Buildings: The Broadway Armory


Chicago’s Unlikeliest Armory
by Jake Hamann
The 1870s and 1880s were violent, unruly period for America’s cities and Chicago was no exception. A series of labor strikes, riots and disturbances—most famously 1886’s Haymarket Affair—struck fear into the hearts of the nation’s rich elites, who feared these incidents portended a coming class war. They knew that the police, poorly-equipped, poorly-trained and often from the same neighborhoods as the workers they were supposed to control, were ill-equipped to handle the coming clash. So upper classes pinned their hopes on the state National Guards for defense of their persons and properties. But, if these National Guard units were going to be effective, they needed a place to train, drill, and store their weapons, not to mention a secure place to use as a base of operations in case a riot really did break out.
As a result, cities across the country began throwing National Guard armories designed to strike fear into the any would-be radical. Chicago’s First Regiment Armory, which stood on S. Michigan Ave. until 1968, is a perfect example. Built at the behest of Marshal Field, Potter Palmer, and the other residents of Prairie Avenue’s “Millionaire’s Row,” the armory featured 35-foot high stone walls, massive steel doors, a portcullis, and rifle slits designed for enfilading fire. The Armory “impresse[d] the beholder as if it were an impregnable fortress.” Likewise, the Chicago Avenue Armory, demolished to make way for the Museum of Contemporary Art, resembled a fortified mediaeval abbey.
Edgewater’s Broadway Armory, however, couldn’t be more different. With its grand, glass-filled entrance, decorative lights, warm red brick, and graceful balconies, the Broadway Armory looks more like a ballroom than a fortress. For good reason. The Broadway Armory wasn’t built to house weapons. It was an ice-skating rink. And, at least for the winter of 1917, it was the grandest rink in the world.
The Armory was built by Harry C. Wood, a Cincinnati ice maker with big ambitions. Wood teamed up with Chicago lawyer W.E. Springer to form the Springer-Wood Company in 1916, after a rival bought out Wood’s Cincinnati Ice Company. Springer and Wood had grand plans. They announced they were going to build huge, state-of-the-art ice skating rinks in Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis. The rinks were essentially a loss leader for ice manufacturing businesses. Demand for ice was high in the summer and virtually non-existent in the winter. Manufacturing ice for the rinks would give the company a reason to operate its ice-plants year-round.
In Chicago, Springer and Wood moved quickly. Wood bought a large tract of land at 5859-5917 North Broadway, near the corner of Broadway and Thorndale from John R. Boyle, a fellow ice-making magnate, for $98,000. It was a great spot for a rink. Conveniently located next to the Thorndale Avenue train station, which had opened in February 1915, and to the Boyle Ice Company, which could supply the requisite ice.
In an August 13, 1916 article titled “Where the Ice Blades Will Glide,” the Chicago Tribune breathlessly reported that Springer-Wood intended to build the “Largest Skating Rink in the World” by New Years’ Day 1917. The accompanying illustration of the planned “Winter Garden Arena” looks pretty close to the finished product, although with two grand entrances instead of one.
The rink, renamed the Chicago Arena, opened a few months late on March 1, 1917. Springer and Wood had spent around $500,000 over just six months to build it. At opening, the Chicago Arena, with a surface of 115 x 300 feet, was one of the largest indoor skating rink in the world and one of only two indoor rinks in the city. An ad touted the Arena as “Chicago’s great inland lake” with a “mirror-like plane of ice.”In addition to skating, the ad promised parlor and reception rooms “as cozy as your own library.”
The Arena was an immediate hit. Five thousand Chicagoans made the trek up to the Northside for the grand opening. It was quite the affair. For fifty cents, including skate rental, Chicagoans got to see “several well-known knights of the steel blades” perform to the music Johnny Hand’s Society Band. There were twenty instructors and 200 attendants on-hand to teach “Chicago’s society” how to skate.
The Arena tried to capitalize on (or manufacture) its success with Chicago’s elite. It ran ads proclaiming every Tuesday “Club Night” when the rink was reserved for members of Chicago’s prestigious social clubs. The ad noted that “the gentleman are wearing tuxedos and evening dress” for skating while “the ladies cling to sports suits…” A few weeks after the opening, the Tribune’s Society page reported that Chicago was in the “grip of ice skating.” Rinks were “filled every evening with those wearing all the elaborate wintry trappings of the skate, whether they have to wobble along between two strong assistants or whether they shoot away from the ringside bench with the grace of a sea gull.” Chicago’s high and mighty had even formed their own “Arena Skating Club,” made up of members of the Casino, Saddle and Cycle and Forty Clubs. After skating at the Chicago Arena, club members would retire to the balcony for supper parties.
