Sandstone Heritage – Medina Armory, Medina, NY

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 17 May 2013 at 12:00 am

Iconic sandstone building stays vibrant as a YMCA

Photos by Tom Rivers – The 90,000-square-foot former Medina Armory dominates Pearl Street in Medina.

The YMCA proudly displays a sign near the front entrance, noting the building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment of a series featuring buildings made of Medina sandstone that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

MEDINA – Retired Medina teacher Maryellen Dale is a regular inside the Medina Armory, taking yoga, Zumba and Silver Sneakers exercise classes.

Dale’s children grew up playing youth sports at the Armory, which has been used as a YMCA for more than three decades.

When she ascends the sandstone steps of the front entrance, she walks past a sign that notes the building from 1901 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dale said the community should be proud of the Armory’s role in Medina’s history, and the site’s continued prominence as a Y.

“It’s a beautiful old building and we saved it,” Dale said at the Pearl Street location. “It has a wonderful history for our town.”

The Armory was repurposed as a YMCA about 30 years, a move that has allowed the building to remain widely used as a community asset.

The state built the Armory in Medina for the 29th Separate Company of the New York Army National Guard, which formed in 1891. The 29th saw its first action in the Spanish-American War, before the Armory was built. In 1913 the unit was called up to help suppress the Buffalo streetcar strike. The 29th by then was known as Company F of the National Guard’s Third Regiment.

Company F would be deployed in World War I. It fought in World War II. In 1977, the state announced it was closing the Medina Armory. Company F was moved to other units. (In 2008, the community dedicated a monument in honor of the 29th and Company F next to the Armory.)

Courtesy Medina Sandstone Society – Company F prepares to leave Medina Oct. 24, 1940 for training at Fort McClellan and active duty in WWII.

The community dedicated this monument in front of the Y in 2008

When the building was closed, the Armory Action Committee formed to find a use for the 90,000-square-foot site.

“We were very much afraid if it was left empty nature would ruin the building,” said Bob Waters, a member of the committee and the retired owner of The Journal-Register in Medina. “It was too nice a building to turn your back on.”

The community formed the Lake Plains YMCA, which has been using the site for more than 30 years. That organization, now known as the Orleans County YMCA, recently spent about $225,000 for a new roof, new lighting and new exercise equipment.

The Y launched a $400,000 capital campaign last month to modernize the facility. The project will include a handicapped accessibility ramp to the side of the structure, a vestibule, two unisex bathrooms and shower areas inside. The lobby will be expanded for social areas for coffee and conversation. A “Child Watch” room and group exercise room will also be added, as well as other improvements.

Jeff Winters, the Y’s executive director, said the organization wants to make the 112-year-old building as functional as possible for a modern-day Y. The Y has grown 42 percent in the past 2.5 years to 2,400 members.

An Armory meeting room, which preserves many of the original features from 1901, is now used for exercise classes.

“The building is an absolute monster to heat and cool,” he said. “In many ways it’s not ideal for a Y, but we’ve made this work for us.”

Most Ys have sites that were designed for exercise, sports and other Y programming. Winters said the Orleans County Y has looked at other venues outside the Armory site, but the group has decided to commit to the Pearl Street location, and work to upgrade that site. Winters knows the building, despite its age and challenges for a Y program, is a tremendous asset for the community.

“Anytime I give a tour, I watch for people’s reaction,” Winters said. “As soon as they walk in, they love it.”

The Medina Armory was designed by state architect George Heins, who used many features of medieval military architecture, including the towers at the front of Pearl Street building.

The Medina Armory and many others in New York resemble castles or imposing fortresses with towers.

In 1995, the U.S. Department of the Interior put many of the surviving and intact Armories in NY on the National Register of Historic Places.

Waters said other nearby closed Armories never found another use, and have been left as dilapidating empty shells. Many of those Armories were built with Medina sandstone. Waters hates to see them fall into ruin.

“Some of these Armories just sit there and rot,” Waters said. “When the YMCA came to Medina, God bless them. That was a big move. It has made for a century of great use at the Armory.”

The Armory at Niagara Falls is largely underutilized. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995.