City Life

Reporting for Duty: First Troop Celebrates 246 Years of Civic Service

November 24, 2020 | by Amy Cohen

23rd Street Armory at at 22-42 South 23rd Street has been active in guard duties and public programming since 1901. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Growing up on 22nd Street in Center City, I was mystified by the castle at 23rd and Ranstead Streets. I vaguely remember asking my dad about the building and being told that it was an armory. “What’s an armory?” I would ask. He would offer an explanation that further confused me. Soon enough I would ask him yet again.

An informal survey of other GenX and Baby Boomer “Center City kids” held on a Facebook group page revealed that others had a similar memory of a big, mysterious castle on the western edge of Logan Square. Those who attended Greenfield Elementary School recalled occasionally seeing tanks go in or out clarifying, at least somewhat, the purpose of the building. Nick Cavanaugh, who lived above his family’s Cavanaugh’s Bar down the street, remembers seeing the tanks being washed on Saturday mornings. And some remember catching glimpses of fancy balls within from time to time.

As I researched the 23rd Street Armory and the building’s owners, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, I understood why my dad was unable to produce a more satisfying answer. It is unusual because it is an urban castle, and, more significantly, it houses a unique organization with a rich history and distinctive traditions. The current building was dedicated in November 1901 after a snowstorm destroyed the roof of a Frank Furness-designed structure at 21st and Ludlow Streets. The history of the First Troop, however, goes much further back.

Call in the Cavalry

This photograph from 1864 shows the exterior of the first permanent armory of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, built in 1863, at 21st and Barker (Ludlow) Streets. An addition to the facade designed by Furness & Hewitt (not pictured) was completed in 1874. The armory was demolished in 1889. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Organized as the Light Horse of the City of Philadelphia on November 17, 1774, the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry was the first organized group to defend the colonies from the British, and it is the oldest continuously operating mounted military unit in the nation. Members served as George Washington’s personal bodyguards and also participated in numerous Revolutionary War battles.

Subsequently, this unit has served in every American war including in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan. When the National Guard was formed in 1903, the Philadelphia City Cavalry became formally tied to this branch of the military, thus active members of the First Troop do six months of basic training and serve at least two weeks during the summer and two days per month. In addition to traditional National Guard duties both domestic and overseas, the First Troop continues to fulfill its role as an honor guard for American presidents and visiting royalty.

Current members are currently preparing for a deployment to the Sinai Peninsula. They were mobilized during the social unrest following the police killings of George Floyd and William Wallace Jr. In March they served as protectors of COVID mortuaries throughout the Philadelphia region.

New inductees must be serving with the Pennsylvania National Guard and are proposed by existing members of the First Troop. They are proposed and seconded and then put up for election. As a ground combat unit, the organization is still all male and historically has been populated by the region’s WASP elite.

The new 23rd Street Armory in 1902. Built in 1901, designed by architecture firms Newman, Woodman & Harris and Baily & Truscott. | Image courtesy of Print and Picture Collection, Free Library of Philadelphia

Today’s troop, however, reflects the diversity of 21st century Philadelphia. Although once made up primarily of men bearing Social Register pedigrees, today’s members come from many walks of life and a mix of racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. A recently elected master sergeant, for example, is an African-American prison guard.

The unifying characteristic of the inductees is a desire to serve in the military, to serve the Philadelphia community, and to be part of a unique brotherhood that dates back to 1774. The significant stipends received for National Guard service are donated by First Troop members for the upkeep of the Armory.

As each new member is inducted, they are given a number based on how many have come before them. The number 1 was given out in 1774. To date there have only been 2,488 members.

Currently, the First Troop has about 50 members who are actively part of the National Guard. After six years of active service, members are eligible for non-active status, meaning that they continue to serve the First Troop in roles such as fundraising, managing the facility, and mentoring new members. Approximately 250 men have this status. Another 200 or so are honorary members who have served for 20 years and no longer need to work to maintain their status.

Some honorary members have been inducted into the group for extraordinary service to the nation. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, was an honorary member. Because his induction ceremony happened late in Eisenhower’s life, the First Troop installed an elevator that is still in use today to enable the former commander in chief to access the Armory’s large second floor mess hall.

