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Olympia Armory

The Olympia Armory is the oldest structure the SC Military Department currently owns. It was built in 1936/197 by the Works Progress Administration under the direction of Brigadier General James C. Dozier. In 1995, the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The NRHP is a list of the nation’s historic places officially designated as worthy of preservation. Additionally, the armory is located in the Olympia Mill Village Historic District.


New Deal Era Armories

Prior to the 1930s construction program, the South Carolina Army National Guard possessed very few armories. The SCARNG owned two structures – the Beaufort Arsenal and the South Carolina State Armory in Columbia. The Beaufort Arsenal was constructed in the 1790s as a two-story stucco arsenal.  Although useful to the SCARNG, the Beaufort armory was primarily used for storing military weapons and ammunition and lacked space for marching and close-order drill.  By contrast, the South Carolina State Armory is a three-story brick commercial block style building built in 1905.  By 1939, South Carolina had spent approximately $55,000 improving the Beaufort and Columbia. Despite these improvements, roughly 39 units were left renting private buildings as make-shift armories.  

Space was not a new challenge for the SCARNG. Every Adjutant General from the Reconstruction period through the Depression lobbied the South Carolina General Assembly for funds for the construction of new armories; however, none were successful. In 1926, Governor Thomas G. McLeod appointed James C. Dozier as the Adjutant General. Shortly thereafter, General Dozier began petitioning for the construction of state-owned armories.  
The timing was right for General Dozier as Congress appropriated $4.8 billion for civil works projects across the country.  The same Depression that created the need for these New Deal appropriations also caused the number of National Guard recruits to rise. From 1933 to 1942, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Public Works Administration (PWA) embarked on the New Deal Armory Program which saw construction of 400 new armories across the southern and southwestern states. 

Although funded under the same construction program, significant differences emerged between the WPA and PWA construction initiatives. The WPA focused on constructing small armories with unskilled labor, while the PWA used skilled labor to complete larger, cash-funded armories that were designed by professional architects. South Carolina alone received 46 armories from this New Deal construction program, almost 10% of the armories constructed under this initiative.  By 1939, the WPA completed armories at Union, Timmonsville, Walterboro, Orangeburg, Easley, Spartanburg, Greenville, Rock Hill, Fort Mill, Jefferson, Columbia, Lockhart, Abbeville, Clinton, Greer, Lyman, Sumter, Laurens, Greenwood, Dillon, Florence, Lancaster, and Anderson. Additionally, the WPA was in the midst of constructing similar armories at Chester, Warrenville, Georgetown, Winnsboro, and Andrews. A 1939 article in The State highlights the significance of this building program:

This state-wide project, when completed, will be the greatest achievement that has been accomplished during the term of office of any adjutant general of South Carolina. It will give the state a network of handsome armories that will forever reflect upon the South Carolina National Guard”. 

The “Final Armory Historic Context” developed in 2008 for the National Guard Bureau noted that 226 of the WPA and PWA armories remain today.  The SCARNG retains one WPA era armory – the Olympia Armory. The status of the remainder of the SCARNG’s WPA era armories is mostly unknown with the exception of the other two listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The Fort Mill Armory in York County is an Art Deco Style building nearly identical to the Olympia armory. It was listed in the NRHP under Criterion A for because it “is associated with events critical to the development of Fort Mill.” Criterion C was also cited as the armory represents the only Art Deco style building in Fort Mill. The armory is no longer owned by the SCARNG and instead is used as a storage facility by the local school district.  

The Hartsville Armory, Darlington County, is another WPA era building that has been listed on the NRHP. The divergence from the standardized plan that could emerge is evident in this armory. The two-story armory has 21 bays and is distinguished by a rat-toothed corbeled course and cast stone coping. The armory was listed in the NRHP in 1994 under Criterion C. At the time of listing, the SCARNG had ceased to own the armory and the Hartsville Recreation Department was using the facility as a community recreation center. As predicted in 1939, the New Deal Armory Construction Program significantly and permanently altered the SCARNG’s defensive landscape. Though by design small and insufficient for all training requirements, the WPA armories gave South Carolina units across the state their first permanent, physical home. As these units, their mission, and the military itself evolved, more space and ultimately larger armories became a necessity. This ultimately led the SCARNG to part ways with the majority of its WPA armories. Despite their ephemeral strategic utility to the SCARNG, these buildings represented a significant change in the ideology of armory construction. Since the New Deal armory construction boom, the SCARNG has continued to build permanent, department or agency owned structures. The goal so long pursued by centuries of SCARNG Adjutant Generals was finally realized and has since been maintained. This is the legacy of the New Deal era armory construction. 

Olympia Armory: Challenges Pre and Post Construction

In a City Council Statute dated 5 August 1936, the City of Columbia agreed to provide the land for the construction of the new facility. The statute stated:

...the City of Columbia [will] contribute the sum not exceeding $1250.00, for the employment of skilled labor on the construction of an Armory building for the 118th and 119th Motor Transport Companies, to be erected in the Pacific Mill Village on a lot to be donated by the Pacific Mills Company. This sum is appropriated under the condition that Richland County contributes like amount for this purpose. 

