Historic Detroit

Brodhead Naval Armory

The streamlined Detroit Naval Armory testifies to the legacy of the Navy and Marine Corps in the city of Detroit. The Armory has served Sailors and Marines continuously since its construction in 1930. Though Detroit lies hundreds of mile from the ocean, naval training there dates back to the late 1880s. At that time, several seacoast and Great Lakes states formed naval militias, the forerunners of the U.S. Naval Reserve and the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Michigan’s naval militia began in 1893, and quickly developed into a popular pursuit for wealthy citizens. Though jokingly referred to as the “Millionaire’s Navy,” the Detroit reservists proved their worth in the Spanish American War and World War I. By 1929, membership had swelled to over 600 men, a number too large for the existing armory. The state and city agreed to appropriate $375,000 for a bigger building to stand at the foot of the bridge leading to Belle Isle. Combining the vertical and streamlined characteristics of the era’s Art Deco and Art Moderne styles, the new Detroit Naval Armory opened in October 1930 with a gala celebration. In addition to value as a training facility, it quickly became the premier civic event site of 1930s Detroit. The Armory’s huge indoor drill floor was rented to host dances and USO mixers, auto shows, and political and sporting events. It was here in 1932 that future heavyweight champion Joe Louis fought his first career bout—a two-round loss. In coming years the Works Progress Administration (WPA) funded numerous additions of Depression era art to the building, including three murals, plaster carvings, and extensive wood carvings. With the start of World War II, the armory became a barracks and schoolhouse for as many as 1,200 sailors in Navy diesel and electrical schools. After the war it reverted to its original use as a training center for reservists. Now referred to as the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory after its first Naval leader, today the armory is home to Marines and Sailors of Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines.

When the building closed in 2004, it was home to the largest collection of federally funded Depression-era artwork of any Michigan building. But the building has been hit hard by scrappers and vandals since then, and many of the intricate wood carvings in the doors and staircases have been stolen.