In addition to serving as a playground for the rich and famous, the Chicago Arena also put on regular shows featuring touring performers like the Boston Society Skaters, the “Human Aeroplane,” and Three Skittish Skates, “nearly” the greatest skaters on earth. Apparently, it was all a hit. The Tribune reported that the Arena stayed open until May 20 due to popular demand.
The Chicago Arena reopened in late October 1917 with a War Relief Benefit. (The United States had declared war on German in April.) Over the winter of 1917-18, the Arena hosted high-profile hockey games as well as professional ice racing tournaments. Despite this, the record suggests business had begun to decline. For one thing, the Arena no longer showed up in the gossip columns. Perhaps the fad for skating was beginning to wane. Perhaps ice skating was considered too frivolous for a nation at war.
Whatever the reason, by January 1919, Harry Wood was forced to declare bankruptcy and his interest in the Chicago Arena was repossessed by creditors. The new management limped through the remainder of the 1918-1919 season, notably hosting the annual city-wide Chicago Tribune skating tournament, before closing in the Spring of 1919. The Arena never reopened.
In October 1919, the Tribune reported that the owners had leased the Arena to the U.S. War Department for use as an armory. By February, the ice had been torn out and the newly-christened Broadway Armory was hosting basketball tournaments and track meets. Illinois Governor Frank Lowden officially dedicated the “Broadway Armory” on February 7, 1920. His speech candidly acknowledged the National Guard’s central role as protector of urban order and property, praising the Guard’s loyal service “on the south side during the race riots” of 1919. The Armory remained property of the U.S. War Department until the mid-1990s.
As for would-be Ice King Harry Wood, he didn’t have much luck outside Chicago either. The Cincinnati rink never got off the drawing board. In St. Louis, Wood managed to open a skating rink in the Jai Alai building left over from the 1904 World’s Fair, but, as in Chicago, the venture quickly went bankrupt. Nevertheless, after new management took over, the Winter Garden Skating Rink continued to operate until the 1960s. His ice dreams dashed, Harry moved down to San Antonio, Texas and got involved in real estate. He died in a car crash in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1954.

Fogelson, Robert M. America’s Armories, 146-147. Harvard University Press (1989).
Shifting Grounds: The Armory Years at
Deal In Which Ice Concerns Are Taken Over By New Company is Announced.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 20 Apr. 1915: 11.
Big Ice Rink Planned.” Chicago Tribune, 12 Aug. 1916: 12.
Where the Ice Blades Will Glide.” Chicago Tribune, 13 Aug. 1916: 20.
Chicago Arena, Ice Rink, Opened on North Side.” Chicago Tribune, 2 Mar. 1917: 15.
North Side Ice Palace to Be Opened Wednesday.” Chicago Tribune, 26 Feb. 1917: 11.
The World’s Largest Ice Skating Rink Opens To-Night.” Chicago Tribune, 1 Mar. 1917: 3.
Club Night at The Chicago Arena.” Chicago Tribune, 4 Mar. 1917: 13.
Society and Entertainments” Chicago Tribune, 24 Mar. 1917: 15.
Chicago Arena.” Chicago Tribune, 1 Apr. 1917; 7.
Chicago Refuses to Quit Ice Skating.” Chicago Tribune, 13 May 1917: 20.
Ice Skating.” Chicago Tribune, 26 Oct. 1917: 2.
Eckersall, Walter. “Detroit Stars Here for Two Hockey Games.” Chicago Tribune, 3 Mar. 1918: 18.
Ice Races Today End of Season.” Chicago Tribune, 14 Apr. 1918: 20.
Legal Notices.” Chicago Tribune, 18 Jan. 1919: 21.
Winners in ‘Tribune’ Playgrounds Skating Tourney.” Chicago Tribune, 28 Feb. 1919:3.
Julian Steinmetz Takes 3-4 Mile Skating Event” Chicago Tribune, 22 Apr. 1919: 15.
Arena Skating Rink is Leased for an Armory.” Chicago Tribune 9 Oct. 1919: 3.
Basket Teams Open Play for Titles on Feb. 25.” Chicago Tribune, 27 Jan. 1920: 18.
First Infantry Gets Meet of Central A.A.U.” Chicago Tribune, 7 Feb. 1920: 12.
Jai Alai Building To Be Ice Factory And Skating Rink.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 27 Aug. 1916: 14.
Power Wave Company Buys Winter Garden.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 16 Apr. 1920: 7.
Winter Garden Fitted For Roller Skating.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 16 Apr. 1933.
Services To Be Today For Harry C. Wood.” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 9 Oct. 1954: 6.