Chandler Armory, Chandler, Oklahoma, USA

Chandler Armory, Chandler, Oklahoma. Among the highlights of Chandler’s Route 66 landscape is the Chandler Armory, behind which stands the only brick outhouse in Oklahoma, thought to have been built between 1903 and 1912 and still containing its original French fixture. The Chandler Armory is an excellent example of Works Progress Administration (WPA) architecture; it is rich with history. The armory is also significant as the home of Battery F, Second Battalion of the 160th Field Artillery of the Oklahoma National Guard, 45th Infantry division and for its role in helping the men of Battery F prepare for their role in World War II after mobilization in 1940.

Bryan W. Nolan, an architect and major in the National Guard, served as the supervising architect for the WPA armory construction program in Oklahoma. Constructed of local sandstone, the armory’s recessed stonework and projecting pilasters give the building a vertical emphasis and an Art Deco influence. You’d never mistake the building for anything but a military installation. There are five big-truck-sized bays with overhead doors, and one section of the building is topped with those barrel vault roofs utilized by so many 1930s military structures.

The WPA built the Chandler Armory in two sections between 1935 and 1937. The eastern half of the building contains offices, locker rooms, truck bays, an ammunition vault, and classrooms. The other half is mostly drill hall. At one end of the hall is an elevated stage, and beneath the stage is a long, narrow rifle range. Oklahoma is tornado country which may be why the armory was built so soundly. Not only are the walls made of sandstone, but the roof of the drill hall was constructed of half-inch cellutex insulation and five-ply built-up felt and asphalt laid on metal sheeting supported by steel trusses also.

All in all, the Chandler Armory is evidence of the intention and the success of the WPA program. It used native materials, served the public, and employed local workers. More than 250 men worked the local quarry to keep laborers at the jobsite supplied with material. Staggered crews of 14 men were employed on the jobsite, because the schedule provided as much employment as possible for workers in need of jobs. Workers dressed the stone and hoisted it into place by hand. The wooden floor of the drill hall required a great deal of hand labor, too. Workers cut more than 156,000 wood blocks on the jobsite and set them into place manually. During the Great Depression, the armory put Chandler to work.

When the job was finished in March of 1937, the community celebrated with a parade, a banquet, the laying of a cornerstone, an open house, and a dance with music provided by a WPA swing band from Okmulgee, Oklahoma.

The new armory provided the 58 men and five officers of the 45th Infantry Division of the Oklahoma National Guard with a modern facility, allowing the unit to achieve a greater level of military efficiency and preparedness–skills they would need soon enough. In September 1940, the unit was mobilized and saw action in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.

Eventually, in 1971, the National Guard constructed a modern facility to replace the historic armory and deeded the older building to the town. Despite occasional use as stores, a vehicle shop, and a maintenance building, the building became so decayed that the city council debated demolishing it. Sections of roof and windows were missing; water damage was extensive; pigeons roosted throughout the building, and electricity and water did not work.

Local interest in the building, however, remained. The property was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1992, and the Old Armory Restorers (OAR), a group of volunteers dedicated to saving, restoring, and reusing the building as a public space, formed in 1998.

In the summer of 2002, OAR was delighted to receive a Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) grant through the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. The grant required a 20 percent match and the combined dollars funded much of the armory restoration. In 2007, the eastern half of the armory opened as the Chandler Route 66 Interpretive Center, with exhibits featuring virtual hotel rooms, vintage billboards, and period video viewed from the seats of a 1965 Ford Mustang.

OAR’s vision did not end with the interpretive center. It also included rehabilitation and reuse of the drill hall, complete with its gem of a wooden floor. OAR continued to apply for funds, receiving assistance from the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program and the Oklahoma Centennial Commemoration Commission. The Ben T. Walkingstick Conference Center and Exhibition Hall, now open in the rehabilitated drill hall, boasts state-of-the-art technology and design and convenient location right between Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

The facility currently welcomes 700 to 800 visitors a month, approximately 20 percent of whom are international. The building’s transition from National Guard armory to decaying building to Route 66 tourist destination is truly a preservation success story.

Located in the middle of Oklahoma, Chandler (population about 3,000) contains a number of attractions for devotees of The Mother Road. You’ll find the Oklahoma Law Enforcement Museum, a county museum of pioneer history, a cottage-style Phillips 66 gas station, the colorful P. J.’s Bar-B-Que, and one of the remaining painted barns advertising Meramac Caverns. Long gone are other businesses that catered to Route 66 clientele–the Childress Café, the J&E Café, Betty’s Grill, the Red Wing Café, and finally, the Lewis Café where travelers along Route 66 were served what was advertised as “the coldest beer in town.”

This sizable boom in Chandler cafes continued until Interstate 44 was built and transcontinental traffic left town. Today, Chandler’s economy is driven mostly by agriculture and livestock, as well as insurance and some manufacturing. Chandler has become a commuter town, just 30 minutes from the Oklahoma City metropolitan area and 45 minutes from Tulsa.

The Chandler Armory at 400 East Route 66 in Chandler, OK now houses the Route 66 Interpretive Center and Gift Shop. The center is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm every day April-August and Tuesday-Saturday September-March and is almost entirely wheelchair accessible. Call 405-258-1300

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