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A History of Portsmouth Armory


The War Ends

After the war, all the former New Hampshire National Guard units returned home and were inactivated at Camp Stoneman, California on December 29, 1945, returning to National Guard status.

During the war, the armory had been used by the New Hampshire State Guard, a home guard unit, for drills and other training purposes. When a new National Guard unit for Portsmouth was reactivated in 1947, Brig. General Charles F. Bowen, Adjutant General of the New Hampshire National Guard, commended the N.H. State Guard on the manner in which the state armory in Portsmouth was left after wartime use by the state guardsmen. (21)

The old 3rd Battalion, 197th CA (AA) was redesignated the 237th Coast Artillery Battalion (Harbor Defense), headquartered in Dover, and was awarded all wartime battle honors and history of its predecessor, as well as its successor unit, the 237th AAA Searchlight Battalion. It was under the command of Col. Calvin C. Seavey, then later Col. Nelson Burge, a native of Portsmouth. (22) The new guard unit for Portsmouth was designated the 954th Coast Artillery Battery (Harbor Defense) of the 237th Coast Artillery Battalion, a direct successor to the old D Battery, 1st Battalion, 197th CA (AA), redesignated the 744th AAA Gun Battalion during the war. It was initially under the command of 1st Lt. John D. Leahy (acting commander), assisted by 1st Lt. Owen O. Gray (executive officer) and 2nd Lt. Eugene Ritzo, Jr. (public relations). The Dover unit, meanwhile, was designated the 978th Coast Artillery Battery (Harbor Defense) of the 237th Coast Artillery Battalion. Several veterans of the old D Battery re-enlisted in the 954th, including Capt. Merton F. Race (commanding officer), 2nd Lt. Ritzo, 1/Sgt. Charles Watkins, and Supply Sgt. Richard (Red) Parsons of Kittery, Maine. The unit recruited to full strength of 96 enlisted men and four officers, and was Federally recognized on August 27, 1947, and inspected and accepted on September 17. Drill pay for privates was based at $2.50 per drill, with corresponding increases according to grade. All equipment and uniforms were to be provided by the government. Initial training and instruction was for two hours every Monday night at 7:30 PM at the Armory. The drill periods were divided into classes, with the instruction conducted by the "old hands". Capt. Race pointed out to a reporter that:

"We have a handful of experienced non-coms but the bulk of our men are green and we have a long way to go before we can feel ourselves ready for our primary mission, which is to be able to take over one of the Portsmouth Harbor defense batteries in case of trouble." (23)

The 954th Battery was to train on the still active six-inch guns of Battery 204 at Fort Dearborn in Rye. But even then, General Bowen strongly hinted that the Portsmouth battery would be made mobile in the near future. Without stating what type of weapon might be issued, he replied that mechanizing plans were under study. (24)

The first of a series of post-war dances to be held at the armory was a Halloween Dance on Friday October 31, 1947. Sgt. Parsons was chairman of the dance committee.

In 1949 the Coast Artillery battalions were abolished, and were converted to Field Artillery battalions. On 22 August 1949 the 954th Battery was redesignated Headquarters Battery, 237th Field Artillery Battalion. On 1 June 1950, it was designated Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 195th Infantry Regiment. On 1 December 1954, it was designated Headquarters Battery, 737th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. Another unit that shared the Portsmouth Armory at this time was B Company, 237th Military Police Battalion. It was formed on 19 October 1950, and organized on 21 November 1951. It was redesignated Service Battery, 737th Armored Field Artillery Battalion on 1 December 1954. These two units end the state's history with the old Portsmouth Armory.

In Civilian Hands

The National Guard vacated the old armory building on Parrott Avenue in 1958, handing it over to the City of Portsmouth for use as an adult recreation center. A new armory building had already been completed in 1958 at 803 McGee Drive (formerly Circuit Road) in the northwestern section of the city. The city spent about $30,000 to convert the old armory into its new use by reconfiguring the Drill Hall into a basketball court, shuffleboard court, exercise room, and handball court. The balcony level was removed to allow space for the ball courts. The rifle range in the basement was converted into an archery range. The interior was completely repainted, and a storeroom was converted into a lounge with a television and armchairs. The shower room in the basement was converted into a steam room. The upper floor of the Head House was converted into meeting and hobby rooms. A kitchen was also installed in the building. The double arched wooden paneled doors with iron strap hinges at the front entrance were replaced with modern steel and glass doors. The iron bars on all the outside windows were retained. The decorative arched brickwork and castle-like crenulations on the Head House were also removed during the remodel. The former armory was renamed the John F. Kennedy Memorial Adult Recreation Center in a formal dedication ceremony on Tuesday, November 26, 1963, by which it was known until its demolition. Mayor John J. Wholey officiated at the rededication. The revamped armory was now the site of basketball, archery, handball, and shuffleboard, included physical fitness classes, weight lifting, billiards, ping-pong, horseshoes, boxing, wrestling, judo, badminton, volleyball, golf practice, and square dancing. (25)

Continuing the lineage of the Portsmouth unit after moving into its new home on McGee Drive in 1958, the unit was redesignated on 1 February 1959 to Headquarters Battery, 3rd Howitzer Battalion, 197th Artillery Regiment. The 197th Artillery Regiment was a direct successor to the old 197th Coast Artillery Regiment, inheriting the colors and regimental history of the former unit. On 1 February 1963 the Headquarters Battery consolidated with the Service Battery, 3rd Howitzer Battalion, 197th Artillery Regiment, the consolidated unit then becoming Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery Regiment. The Service Battery was originally constituted on 19 October 1950, as B Company, 237th Military Police Battalion, and organized on 21 November 1951 in Portsmouth. It was redesignated Service Battery, 737th Armored Field Artillery Battalion on 1 December 1954, and redesignated again on 1 February 1959 as Service Battery, 3rd Howitzer Battalion, 197th Artillery Regiment. The Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 197th Artillery Regiment was redesignated Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 197th Field Artillery Regiment on 1 May 1972. The regimental colors of the 197th Regiment were retired on 23 August 1992 in a closing ceremony at the new armory. The Portsmouth unit was then designated Detachment 1, C Battery, 1st Battalion, 172nd Field Artillery Regiment on 1 September 1992. The remainder of C Battery was in Dover. (26)

Throughout its later years, the former armory was also used as a meeting hall for neighborhood associations and for private parties and dances, the Portsmouth Police Department's Annual Auction, band performances as part of First Night celebrations, theatrical presentations as part of Market Square Day celebrations, city summer camp, private exercise and dance instruction, a gymnasium for students of the private St. Patrick School, and as a Field House for the adjacent Portsmouth Middle School. (27)

The city used the old armory for recreational purposes and other events until 2001, when the site was selected as a possible location for a new expanded Portsmouth Public Library. The city transferred all recreational activities to a new center at Spinnaker Point, and the old armory sat unused . In June 2003, after much heated local debate, the armory was slated for demolition. The state's Division of Historical Resources announced the following October that the city had followed all legal procedures according to the Section 103 process, and could not, therefore, prevent the city from demolishing the building. While the old armory may not be among the oldest or most historic of city buildings, its loss was tragic for those who cherished its long history as a colonial seaport and military defense center.


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