Active Duty and Adaptive Reuse

First Troop guardsmen leave the armory in 1950 with armored equipment for a two-week encampment at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania. | Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

I rode on this elevator on a recent tour of the 23rd Street Armory given to me by Jason Mayland (#2360), a non-active member, and Ted Gilbert (#2160), a third-generation honorary member. Thanks to them I learned much more about the First Troop’s traditions and had the history geek’s pleasure of seeing some of its remarkable artifacts. If you have attended an event at the Armory like the Philadelphia Furniture Show, the Antiques Show, the Philadelphia Art Book Fair, the Philly Roller Girls, the Punk Rock Flea Market, the Black-Tie Tailgate, or a party or wedding, you have seen the massive ground floor drill space. Luckily for me, I also got to see parts of the Armory not usually open to the public.

The First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry is the only unit in the U.S. military that chooses its own officers. The leader of the First Troop is the captain, and portraits of former captains line the walls of the Armory’s hallways, officers’ quarters, and mess hall.

The first-floor officers’ quarters resemble an old-fashioned wood-paneled board room with a large rectangular table in the center. Sconces designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany provide lighting and a Remington bronze sculpture sits atop a side table. Display cases contain mannequins donning the distinctive First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry uniform and a letter from George Washington.

First Troop members ride past the armory in 1969 in formal regalia to welcome guests to a rededication ceremony after extensive renovations. Image courtesy of Temple University Libraries, Special Collections Research Center

The cavernous third floor mess hall is used for formal ceremonies. In a corner stands Woodrow, a life-sized wooden horse that was made for the First Troop during the Civil War after all able-bodied horses had been drafted into military work. Woodrow was used for training new Troop members in horse skills and also as a prop horse atop which First Troopers sat for portraits. The Captain’s Chair, made at the same time as George Washington’s Rising Sun Chair at Independence Hall, is throne-like and reserved for First Troop captains and U.S. presidents. A plaque on the back of the chair attests to Theodore Roosevelt, an honorary member of the troop, having sat there.

The second floor also contains the First Troop’s museum. A Rembrandt Peale portrait of George Washington and the original 1774 battle standard of the First Cavalry are two of the pieces de resistance. In the upper left corner of the battle flag, one can see a faint Union Jack behind the stars and stripes. Were I not a product of 13 years of Quaker education I could perhaps describe for you the abundant varieties of antique guns and swords in the museum’s collection.

Coincidentally, I visited the Armory on November 17, 2020, the 246th anniversary of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry. If not for the pandemic, members on horseback would have paraded Chestnut Street to the Philadelphia Club for cocktails and then returned for a celebratory dinner.

The armory living it up as a German beer hall during OktoberFest Philly 2019. | Image courtesy of 23rd Street Armory

Speaking of cocktails and celebration, the coziest room in the Armory is the Non-Commissioned Officers’ Club, an area open to all members 24/7. Well-stocked with liquor, and furnished with leather couches and a large flat screen television, it is a man cave suitable to a cigar-smoking crowd. Unlike the stately portraits of captains elsewhere in the Armory, the walls of the bar are covered with images of rank and file members of the First Troop. There is  also an old NASA photograph of Pete Conrad, a First Troop member and the third man to walk on the moon.

The enormous ground level drill floor used to be primarily a place for parading horses. A huge mirror still affixed to the northern wall was used by riders to check their form in its reflection. A large clock far up the eastern wall was a gift from the Caldwell family. Before the 1940s, horses were kept on site at stables along 24th Street at the Armory’s rear. Today they are housed in Collegeville, Pennsylvania although horsemanship is still a required First Troop activity. Each member must get a minimum six months and one day of equestrian training. Knowing how to use a saber is also de rigueur.

Three times a year members are required to attend “turnouts,” must-attend events for which the elaborate full-dress uniform is required for formal meals that are served on the drill floor. These uniforms, originally designed by the Marquis de Lafayette, are stored in a large cedar closet in the facility’s basement. The distinctive helmets with a large fur flourish sit neatly in rows nearby.

