Community Center: Armory Connects City’s Past, Present and Future

The Armory at 191 Highland Ave. isn’t the exact geographic center of Somerville (that’s at 1 Westwood Road), but the building certainly feels in many ways like the hub of the city.

Built in 1903 to house the Somerville Light Infantry of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia, the Massachusetts National Guard also called the Armory home for 70 years. The facility was used in the past for community events, but it wasn’t until the state decided to sell the Armory in 2004 that it began to take shape in its current form.

Joseph and Nabil Sater, owners of the the Middle East music venue in Cambridge, purchased the Armory and worked with residents, the city and community organizations to transform it into what it is today: a center for the arts, culture and community.

“The Armory was a labor of love,” said Debra McLaughlin, who was brought on to the project in 2004 and was the Arts at the Armory’s executive director from 2008 to 2012. “I’m really happy and proud to be a part of birthing this entity.”

SOS Armory Scene

 The Armory hosts artists for Somerville Open Studios.

It took several years for construction to be completed on the building and a few more to secure all of the necessary permits and licenses. McLaughlin (pictured below) praised the city for its support in helping the project take shape.

Debra“We worked closely with all the city departments,” McLaughlin said, singling out Mayor Joe Curtatone as one particular champion of the Armory. “We’re so lucky to have an open and supportive city.”

That’s not to say the road to opening the Armory was an easy one. There was concern in the surrounding neighborhood about noise and parking, but community meetings helped ease tensions. And now that the Armory has been successfully hosting arts, culture and community events for a few years, most people now see what an asset it is to the city.

“The Armory is there because of the collective work of so many people. Any event that happens there now is a testament to that,” McLaughlin said.

WFM Crowd

Shoppers at the Winter Farmers Market.

In addition to providing a space for art shows, music and theater performances and cultural activities, the Armory is also home to the popular Winter Farmers Market. Incorporating community events into the Armory’s program was important to McLaughlin and the other founders from day one.

“It works on so many levels,” McLaughlin said. “It supports local owners and growers and musicians. It gives access to fresh and healthy food to many people in Somerville.”

Additionally, the Armory has made its space available to community organizations on a sliding fee scale to provide a place for them to hold fundraising events. The Somerville Homeless Coalition, Somerville Local First (of which McLaughlin and I are both on the board), The Welcome Project and dozens of other local groups have hosted events in the building to raise money for their work.

“The binding thread in all of this is how can we build community through the arts and make connections,” McLaughlin said. “What’s so great about the city is that we can have one singular voice but so much diversity.”

Costumed BeardFest contestants

A scene from BeardFest, which took place at the Armory.

McLaughlin may no longer be on staff at the Armory, but she can’t stay away. Her new venture is 3 Graces Productions, which she started with Jennifer Lawrence, also formally of the Armory. They recently hosted a recycled art competition, Trash Bash, at the Armory, giving McLaughlin a chance to see the space from the other side.

“It felt great to use the venue as a producer,” McLaughlin said, noting that she loved working with the Armory’s new Executive Director Lea Ruscio. “To go from a co-creator of the space to now kind of a producer, I love that kind of trajectory. And I will continue to champion the Armory to hold events there.”

McLaughlin also sees the Armory as being a sort of bridge between longtime Somerville residents and many of the city’s newcomers.

“That is what I love about the Armory. It has roots in the community,” McLaughlin said. “As the city continues to change and evolve, the Armory can be a place that can capture that evolution.”

P.S. Did you know that the Armory also has a lovely cafe with free Wi-Fi?

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