Over the past century and a half, the Maryland Army National Guard (Guard) constructed masonry armory buildings throughout the state, many with a striking castle-like resemblance. The purpose of these structures varied, but they generally provided space for training, administration, assembly, and other support services for the Guard. As the demands and training needs of the Guard have changed, so have the dimensions and designs of armories, now called readiness centers. But many of the older structures still stand. While many jurisdictions own these structures and have successfully adapted them to new uses, many still stand vacant. One reuse success story is found in Harford County’s Bel Air community.
Constructed in 1915, the armory served the demanding needs of the Guard for decades. By 2004, when the town of Bel Air took over ownership and operation of the building, it was a large, prominent, and obsolete building right on Main Street. What to do with it? Bel Air town leaders were determined to make the historic Milton A. Reckford Armory building, named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985, a vital community asset. The determination has paid off, as the Armory is a recipient of a 2019 Maryland Historical Trust Maryland Preservation Award.
The makeover of the site is a lesson in grass roots green space and economic development. The community transformed a once barren lawn into a pocket-park with inviting and winding paths, vibrant landscaping, and public gathering space. The structure interior has been converted to a large event space. However, the true gem of the adaptive reuse project can be found behind the building. Garages once housing military vehicles are recently infused with new life. Three garages are fully functional retail business spaces, and two more will be installed by the project’s completion. All the garages will meet ADA requirements, ensuring accessibility, and including permeable pavers, which limit stormwater runoff. The Marketplace’s context exemplifies place making; lying in the heart of the town’s Arts and Entertainment District and drawing residents and visitors alike to its unique and charming setting. The Marketplace will be a local job creator, business incubator, and house the Harford Artist’s Association as an anchor tenant.
Combining Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) Community Legacy funding, local funding, and in-kind donations, the vision of a renewed armory has come to life. But it isn’t only about the money. State agencies provided a variety of technical assistance as well. It all started in 2009, when the Maryland Department of Natural Resources helped the Town get benches for the site; a simple but significant first step. As the larger adaptive reuse project formed, the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT) aided Bel Air in a visioning process ensuring the preservation of the building’s historical integrity and compliance with the Secretary of the Interior’s standards, but also meeting the community and economic development needs of a 21st Century municipality. Together, MHT and the Town analyzed a series of design, occupation, and financial feasibility scenarios before settling on the final plan. Upon completion, DHCD provided feedback and additional guidance. Harford County chipped in as well, helping Bel Air access Community Development Block Grant funding.
The Bel Air Armory revitalization is an example of the transformative nexus of historic preservation, place-making, and economic development in Maryland’s small to medium sized towns. As other communities grapple with the adaptive reuse of their armories, this success story in Harford County can be an inspiration and model of positive change.