Tomorrow will be the 109th year of the Millrose Games the track and field tournament which was started by the employees of Wanamaker’s Department Store in 1908. Before the game’s move to the Fort Washington Avenue Armory in 2012, the Millrose Games was the longest running athletic event held at Madison Square Garden – surviving three moves of the Garden itself. About 220 winners of the Millrose Games are also Olympians.
This past week, we visited the Fort Washington Avenue Armory with Alberto Aquino, Director of the Armory College Prep Middle School Program at The Armory Foundation who walked us around the history of the building and its transformation into the track and field destination it is today. Here are some of the fun facts we learned:
1. Track and Field Has Been Part of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory from the Very Beginning
The Fort Washington Avenue Armory was built for the New York State Military’s 22nd Regiment, which had two previous headquarters downtown. Later the 22nd became the 102nd Engineering Battalion which became part of the National Guard. The cornerstone for the Fort Washington Avenue Armory was laid in 1909 and the building opened in 1912. Just two years later, in 1914, was the first track meet at the armory. Among the many events held here, the armory still holds the Big East Conference, the Eastern States, and the National Scholastic. Fun facts: in the New Balance Track and Field Center, the main event space in the former drill hall of the armory, is the fastest indoor track in the country and the jumbotron is larger than that of Madison Square Garden.
2. There’s a Vaulted Ceiling in the Lobby of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
When you enter the armory from the Fort Washington Avenue side, you’ll notice distinctive tiled vaults. They are not by the famous tile master, Guastavino, but the Fort Washington Avenue Armory still has a distinguished architectural pedigree. It’s designed by Richard Walker and Charles Morris, who also designed the Battery-Maritime Building, where the Governors Island Ferry leaves from.
3. The National Track and Field Hall of Fame is Inside The Armory
There’s a wonderful Track and Field Museum inside the Fort Washington Avenue Armory where you can find sports memorabilia including the shoes of Michael Johnson (with real gold) and Carl Lewis (worn in the Olympics), New Balance’s first track shoes, historic track and field equipment, jerseys of famous runners.
On the floor, you’ll find the world record distances marked (as of 2003) and hanging from the walls are poles that mark the record for high jump and pole vault. A second room traces the history of track and field by the decade through historical photographs and more memorabilia.
4. There’s a Map of the NYC Marathon on the Floor of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
In a mezzanine level, one room of the museum is dedicated to the New York City marathon. Besides a map of the marathon route, there is also a miniature statue of marathon founder Frank Lebow, just like the one in Central Park that moves each year for the race and a replica of a laurel wreath worn by each years’ winners, made by Jane Muhrcke, wife of Gary Muhrcke who won the first New York City marathon.
5. There’s a School Program inside the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
To supplement the sports training offered at the Fort Washington Avenue Armory, The Armory Foundation offers resources, classes, and college prep for the middle school and high school students who practice on the track. As the Foundation describes, the Army College Prep program exemplifies its “long-term commitment to ‘keeping kids on track’ by adding to our sports venue an after-school educational program to increase college opportunity for underserved New York public high school and middle school students.”
Armory College Prep has helped 95% of their students gain admissions to college (New York City’s average is 53%). Over 1000 students have graduated our of the program.
6. The Original Company Rooms have Been Repurposed
North Company Room
The North Company Room of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory is now used as a classroom by the Armory Foundation. The original chandeliers still hang and its mahogany wainscotting has been painted a fresh white. The original brick fireplace is still in place as well. Historic track and field photographs line the walls of the classroom.
The South Company Room is now an auditorium. The walls are also painted white but you can see the Doric columns and original fireplace in the back of the room.
7. A Lot of Other Organizations Have Offices inside the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
Office of the historian
In addition to the Armory Foundation, Columbia University, the State University of New York (which runs a computer lab with free classes), the track and field historian, and Children’s Aid Foundation (which works with victims of domestic violence), all have offices inside the Fort Washington Avenue Armory.
8. There’s a Homeless Shelter Inside the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
A portion of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory still functions as a homeless shelter, with a separate entrance on the 168th Street, caring for 200 mentally-ill men. According to Alberto, “during the city’s housing crisis in the 1980s, the facility was re-purposed into a homeless shelter,” with the beds located inside the floor of the drill hall.
9. Yankee Stadium Seats at the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
South Company Room
When you sit in the bleacher seats in the New Balance Track and Field Center (in the main drill hall of the armory) or in an auditorium in the armory, the blue seats may look familiar. The Yankees are one of the sponsors of the activities at the Fort Washington Avenue Armory and the plastic seats look similar (but not exactly like) the old Yankee stadium seats.
10. Original Details of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory
While much of the Fort Washington Avenue Armory has been renovated, you can still spot original details like the grand staircase, metal balustrades, and slit lookout windows when you’re walking around. In an area behind the track, original wood flooring still remains.