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Springfield Armory Is Once Again Changing the Landscape

Reclaiming the Past

Armory Superintendent James Woolsey

Armory Superintendent James Woolsey with the skyline of Springfield behind him, something that wasn’t visible from that site just a few weeks ago

While steeped in history, the Springfield Armory property — now a National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service, has become somewhat of a forgotten, or overlooked, part of the city’s past. But James Woolsey, superintendent of the site since 2012, has aggressively worked to shift that equation by changing the landscape at the facility — in all kinds of ways.

James Woolsey walked to the crest of a hill near the northwest corner of the Springfield Armory property and paused for some reflection and commentary.

He started by gesturing toward the skyline of Springfield less than a half-mile away, something that would not have been as visible from that spot just a few months ago because it would have been obscured by small, scruffy trees and bushes.

Woolsey, superintendent of the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, as well as the Coltsville National Historic Park in Hartford that is being readied for its opening, then pointed down the hill to a spot that, 40 or so years ago, was used by area Springfield high schools for gym classes, specifically track and field events.

“They used to throw the shot put and javelin down there,” he said, pointing to an area that will, like most of the rest of the 50-acre Armory site, be restored to the way things looked in the late ’50s, only a half-decade before then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara would initiate the process of decommissioning the facility, which had opened near the end of the 18th century.

A shot of the Armory from roughly 60 years ago

A shot of the Armory from roughly 60 years ago. Current initiatives aim to recreate that look.

The Armory has called this comprehensive construction and renovation effort “Reclaiming the Past,” and that’s a sentiment that also fits much broader efforts undertaken by Woolsey since he arrived at the facility five years ago to reconnect it to the area, improve visitation, and, overall, make more area residents aware of the Armory’s story and its broad significance to the region in terms of employment, innovation, and culture.

There is no turning back the clock and making the Armory as prominent as it was throughout most of its history and especially during World War II, when more than 12,000 people were employed there. But Woolsey said it can gain greater visibility, respect, and visitorship, and in many respects it already has.

Indeed, annual visitation, stagnant and hovering around 16,000 when Woolsey arrived after stints at many historic sites here and abroad (more on that later), has risen steadily and is now at or above 25,000.

Woolsey credits this rise to everything from new exhibits such as the current offering on this country’s entry in World War I (nearly a century ago) and the Armory’s role in that effort, to new signs — on area highways and at the Armory itself.

The road signs feature the easily recognizable National Park Service (NPS) logo, said Woolsey, and thus they attract people drawn to the more than 400 individual sites managed by that agency.

“People are very passionate about the National Park Service,” he explained. “And when people see that logo on the sign, they will want to get off the highway and see that national park.”

Springfield Armory has taken a number of steps to be more “welcoming

Over the past several years, James Woolsey says, the Springfield Armory has taken a number of steps to be more “welcoming.”

Overall, Woolsey said the mission is to make the Armory, in a word, more “welcoming,” an assignment that has manifested itself in everything from new exhibits to the new signs, to the reopening of the large gate at the entrance to Byers Street, enabling easier public access to the facility masterminded by George Washington more than two centuries ago.

“What I wanted to do was make it more welcoming,” he explained. “This is a national park; it’s a park for all the American people. We want people to be able to find us, and we want to provide a great experience when they come here.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Woolsey about his efforts to reclaim the past and thus make the Armory a more visible, more relevant part of the city’s present and future.

History Lessons

Woolsey’s office speaks loudly and effectively to his career and his passion for historic sites and the national parks.

His screen saver features a photo from Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, where he served as ‘chief of interpretation’ from 2000 to 2003, and there are many photos depicting his various career stops over the years.

As he was talking with BusinessWest, he grabbed one of them, a photo depicting the grand opening of the visitors center at the Normandy American Museum on the bluffs overlooking the famous battlefield at Colleville-sur-mer in France, a project he oversaw as director of visitor services.

That assignment represented the lone departure from a career spent with the National Park Service. He started as a park ranger working on the National Mall in Washington, and later worked at the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park in Maryland, the Lowell (Mass.) National Historic Park, the Mohave National Preserve in California (there were two stints there), and Bryce Canyon, before six years of service in France.

It was a desire to run his own park that brought him to Springfield in the spring of 2012. And that assignment was broadened shortly upon his arrival with the creation of the Coltsville National Park in Hartford, a facility that will commemorate the contributions of both Samuel and Elizabeth Colt, specifically creation of the village of Coltsville, the complex where guns were made and the workers who built them lived.

Current landscaping efforts at the Armory

Current landscaping efforts at the Armory include restoration of some of the gardens on the site, including these, seen nearly 60 years ago, adjacent to the commander’s quarters.

While Coltsville is one of the 50 National Historic Parks (the facility in Lowell is another), the Armory is a National Historic Site. There are 90 of them, and the list includes everything from Ford’s Theater, site of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, to the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Utah, where the first transcontinental railroad was completed, to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama.

Most all of the historic sites are managed by the NPS, but some, including the Armory, are what are known as ‘partnership’ sites, said Woolsey, meaning they’re managed in partnership with another entity. In the case of the Armory, that entity is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which owns much of the land and operates Springfield Technical Community College in a mix of old Armory structures and new facilities built in the ’80s and ’90s.

Woolsey now splits his time between the Armory and Coltsville — he says he’s figured out the traffic patterns to minimize the commute time when possible — but has been in Springfield quite a bit this spring to oversee a project that has captured the public’s attention.

As he discussed it, he would gesture out his west-facing window, because that is where most of the work is taking place. Indeed, as he talked, earth-moving machines were humming as part of a project that blends landscaping with much-needed infrastructure work.

