The Smart Set Athletic Club used the old 14th Regiment Armory in Brooklyn as its home court for basketball during the 1910s.
In March 1910 they staged an ambitious indoor athletic event there on a scale that had never before been attempted or seen among African American sports fans, or, for that matter, perhaps anyone.
It was promoted as an “athletic carnival, basketball tournament, and assembly.”
The basketball game was between the Smart Set Athletic Club and the Washington 12 Streeters, led by Edwin Henderson.
In addition to basketball, the carnival included a one mile relay, a one mile run, a 440-yard dash, and entertainment. Track teams from around New York City included the Stroller Athletic Club, the Owl Field Club, and the Century Club.
The entertainment was provided by the Excelsior Brass Band, which “dispensed enlivening music” throughout the event.
Over 3,000 onlookers watched the 12 Streeters defeat the Smart Set, 20-17. “Never in the history of Brooklyn,” the New York Age reported, “has such a galaxy of colored persons assembled under one roof.”
I’ve always wondered how they could have pulled off something this big. Since I knew that this building is still standing, I decided to go down there myself to take a look around.
What I found was astonishing.
First, as you can see, the structure is virtually unchanged from how it was depicted on a vintage postcard from the period when its construction was completed, in 1895.
The 14th Regiment was a Civil War unit representing Brooklyn. So the cornerstone — as is typical for armories — includes a garrison in the front and a drill hall in the back.
The cornerstone, laid in 1894, is a 3-foot square granite block brought from the battlefield at Gettysburg where the regiment fought. Its inscription reads:
Part of Which I Was; All of Which I Saw.
Presented by the Fourteenth Regiment War Veterans.
“The armory is to contain a drill room, company rooms, officers’ rooms, a library, a gymnasium, squad drill rooms, banquet halls, and staff officers’ and veterans’ rooms,” the New York Times reported.
Today, instead of officers, the garrison contains a homeless shelter for women, complete with security guards and metal detectors. (Photography of the front of the building, or its inhabitants is, understandably, prohibited.)
I mentioned the drill hall.
To appreciate its immense size, take a look at the view along the side of the armory structure.
The drill hall was where soldiers practiced marching, formations, and maneuvers. So it was big. Big enough to enclose a quarter-mile running track. In fact, it contains an immense 70,000 square feet of space.
So, what are they doing with it?
According to the The Real Deal, a New York real estate magazine:
After nearly three years, the Fourteenth Regiment Armory located at 1402 Eighth Avenue between 14th and 15th streets in Park Slope, which currently houses a small women’s shelter, is close to the end of a $16 million project to transform the building into a long-awaited modernized athletic complex. The building will accommodate a long list of sports, including basketball, gymnastics, tennis, weightlifting and track and field.
That’s great news for many Park Slope residents. Even better, according to another report, is that the local Prospect Park Y.M.C.A. is going to run the new facility.
Now, here’s the astonishing part. The inside.
I had a rare, privileged opportunity to check it out. All I can say is, “Wow.” As far as vintage gymnasiums go, this must now rank among the best. As I walked inside, I just felt the sacredness of the place. I was tip-toeing around, looking for the holy water. It has to be one of the most magnificent, stunning, and complete restorations ever. They essentially restored every detail to how it was at the turn of the last century, including the antique iron-work and the original clock.
Here are highlights of what I saw:
Are there any predictions for how this state-of-the-art athletic center will be used?
How about as a basketball practice facility for the New Jersey Nets when they move to Brooklyn?
I know, it’s a stretch.
But, seriously, how will Brooklyn receive this lovely new jewel of a renovation?
Maybe the best prediction about its future can be found from the past.
Let’s go back to comments made in the New York Age in 1910 about the Smart Set Athletic Club’s sports carnival at the armory:
The successful manner in which the program was conducted, the interest shown by the onlookers, as well as the high character of the events argue well for big meets between colored athletic clubs in and about Greater New York in the future. There is no doubt that the public will loyally support athletics when conducted under the proper auspices.
The Age continues with this:
After the athletic program had been carried out dancing was indulged in until an early hour Friday morning. The Fourteenth Armory is certainly a spacious edifice, in fact, so large that many of the dancers upon leaving for their homes were heard at the door to say good evening and good morning to one another in the same breath. Reports are still coming in regarding “among those present.”
George W. Lattimore, J. Hoffman Woods and other Brooklynites having the affair in charge deserve much credit for “pulling off” the most successful public affair ever given in Brooklyn.
After seeing and sensing the inside, I can definitely call the new armory drill room interior “breathless” … and it seems to me that this new spot will have a very bright future.