Fort Washington Avenue Armory
Home of the National Track & Field Hall of Fame & New Balance Track & Field Center
New York, NY
Architect: Richard Walker and Charles Morris
Stadiafile recently scored a press pass to the Armory Collegiate Invitational Track Meet at the Fort Washington Armory, an incredible indoor track facility located on 168th Street and Fort Washington Avenue in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. If like me you have not only never been to the Armory but didn’t even know it existed, read on and go soon – you will be pleasantly surprised by the East Coast’s premier track venue.
The Armory was originally built in 1911 for the 22nd Regiment of the Army Corps of Engineers on a 1.9 acre city block, just north of where the 16,000-seat Hilltop Park once stood, home to the New York Highlanders Baseball Club.
Originally built for military purposes, the Armory quickly became a center for local track athletes. A makeshift, splinter throwing wooden track was built and, apart from a short break during World War II, it was home to the city’s great track athletes until the 1980s, when an urban housing crisis turned it and other city Armories into homeless shelters. The building quickly fell into disrepair and became notorious for violence and crime throughout the 80s. In 1993, led by Dr. Norbert Sander, winner of the 1974 New York City Marathon, the Armory was returned to a track facility and in 2002 became the site of the newly relocated National Track and Field Hall of Fame Museum which is housed on the first and second floors.
Inside the three-story, neo-classical, red brick edifice lies what many believe to be the best indoor track in the country. The Armory’s track is lauded for several reasons, not least its length. The extraordinary size of the Armory Drill Hall provides room for a 200-meter track, a benchmark for elite indoor facilities. The track’s length allows for long straightaways, something shorter tracks don’t have – the father of a competitor I talked with track-side described his daughter’s hometown facility in Albany which at only 80 meters long gives the effect that you are always turning left. The odd distance of 80 meters also makes for strange start and stop points as well as coaches being forced to perform complicated split-time calculations. The Armory track features steep, banked curves which allow runners to keep up their top speeds throughout the circuit, not possible in flat tracks, which makes for fast times and records constantly being broken. The synthetic rubber, Mondo surface is state-of-the-art, a vast improvement over the Armory’s old wooden tracks or even “the boards” at Madison Square Garden. Add to the mix seating for 5,000 up in the rafters and a four-sided video board positioned above it all, making the Armory an unparalleled venue – its professional yet extremely intimate atmosphere is second to none.
In addition to big meets like the Collegiate and the Millrose Games, the Armory is the home track for all the city’s local colleges, high schools and track clubs and is said to be in use every day between November and March. As many as 30,000 city kids compete in track and field and many run at the Armory on an annual basis. In fact, the abundance of athletes making their way from the nearby A and 1 subway stations or warming up on neighboring streets throughout the winter is sometimes credited for the revitalization of this Washington Heights neighborhood.
Whether the Armory is the best track in the country is perhaps debatable. Texas A&M’s Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium features a 200-meter, hydraulic powered, banked track that can be converted to an artificial turf football field in a matter of hours. Boston University’s 2002 Track and Tennis Center features a fixed, 200-meter, banked track, like the Armory, and is supposedly just as good. However, neither of these – nor for that matter those at the Universities of Washington or Nebraska – sit within a century-old military building in New York City, so the tie goes to the Armory.
The Armory, like many great old sport venues, exudes atmosphere and charm. You feel it as you enter from Fort Washington Avenue and walk up the red-carpeted staircase to the third floor, you want to spend time in the Armory, you want to sit in the rafters and hear old-timers talk Track and Field as they might have done when the Millrose Games were drawing 18,000 to the Garden a hundred blocks south. You want to watch future Olympians so obviously excited to let their legs run free on a fast, large, optimized oval in the depths of winter in the Big Apple. You want to go to Coogan’s Bar behind the Armory on Broadway and have a pint beneath the track singlets and banners hanging from the ceiling. The Armory is the home of the city’s track scene and – along with Hayward Field in Eugene, OR and Franklin Field in Philadelphia, PA – they are the cultivators of track culture in the United States, so go – I promise you will enjoy.