If Grays Armory is not the only place in Ohio where you can host a wedding and sharpen your shooting skills, it’s likely the most elaborate.
Five stories resting on a foundation of sandstone blocks, each weighing some three tons. A massive brass-and-wrought-iron entrance gate. A 10,000 square-foot ballroom. And a turret of circular chambers.
Then there’s the manikin in a Russian black-bear hat. A Civil War cannon some guy found in his garage. A deer’s behind. A warthog’s head -- with a Kaiser helmet. And perhaps what was a speakeasy.
Kristin Roediger grew up in this place. Her grandpa, Stan, and dad, Bill, were Grays, and she started out tending bar here.
Now she’s the executive director. Her job involves booking events, changing fuses, creating a museum and knowing by heart the arena commanders of the U.S. armed forces.
Roediger is surrounded by their portraits as she stands in the round Pioneer Room on the first floor of the turret that once looked out on Lake Erie.
“Navy blue walls, vaulted ceiling of gold, with the nice chandelier. This was the women’s sitting room, the commander’s office. Now, it’s where we do our official meetings. Around the top are all photos of every arena commander starting with the American-Indian War, finishing off with the Persian Gulf.”
But the wars didn’t end then, so the Grays are preparing to shift the portraits to make room for the Iraq and Afghaistan.
Crime waves and the birth of the Grays
The Grays turn 176 next month. Back in 1837, they weren’t thinking about wars overseas. Roediger explains they were essentially one of the city’s many private police forces formed by civic groups.
“In 1835, there was a major crime wave in Cleveland so Clevelanders demanded that somebody do something. So the very wealthy decided it was time for them to give back so they started the Cleveland Grays.
“Actually, they started as the Cleveland City Guard. But because they picked a gray uniform, whenever they would march, people would say, ‘Here come the Cleveland Grays, here come the Cleveland Grays.’ So they finally said, ‘All right, we give; we change our name.’”
The gray uniforms were a tribute to the New York Grays, a militia that distinguished itself in the Revolutionary War. But come the Civil War, the color became a bit of a problem for a northern militia.
“One of the many reasons the Battle of Bull Run was bloody is because the South only had militias to call up who were also in gray; the North had many of the militias still in gray,” says Roediger. “So you literally had gray-fighting-gray in some of the first battles. So after that massacre, they said, ‘Even if you’re not regular army, you still have to get something navy blue in order to distinguish yourself.’”
A trip to Canada
The Cleveland Grays uniforms got a little more elaborate than just navy blue. A manikin in the lobby is decked out in the full dress: think West Point with shoulder epaulets and a foot-tall Russian black-bear-fur hat.
A quick read on the Cleveland Grays:
Founded: 1837 as an independent volunteer militia
Among the first volunteer units to serve the Union in the Civil War as company E, 1st Ohio Volunteer Infantry.
Served as official honor guard for presidents including Lincoln.
Served in the Spanish-American War.
Entered World War I as the 3rd Ohio; became the 148th Infantry Regiment, 37th Division.
Have ties to the 112th Engineers, which served on D-Day in World War II
About Grays Armory:
1234 Bolivar Road, Cleveland, OH
Built in 1893, the fourth home for the Cleveland Grays.
Believed to be the last armory from the 1800s still in the hands of its original private militia
Designated as a museum and on the National Register of Historic Places
That last part caused trouble for the Grays in the 1980s.
“Our militia actually switched with the Canadian militia and went and did a parade for them and they came down and did a parade for us,” Roediger recalls. Getting the uniforms into Canada was no problem. Getting them back to the U.S., was.
“We weren’t allowed to bring them back in because of the hat being an endangered species at the time. And unless we produced original receipts, we were not allowed to bring them back into the country.”
Negotiations won out, but the hats are no longer traveling.
The prodigal cannon
The manikin, by the way, is standing next to a cannon – captured from Southern troops in what’s now West Virginia. Its caliber was too odd to be much use during battle, so it was shipped to Cleveland, parked in Tremont and used pretty much just to mark significant Northern victories -- including the end of the war.
After that, it went to Public Square, where it sat until the 1960s or 70s, when someone stole it.
“It would disappear for many, many years. The story I heard was someone opened up a garage of a house they just bought and this was looking back at them. They realized it probably wasn’t supposed to be theirs. … They got it to Waterworks because they thought it was early fire-hose technology. Waterworks looked at it and says, ‘That’s not what comes out of the front of that.’
“And so we got our cannon back and we keep it inside the fortified building so it never walks off again.”
Fires and Bolsheviks
And a fortified building this is.
It’s also actually the Grays fourth home. The third one burned down in 1892. And when this one took its place, it provided the largest public space in the city, making it a natural to host the city’s centennial in 1896, and the Cleveland Orchestra’s first concert.
Fire hit this building as well – in the 1920s. But it didn’t get past the drill hall. First, the city blamed the Bolsheviks. The real culprit turned out to be a gas lamp.
When the National Guard rebuilt the drill hall, it got rid of the stage and added a range for target practice. Hand-cranked bicycle wheels hanging from the ceiling still operate the pulleys with the targets.
But by this time, the Grays relationship with the military had changed. In fact, even before World War I, the rules changed for all militias. They could join the regular military or go private.
Roediger says the Grays got to hold on longer than most.
“I mean their local drinking buddies were senators, congressmen, you name it. So they actually did get to serve in World War I together, and then they were offered the same situation as every other militia.”
They chose to go private. After all, Roediger notes, “there are five bars in this building.”
Still, she says, many wanted to serve in the regular military, and started the 112th Engineers, who are still active. “Their first chance to prove themselves on the battlefield was actually D-Day.”
Slap a stamp on it
Connections to battles of the distant-and-not-so-distant past are scattered throughout the building: tattered flags, coded maps, a Howitzer.
A display case includes a World War I helmet.
“One of our members actually picked up that German helmet off the battlefield, and slapped the stamps and the mailing label on it, and that’s how it arrived here all the way from Germany. And if you catch it in the right light, you can still read ‘Grays Armony on Bolivar Road.’ We’re a very unique museum in that we get a lot of our artifacts literally shipped straight to us from the battlefield.”
Time is treasure
Donations don’t come only in the form of memorabilia. The Grays number about 130 members these days – 30 active, says Roediger, and about six are on her speed dial.
But those active members, joined by Boy Scouts and other volunteers have painstakingly restored rooms, including the lobby and third-floor ballroom with its gleaming hardwood floor, stained glass and ornately carved pillars.
They’re working now on the roof of the turret.
Like everything else in this building, the job is big.
But the Grays Armory recently climbed out of debt and a 120th anniversary open house spurred a lot of interest. Now, says Kristin Roediger, the focus is making the private museum more of a public showplace – again.