In late 1938, war was underway in Europe and in St. Louis, a brand-new military armory was being completed on Market Street just west of Grand. The historic building was home to the 138th Infantry of the Missouri National Guard. The 138th Division has a history going back as far as 1832, with iterations of the Division participating in every major American conflict, including the Civil War. During World War II, reserve soldiers enlisted, trained, and drilled in the Armory and tanks were stored in the basement of the building.
The City of St. Louis constructed the Armory with federal Public Works Administration funding. The building, probably best described as being in the PWA Moderne style, is Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works Project No. 8609.
When built, the Armory fronts Market Street, the busy east-west artery of a bustling St. Louis. In 1955, excavation for the Daniel Boone Expressway began, transformed Market into a highway, and eventually a double-decker Interstate.
An unlikely marriage of military and tennis took place for nearly a quarter century, from just after World War II until the early to mid-1970s, the Armory accelerated the development of St. Louis’ best players and ushered in the golden era of St. Louis tennis.
In the late 1940’s, tennis pro Allen Carvell establishes the Armory as the first indoor tennis facility in St. Louis, with the goal of developing local tennis talent into national tournament players. In 1948, Karl Hodge, a top St. Louis player, convinced the District Tennis Association to bring the winter National Indoor Championships to St. Louis.
The building’s slick wood floors and dim lighting prove to be an ideal training ground for five eventual Wimbledon winners: Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Butch Buchholz, Chuck McKinley and Ken Flach. In 1960, Ashe, originally from Richmond, VA, moves to St. Louis to attend Sumner High School for his senior year, sold on the idea that the city is a more friendly place for a black tennis player to compete. In total, 50 players trained at the Armory win 341 national titles, before the opening of suburban indoor courts in the late 1960’s eclipse the Armory as a home for indoor tennis.
Through the mid-1950s, the State operates the Armory building for the Missouri National Guard, and opens the building for other community activities, including the Post Office Drum and Bugle Corps, the Shriners, The Veiled Prophet Association, and the St. Louis Tennis Association.
By the 1960s, the Guard also allows rock concerts in the building, including Ike and Tina Turner in October of 1965 and the Grateful Dead, who perform two shows there in May, 1968. Edgar Winter, James Brown, and Otis Day and the Nights also play shows in the building.
In 1971, the 138th Division relocates to Jefferson Barracks. The Federal Government deeds the building to the City of St. Louis. The City leases the building to the Armory Sports Center as an amateur sports facility. The center closes in 1975, likely due to the high cost of building maintenance. The City’s plan to demolish the building and redevelop the land is abandoned when the lowest demolition bid is over $6 million. The City deeds the building to the State for $5.
The building languishes further, and the State sells it at auction to a private owner in 1987. The private owner continues to lease the building for amateur soccer and softball games, before the building becomes fully vacant in the 1990s. In 2005, the 138th Division officially disbands.