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Cleveland Grays Armory Museum: A little-known gem with a big history!

Oct 17, 2016 10:58AM ● Published by Today's Family

Gallery: Cleveland Grays Armory Museum [4 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Deanna Adams

With all the gleaming new buildings in our revitalized city—including a 20-ft tall crystal chandelier—some of you may have wondered, what’s a medieval-looking castle doing in the heart of downtown Cleveland? 

No, it’s not an old abandoned building.  Nor is it a neglected warehouse.  It’s actually one of Cleveland’s most oldest and treasured buildings, and serves the community in a number of ways.

The “castle,” complete with characteristic circular watchtower, is the Cleveland Grays Armory Museum, a historic and patriotic structure that houses three floors of military artifacts, including weapons, photographs, posters, and vintage uniforms.  Chances are you have walked past it en route to Progressive Field or Playhouse Square.  Located in the Gateway District, at the intersection of Prospect Avenue and Bolivar Road, the building is used by members for gatherings, and can be rented out to the public for a variety of events, such as weddings, fundraisers, sporting events, and more.

So what is the Cleveland Grays?  The nonprofit organization was founded in 1837 and began as an independent private military company, whose name is taken from the color adopted for their uniforms.  The Grays was the first unit to leave Cleveland during the Civil War and did service in the Spanish–American War and World War I.  Individual members also served later in the armed forces during the Gulf wars.  Today, the Grays is no longer a militia unit, but functions as a social group whose purpose is to preserve the military heritage of Greater Cleveland through the museum and its approximate 200 members.

“My dad and grandfather were Grays,” says Kristin Roediger, executive director and third-generation member of the Grays organization.  “I can’t even remember a time that I wasn’t here.”  Roediger travels from Novelty, Ohio, every day to oversee the museum that means so much to her and her family.

Holding down the fort alongside Roediger is Mary Beth Rauzi, the armory’s outreach coordinator.  She started out as a guest, she says, and soon fell in love with the building and its purpose.

“This place builds a passion,” says Roediger.  “We had one lady who came once for a tour, and now keeps returning to volunteer.  There’s just something about the history and stories behind everything here.”

In 1892, a fire broke out in the original Grays building, which stood in the area where the Hard Rock Café (now closed) was located.  “Fires were not unusual back then,” Roediger says.  “Many armories burned because they had a lot of gas fixtures and gun powder.  So yes, that was a problem!”  

In 1893, the stately red-brick-and-sandstone structure became its new home.  For years, the armory was the largest auditorium in Cleveland.  It hosted the first auto show in Cleveland in 1903, and welcomed the debut Cleveland Orchestra concert in 1918.

What’s Inside
As you walk through the main archway entrance underneath a black iron gate, the massive oak doors open to a red-carpeted foyer.  On this first floor, you’ll see a vintage booth where people would purchase tickets for their events.  To the right of that stands a life-sized mannequin dressed in full military garb, including Russian black-bear-fur hat.  Next to it is a Civil War cannon that went missing in the 1960s, and was ultimately recovered twenty years later.  Details on that, and many more fascinating stories, are told by Roediger throughout the tour.

You’ll be taken next into a locker room that safe-keeps the uniforms still worn for special events and parades.  What’s most impressive, however, is the large open-space Drill Hall with built-in bar, glass showcases displaying military memorabilia, and a stellar 1930 Wurlitzer theater pipe organ.  The ample room can be designed to a number of specifications for various occasions.

“It’s where we hold a lot of receptions and fundraisers,” Roediger says.  “There are a number of creative ways to use this space so people can make it their own personal room.”

Walking up a grand staircase, with beautifully carved mahogany wood, leads to the second floor where visitors will find more large club rooms, including a Billiard Room (complete with deer and antler heads on the walls) and the Pioneer Room, formerly for Civil War veterans.

The third floor boasts a ballroom where smaller events can be held.  All floors display photographs of renowned military diplomats and veterans, such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with vintage snapshots depicting more rich history.

Roediger stresses that volunteers are essential to keep the museum in business.  “It’s expensive to keep this old place up,” she notes.  “We rely on people’s time, treasure, and talent.  And we make good use of all three!”

Recent improvements include air conditioning, which will now allow the museum to be open during the summer months.  An elevator, for those unable to climb the 44 stairs to the top, is anticipated sometime in 2017 or 2018.

Roediger and Rauzi proudly add that the Cleveland Grays Armory is proclaimed as an official Cleveland Landmark, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Rauzi calls it a grand old dame.  Visitors, young and old, will surely agree.

Cleveland Grays Armory Museum is located at 1234 Bolivar Road in Cleveland.  Public tours are offered the first Wednesday of the month, from noon to 4 pm.  You can also request a private tour or book a private event.  See www.graysarmory.com or call 216-621-5938.

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