The location of the new armory was along Granby Lane. Granby Lane itself was not highly developed at this time. The surrounding area, however, was much more developed. A rail line runs southeast of the armory and the mill and village itself sit north of the armory. By 1936, there were at least 297 structures in the mill village including at least 290 houses, one commercial building, one church, a grocery store, a store, the Olympia cotton mills, Union Hall Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and an Olympia School classroom building. WPA construction at this time saw increased development along Granby Road with the construction of the Olympia School Classroom Building, Olympia School Gymnasium, and the National Guard Armory.  

Sometime between 1936 and 1937, the WPA finished working on the building and it became home to Company D, 105th Quartermaster regiment. The State published an announcement that the new armory would open on June 26, 1937. Admission to the grand opening was free and a dance followed.  However, problems with the new structure emerged quickly. A letter dated 15 March 1938, notes that the armory “was never entirely completed.” Improvements were recommended for the roof, the rifle range floor, windows, arms vault, and grounds in this letter.

The Adjutant General began lobbying the U.S. government for assistance with these improvements not long after the completion of the armory. On 12 September 1939, the Adjutant General received notification that the project had been approved by Presidential Letter 7967. This same letter noted that improvements were projected to begin 25 September of that same year.  A letter dated 26 September 1939 stated that funds for these improvements had been allocated. 

Character Defining Features

The Olympia Armory embodies the Modern Art Deco Movement. The 1995 National Register form describes the building’s character defining features accordingly:

The Olympia Armory is a one-story rectangular load-bearing brick building featuring a barrel-vaulted roof, brick parapeted end walls, and intricate brick detailing. The design displays Art Deco and Moderne influences in triple step-down of the parapet. This treatment is present at both the front and rear elevations of the building. This step-down feature allows the center area and middle three bays of the façade to extend higher than the two flanking bays on either side. It also follows the general curvature of the roof, places predominance, and expresses the verticality and strength of the front and rear facades. The three central bays are enhanced by tall metal-frame windows and corbelled pilasters. The brickwork on the pilasters repeats the step-down effect by triple-stepping or corbeling outward in profile and triple-stepping downward in the column’s top termination detail. To enhance the vertical effect, brick panels above each window increase the visual elements of the window design. Window panes are utilized with a vertical dimension two-and-one-half times greater than the horizontal dimension.
Statement of Significance

The 1995 National Register nomination form alludes to both the armory’s architectural elements and historic role within the Richland County community. The official Statement of Significance states:

The Olympia Armory is significant as an excellent example of the National Guard armories designed with Art Deco or Moderne influences and built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

This armory was built in 1936-37 and was one of several armories designed for the South Carolina National Guard under the direction of Brigadier General James C. Dozier, Adjutant General of South Carolina. Senator W.H. Nicholson, praising General Dozier for making the construction of twenty-four new armories possible during this period, said at the dedication of one such armory, “He is a man who has proved that in times of war there is none braver and in times of peace none finer,” further observing that such buildings were dedicated “not to war but to peace.”

Until 1939, South Carolina possessed only two State-owned armories – one in Columbia, built in 1905, and one in Beaufort, built ca. 1776 – opting instead to rent space for the nearly forty other National Guard units around the state. These spaces were usually too small and not well suited for storing military equipment and for conducting training exercises. With the advent of the Works Progress Administration, however, a source to fund state-owned armories of adequate size became available. By August 1938, 36 communities had requested National Guard units. The new armories provided facilities not only for the Guard units. The new armories provided facilities not only for the Guard units, but were also able to support assorted other community activities as well, in large part because they had an open floor space of at least 75’ x 100’. According to General Dozier, the new armories also “served to strengthen already good morale [among the National Guard units] and a pride of organization is marked in the outfits.

The Olympia armory was built to replace the 1905 armory on Assembly Street and became a center of community activity in the mill villages of Granby and Olympia. It hosted sporting events, theatrical performances, and other civic activities. A stage was part of the original design and the floor was marked for use as a basketball court. Olympia School, located adjacent to the armory, also utilized it as a gymnasium until the school constructed one for its students’ own use.

The Olympia Mill and Village Historic District

Today, the Olympia armory is situated in the Olympia Mill and Village Historic District. Both the mill and village were established in 1899. The mill opened by W.B. Smith Whaley produced cloth and was described at the time of its completion as “beautiful” and “majestic.” The 2002 survey of the property described the mill as the “most complete mill village in the Columbia area.” This survey identified a total of 382 buildings within the village including 354 houses, one boarding house, one union hall, two churches, four out buildings, one school, one mill, nine stores, and of course one armory. 

Due to its listed status, the Olympia Armory is subject to compliance with both state and federal historic preservation laws. Buildings listed on the NRHP are protected from some impacts from state or federal undertakings via these laws. Much of this protection stems from Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act’s (NHPA) consultation requirements. Specifically, the SCARNG is required to consult with the SC SHPO and other internal/external parties pursuant to 36 CFR Part 800, Protection of Historic Properties implementing §106 of the NHPA. Listed properties are also subject to compliance with 60-12-10 thru 60-12-90, South Carolina Code of Laws.