Olympia gives tours of the Armory building, future arts campus

As soon as you enter the Olympia Armory, your feet touch history.

The front doors of the 1939 Art Deco building on Eastside Street lead directly to a wooden basketball court. The floor has seen countless matches over its years, but that’s only a small part of its more recent history.

Beginning in World War II, it was the Army National Guard’s regional base, where National Guard members were stationed prior to deployment. It also has a long history as a place and gathering place. Festivals, car shows, inaugural balls and more have taken place within its walls.

The City of Olympia is transforming the now vacant building into a creative campus, filling the facility with more than 50,000 square feet of artist space, studios and more.

The city acquired the building from the state last year and officially completed the transfer in March. Since then, city staff have been working in the building to prepare it for its future.

Angel Nava, Olympia’s arts program specialist, said the city has been trying to get people into the building since they had access to help shape a “community vision”. Public tours will be offered on the first Thursday of each month until August.

Nava said the city is still working to finalize the business plan for the building, including how much it will cost to renovate and operate it, and who will operate it. But the city is already looking for grants for the project.

“We make the ship while we sail it,” Nava said.

Walking through the old armory on Thursday, May 5, Nava led a crowd of about 20 people to roam the U-shaped second floor that was once filled with military offices. In the future, they could be spaces for non-profit organizations. With dozens of rooms to work with on all three floors, there’s plenty of space for ceramic studios, painting studios, community spaces and more.

In the basement, where guests can see the giant exposed beams that hold the building together, Nava said she envisions the main space hosting events and being filled with sofas and tables when not rented out , so that people can relax together.

The old building is located on a slight hill and allows a garage door that leads to the basement. One person on the tour said it was rare to see a venue with this type of access, which would make it easier to set up stages or half-pipes for skating.

Just off the main basement is an old firing range which Nava says was recently used for storage. She said she envisioned it being filled with artist lockers and the like.

Not too long ago the room was cordoned off and the building was closed to the public after lead and other contaminants were discovered in this room and other parts of the armory. Nava said that was no longer an issue, and reports on the historic structure showed the building didn’t need a lot of groundwork, just appearance.

“There was nothing that was scary or seemed unmanageable,” she said. “It’s solid, it’s built like a tank.”

The main issue is ADA accessibility. The building has many stairs, even small stairs in some rooms, and there is no elevator. But Nava said there will be an elevator installed and ramps installed throughout the building where they are needed.

The property includes an outbuilding of nearly 10,000 square feet which Nava says could be used for more industrial arts such as welding and ceramics. The space could be equipped with its own ventilation system.

Nava said one of the spaces that inspired the Armory project was the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in Seattle. She said there were multipurpose arts spaces, a theater, dance halls, recording studios and more. They also have an alternative secondary school in the building, as well as social housing and living and working spaces for artists.

The city is still working on the draft plan for how the armory space will be used, what it will cost and more. Nava said it will be introduced to the public at an event this summer.

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