The streamlined Detroit Naval Armory testifies to the legacy of the Navy and Marine Corps in the city of Detroit.
The Armory served Sailors and Marines continuously from its construction in 1930 until it closed in 2004. Though Detroit lies hundreds of miles from the ocean, Naval training here 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. The cornerstone was laid May 18, 1930. The City of Detroit donated land along East Jefferson at Baldwin Street. The funds for the $250,000 armory were appropriated by the state, and the federal government supplied necessary equipment. Work was to begin Sept. 1, 1929, and it was to be ready by January 1930; however, it would be delayed.
The new Detroit Naval Armory opened just five months after the cornerstone was laid, in October 1930. A gala celebration was held to break in the Reserve's new digs. The building combined the vertical and streamlined characteristics of the era's Art Deco and Art Moderne styles.
In addition to value as a training facility, it quickly became a 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 by Gustave Hildebrand, 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. Later in its life, the armory was home to Marines and Sailors of Headquarters and Service Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines.
Officially, it is named the R. Thornton Brodhead Armory, named after its first Naval leader.
When the building closed in 2004, it was home to the largest collection of federally funded Depression-era artwork of any Michigan building. This led the building's interior to receive historic designation, a rare feat. However, 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. Therefore, because of theft, it has lost that distinction.
In August 2020, The Parade Co., which puts on Detroit’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade, submitted a plan to buy the Brodhead and move its headquarters there. The plan calls for restoring the front portion of the building and drill hall, but would demolish the back half to make way for a new addition. Because the rear of the building is home to much of the surviving WPA artwork, the proposal drew both praise and criticism. The Parade Co. has said it would attempt to save whatever artwork it could if its plan is approved.