Members of the First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry serve as honor guards during the inaugural ceremony for the administration of the oath of office to Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack at the Capitol, January 20, 2015. Stack serves as a captain and staff judge advocate in the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division. | Image courtesy of Tech. Sgt. Ted Nichols, U.S. Air National Guard

Also in the basement, behind a series of locked doors, is a vault containing the First Troop’s daunting silver collection. This assemblage of gargantuan candle holders, soup tureens appropriate for the Jolly Green Giant, claret jugs, pitchers, and loving cups is brought out in its entirety three times each year for the First Troop’s turnouts. When the federal government insisted on paying troop members for their service on the Texas Mexico border in 1916 and 1917, they chose to pool the silver coins they’d been given so that they could be melted down and molded into a stunning candelabra.

Members of the troop are expected to take part in the preparation of special events, from putting up tables on the drill room floor, to setting the tables with the troop’s custom-designed china and cutlery, to caring for that mammoth silver collection. Apparently, members of the First Troop were known to call their maids for silver polishing advice.

Providing Positive Leadership During the Pandemic

Since the summer of COVID-19, the 23rd Street Armory has been bustling with the activity of a very different cohort of Philadelphians. Philadelphia Youth Basketball (PYB) is a five-year-old nonprofit that uses basketball as a hook to engage students from under-resourced neighborhoods in a program of sport, academics, and positive leadership development. In August, the Armory hosted PYB’s annual summer program for middle schoolers, usually run out of area colleges. The commodious indoor drilling space on the ground floor was transformed into basketball courts, although a few tanks are parked there as well. The high-ceilinged rooms on the upper floors were used as classrooms large enough to accommodate social distancing.

As summer transitioned to fall, the relationship with PYB continued. Until last Friday’s new COVID-19 safety measures took effect, fifth to eighth grade students were participating in “learning pods.” Coaches and mentors supervised online learning during the school day. After school hours provided time for basketball drills, urban field trips, and other non-screen activities.

About 40 students were enrolled in the program, some of whom were transported in PYB vans that made stops in North and West Philadelphia. The organization provided breakfast, lunch, and a healthy snack each day. Although the enrollment in the learning pods steadily increased, there will still be room for more students to join this cost-free program once pandemic restrictions are lifted.

Philadelphia Youth Basketball hosted its annual summer program for middle schoolers at the 23rd Street Armory in 2020. The program traditionally takes place at local colleges, but, due to shut downs and safety concerns due to the pandemic, the armory became a safe haven for the athletic and empowerment nonprofit. | Image courtesy of Philadelphia Youth Basketball

In addition to the learning pods, PYB was using the Armory for its “I Am Because We Are” program, a new initiative aimed to reduce gun violence in the city through intensive mentoring of at-risk youth. Managers at the nearby Fitler Club, who were familiar with the needs of PYB and the facility at the Armory, brought the two organizations together. The Fitler Club has been providing cleaning and sanitization support during PYB’s residence at the Armory.

According to PYB president and CEO Kenny Holdsman, “During this challenging time of the pandemic, racial and political unrest, and economic uncertainty, young people from lower-income communities of color need opportunities to immerse with peers and caring adults in a safe and nurturing environment. Our partnership with the Armory and the Fitler Club has enabled us to be there for dozens of deserving kids when they’ve needed us most.”

For First Troop member Jason Mayland, allowing PYB to operate in the Armory was a matter of civic duty. “We’re glad to have done it,” he explains, “It was time of real crisis, the young people needed it, and it was an easy retrofit.”

There is something discordant, but also very heartening, about seeing some of Philadelphia’s less privileged residents being hosted, rent free, in a castle full of treasures, tradition, and almost 250 years of history.

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About the Author

Amy Cohen spent 20 years as a social studies teacher, most recently at Masterman. She is currently the Director of Education at History Making Productions where she develops educational materials to accompany documentaries about the Philadelphia region. Amy was born and raised in Center City long before the era of sidewalk cafes and pop up beer gardens. She now lives in West Mount Airy with her husband—also a lifelong Philadelphian—and their two daughters.

One Comment:

  1. Evelyn Eskin says:

    Fascinating history. I had no idea about all the rooms and uses this building has had. We saw a fringe show and the Symphony for the Broken Instruments there but have never been upstairs. Thanks, Amy!

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