Naval Armory at Bay View Park: A return to glory?Written by Guest Author | | GuestAuthor@toledofreepress.com
One of my personal missions in recent years has been to help identify some of the local treasures that have been lost in Toledo. I look for buildings and structures that help define the city’s past but have been left to the cruelty of benign neglect and the ravages of time. Some may be worth saving. Others not so much. But as the city debates and argues about the “blight” that has become a far too common part of the city’s landscape, let’s make sure we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, for there is value in rediscovering and preserving many of these icons of the city’s past.
The list of these “lost” treasures is impressive. The Erie Street Market or Toledo Civic Theater formerly Toledo Civic Auditorium building, The Spitzer Building, The Toledo Police Department range house at Detwiler Park, the decaying Pythian Castle and the grand Burt Theater on Jefferson Avenue, the old Toledo Edison steam plant on the riverfront, the historic Lucas County Sheriff’s residence, Fire Station No. 3 in North Toledo, the Ohio Theatre on Lagrange St. … the list goes on.
One building that holds some future promise for rediscovery is currently an empty shell that needs immediate attention if it is going to avoid the pain of a wrecking ball. It may well be one of our greatest treasures: The Bay View Naval Armory Park.
Since it closed to the public in the 1980s, not many people have been inside the armory, which resides along the banks of the Maumee River tucked behind the Toledo Yacht Club, not far from the Bay View Retirees Golf Course and the Toledo waste-water treatment plant.
But once you’ve seen it, you’re not likely to forget it. It is impressive. Displaying the traditional “Navy” look of the 1930s, it offers a touch of Art-Deco and an eye-catching semicircular front portico of reclaimed sandstone.
During its heyday, it was one of this city’s grand places to have dinners, see shows, hear bands, and dance. These attractions were of course, in addition to its regular use as a Naval training station and induction center during World War II.
While there have been some discussions as to what its future holds, I have learned that there is renewed interest to give this monument to our civic pride a new tomorrow.
The nonprofit historical group the Last Patrol is talking with the current owner, Roger Homrich Jr., about purchasing the 100,000 square-foot building and the surrounding property to become a regional training center for young cadets from the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps and other maritime training for young people. It would be called Liberty Station and would host thousands of young people to train there every year from across the country. And because of its sheer size and history, it would also be used as a museum venue for this areas’ proud and formidable Navy and Coast Guard heritage. In future years, its deep water frontage could easily accommodate a military museum ship.
The Last Patrol
The Last Patrol is a group of like minded Toledo-area folks, headed up by brothers John and Jeff Nowakowski, who are also very active in the local Sea Cadets program based in Perrysburg Township. The Last Patrol was originally formed to teach and preserve military history and to display that history on the homefront. One of their early goals was to bring a retired Navy or Coast Guard ship to the area, as a floating museum, but that has yet to happen.
Their most recent attempt to acquire the Toledo-built USS Storis, a WWII era Coast Guard cutter, ended late last year when the U.S. government sold the historic Storis to an Australian salvage company, which towed the ship to a cutting yard in Mexico, where it has already been cannibalized for salvage. No doubt that it would have made an impressive display in Toledo, had it been allowed to come home to the city where it was built at the shipyards on Maumee River. Alas, it was not to be and I will write about the tragic demise of the USS Storis in the future.
Undaunted by the loss of the Storis, the Nowakowski brothers and the Last Patrol remain determined to not only tell the story of the American military, but also to expand the group’s mission: To create a national youth training center at the historic Bay View Naval Armory for the Navy’s Sea Cadet Corps and the Navy League Cadet Corps. Their vision is to create a place where not only the Cadets could train and learn, but would also be a training venue for other youth groups such as local schools, the Sea Scouts, the Girl and Boy Scouts, the Young Marines or the Civil Air Patrol. Students would be housed on a special dormitory barge moored along the riverfront.
While the vision for this center certainly has a big “wow” factor, it will take more than dreams to bring this aging icon back to life. It will require lots of work and time and of course, lots of dollars. Millions in fact. $6 million to $10 million, for a start. But the Nowakowski brothers don’t view the huge price tag as a impossible obstacle.
John and Jeff and other members of the Last Patrol think it can be done through a combination of community support, donations, sponsors, grants and naming rights. John says he and his brother Jeff are committed to this project. “Our parents instilled in us a great love for our nation and our history. Me being a Marine, also helped. We tried doing the museum idea … but then we got involved with the Navy Sea Cadets and saw how much it helped the kids. The idea of combining our dreams with a program that just does good for the community just seemed to make sense.”
The first hurdle is obtaining the money to buy the armory from its current owner, the Homrich family of Monroe, who bought it from the City of Toledo in 2004 for about $100,000. Their hopes of turning it into a boat storage facility never materialized, although they made numerous repairs to the building to keep it from falling into irreversible disrepair. The price tag for the Last Patrol would be about $600,000. John Nowakowski is not sure exactly where that initial acquisition money will come from, but believes that if the Last Patrol can get the word out to the community about their vision and plans for Liberty Station they feel strongly that it could trigger a wave of support to get the money to buy the armory property. Once that is done, then they’ll have something tangible to work with and show to the public.
Here’s what they would see. Built in 1935 and 1936 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the four-story Bay View armory was designed as a training facility and process center for the Navy prior to World War II. Interestingly, like many area structures built by the WPA during the lean years of the Depression, much of the structure was built using salvaged materials from other local historic buildings that were not preserved. The legacies of those old Toledo structures still live on in the brick and sandstone that grace the impressive façade of armory.
The interior of the armory was designed to reflect the interior of a ship, and even featured a ship’s bridge that overlooks the massive drill and parade deck on the second floor . It is so large that it became one of the city’s largest venues for public events during the 1940s and ’50s. Even through the 1960s, the armory’s deck was still being used for high school proms and graduation ceremonies, in addition to its regular schedule of dinners and other public events. The 7-acre grounds upon which it sits, also provides a lush park-like surrounding of greenery, trees and a magnificent view of Maumee Bay and the Maumee River.
But, sadly, the interior and exterior need a lot of labor and love to restore it to a useable condition. The roof has lingering weak spots and some of the façade stone and ornate detail work has been loosened and lost to time and gravity. The interior, I am told, is not much better than it was when I got inside to take photos while the city still owned it 10 years ago. Water damage, cracks in walls and rusted metal are the common sight in the warren of rooms and work areas of the building. But vision and leadership require looking past what something is, and seeing what something can be. That will be paramount here. And certainly what John and Jeff Nowakowski possess as they look beyond the busted windows and the peeling paint of the once-grand armory is a shiny dream. They believe others in the community will see it with them and join them to make it a reality.
Email Toledo Free Press columnist Lou Hebert at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Art Deco, Bay View armory, Bay View Retirees Golf Course, Burt Theater, Erie Street Market, Fire Station No. 3, John Nowakowski, Last Patrol, Liberty Station, Lost in Toledo, Lou Hebert, Lucas County Sheriff's residence, Maumee River, Ohio Theatre, Pythian Castle, Scouts, the Civil Air Patrol, the Girl and Boy Scouts, The Spitzer Building, The Toledo Police Department range house at Detwiler Park, the Young Marines, Toledo Civic Auditorium building, Toledo Civic Theater, Toledo Edison Steam Plant, Toledo Yacht Club, U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, USS Storis, Works Progress Administration, WPA