“The drainage and sewer system was installed in the 19th century, and the entire system is failing,” Woolsey explained, adding that, while securing funds for this necessary work, he is using this opportunity to restore the historic contouring of the land and undertake other initiatives to essentially turn back the clock.

These include everything from a $500,000 project to repair and paint the many windows on the Armory building (known technically as the ‘Main Arsenal’ because large supplies of guns were stored there) to restoration of gardens around the commanding officer’s quarters adjacent to the main arsenal, to repaving roads and sidewalks.

As for the contouring, Woosley said the city, needing ballfields, trucked in tons of fill and leveled the gentle slope of the Armory property behind the main arsenal; these changes also altered the natural drainage of the site, creating bogs and flooding hazards.

Overall, $1.2 million will be spent on this project, which won’t just recreate the look of 1959, but perhaps some of the feel as well, he said.

Blasts from the Past

But the landscaping work is only part of a larger effort to reclaim the past, said Woolsey, who, soon after arriving at the Armory, put together a multi-faceted strategic plan for addressing a host of needs he soon recognized at the facility.

The first of these needs was to improve what he called “community outreach,” a broad term he used to describe efforts to build visibility, relevance, and involvement within the city and region.

“We’ve really worked to build better relationships with Springfield and Greater Springfield,” he explained, “and become involved in the cultural district downtown and other institutions.”

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Above, the gate at the Byers Street entrance, seen here in a postcard, will soon be open to pedestrians. Below, one of the gardens to be restored through current landscaping initiatives.

Above, the gate at the Byers Street entrance, seen here in a postcard, will soon be open to pedestrians. Below, one of the gardens to be restored through current landscaping initiatives.

Overall, the Armory had to do considerable work to make its story — and its historical importance — known, said Woolsey, adding that it’s among the less-well-known National Historic Sites across the country and even in this region, and correcting this awareness problem is still a work in progress.

“This is something we’re trying to rectify,” he noted. “I’m often surprised at how many local people don’t know this is a national park.”

What’s more, he said there has historically been what he called “less enthusiasm” for this site among local residents, at least when compared to others in the NPS portfolio, such as the park dedicated to Thomas Edison and his work in New Jersey and the park in Lowell, focused on that city’s rich industrial heritage.

“When you compare the enthusiasm of the local population and their involvement with those sites … people here are less involved with their site,” he noted, adding that one theory for this is that the closing of the Armory was a huge blow to the city, not merely from an employment standpoint, but from a pride standpoint as well.

“During World War II, 12,000 people worked here, so this was a central part of the local economy,” he went on. “And when the federal government decided to close it down, I think a lot of people had a bad feeling about that in their gut, and it lasted for years.”

Thus, much of the Armory’s recent efforts aim to get the local population more involved, he said, adding that part of this equation is creating more awareness and making the visitor experience more powerful. Stagnant visitation numbers for the better part of three decades provided ample evidence that work was needed in this realm.

Visitation has improved roughly 5% a year since he arrived, said Woolsey, who attributed this steady climb to several factors, including those new signs and also a new low-power radio station (105.5 AM) that tells those within a 15-mile radius what’s happening at the Armory and how to get there.

“People can find us now,” said Woolsey, adding that the Armory is hampered in this regard not only by the fact that it’s not directly off a main highway, but also because it is at the far end of a complex now dominated by the college.

But getting people to the Armory was only part of the solution, he noted, adding that the facility needed to improve the experience people would find upon arrival.

To this end, Woolsey and his staff worked to create more and better programming, including rotating exhibits and temporary exhibits.

“The exhibitry here had been stale for several decades,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the centennial of this country’s entry into that conflict (April 6, 1917 is the exact date) provided an opportunity to not only mark that occasion (considered a turning point in the war) but also spotlight the Armory’s contributions to the quick and massive rearmament efforts that followed years of isolationism.

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Two views of what are known as Buildings 5 and 6; the one at top is from the 1930s, and the other is recent, after significant restoration efforts.

Two views of what are known as Buildings 5 and 6; the one at top is from the 1930s, and the other is recent, after significant restoration efforts.

Thus, among the exhibits is one featuring the M1903 Springfield, nicknamed the ‘03’ for the year it was adopted by the military.

There have been many other initiatives involving exhibits and programming at the Armory, including a collection of movie clips shown in the facility’s theater featuring weapons made there, including the climax scene in Jaws (yes, that was an M1 Garand used by Chief Brody to obliterate the shark).

The landscaping and infrastructure improvements are among the elements in the strategic plan, said Woolsey, adding that they include an ongoing collaborative effort with the state to renovate and preserve what are known are as Buildings 5 and 6, directly across the main road through the Armory property.

While technically on state property, the buildings, which had fallen into a state of advanced disrepair in recent years, are highly visible and historically important — the large duplex was used as junior officers’ quarters.

Arsenal of Democracy

In 2016, the Armory was chosen as the winner of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Spotlight Award, part of its Howdy Awards for Hospitality Excellence. The spotlight award recognizes individuals or organizations that have made a significant contribution to the tourism industry in Western Mass.

Woolsey said that honor speaks to the many ways the Armory has worked to improve visitation and bring visitors to the area, and he’s very proud of it.

Overall, though, he has his eyes on a much bigger prize — bringing ever more attention and relevance to a historic landmark and the cradle of the region’s precision-manufacturing industry.

He calls the effort ‘Reclaiming the Past,’ and he’s well on his way to doing just that.

George O’Brien can be reached at obrien@businesswest.com

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