Fire destroys Paterson’s historic Armory

The Paterson Armory is awaiting demolition after a seven-alarm fire tore through the inside of the long-empty building in November. Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino said there would be no way to extinguish the blaze without knocking down the building. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

Generations ago, the Armory was a hub of sports and entertainment in Paterson. When the armory goes, it will take more than 120 years of history with it. It was built in 1894 for the New Jersey National Guard’s Second Regiment. Lou Costello and Larry Doby, the pioneering black baseball player, played basketball there. Costello also won a Charlie Chaplin Lookalike contest at the Armory around 1918.

Standing at 461-473 Market Street, just down the street from Costello’s first home in Paterson, the the 55,800-square-foot building was originally built in 1894. The Second Regiment moved in a year later, but was disbanded after the Spanish- American War in 1898.

A new regiment, the Fifth, took up its post at the Armory in 1902. Just days later, a massive fire swept through downtown Paterson, and the Regiment was pressed into action to guard the ruins to prevent looting. In 1903, when the Passaic River flooded, thousands of citizens took shelter in the armory.

Larry Doby is best known for breaking the color barrier in the American League. In 1948, the year after his rookie season with the Cleveland Indians, Doby returned home and signed a contract to play pro basketball for the Paterson Crescents of the American Basketball League. The Crescents played their home games at the armory. Team owner Sam Bozza claimed that Doby had integrated a professional sports league for the second time in six months. But Doby played only a few games for the Crescents before he reported to spring training with the Indians.

Lou Costello also had his basketball moments at the Armory. Costello played for the Armory Five, which won multiple championships.

By the late 1970s the Armory was outdated and the National Guard began looking for another site to replace it. It stood vacant for decades. Paterson Mayor Frank X. Graves envisioned converting the building into a “recreation mecca” as early as 1982, but his vision never came to pass. Attempts to sell the armory also failed.

Rep. Bill Pascrell, a former mayor of Paterson, visited the burned-out building Tuesday. The historic façade is the only part of the building that still stands. “I almost cried to see what’s left of the building,” he said. Pascrell said the Armory should have been rehabilitated, but the city has to move forward. “You can always say what could have been and what should have been, but you’ve got to deal with what’s in front of you,” he said.•

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