African-American History Museum.

It's also a building in a seemingly constant state of structural disarray, with the mortar falling apart, loose exterior bricks and a frame susceptible to water damage.

The details of the decay are noted in a November city-commissioned report on the building's condition by the engineering firm of Daniels and Associates. The report was attached to a Feb. 26 e-mail sent to city officials by Seldon Richardson, an architectural historian and activist who's campaigned for restoring the armory for almost 15 years.

“What is your department planning to do to prevent the collapse of this building?” Richardson writes.

We're working on it, city officials say. “We have interested parties,” responds Jane Ferrara, the chief operating officer for the city's economic and community development department. Three developers have independently approached the city, Ferrara says, although she can't disclose further details.

Ferrara says the structure of the armory is not in immediate danger.

Not so, Richardson says. The building underwent some structural improvements in the early 2000s that gutted the decrepit interior, secured the precarious top half of the building and replaced the roof and floor framing. But “the stabilization affected only the most fragile parts of the building,” Richardson says. “Now the rest of the building is eroding to the point where you can pull a brick out of it with your hand.”

A budget request by the city's division of facility construction and maintenance asks for $1 million to restore the building during fiscal years 2011 and 2012.

The armory has been on the city-owned surplus list of properties since 1988, and previous requests for proposals from developers have ended in gridlock.

Rachel Flynn, the city's director of development and planning review, says there was a proposal in the works to turn the building into apartments or condos several years ago, but “the neighborhood really wanted to see something different. … something to commemorate the former use of the armory.”

David Herring, executive director of the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods, says a successful proposal for the armory will require private and public cooperation — and mixed-use development.

“Of course none of this has been explored,” Herring says.

“The city no longer has the luxury of time,” Richardson says.

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