Probably one of the best new enterprises at Middletown in recent years is the Inn at Middletown. It adds a sophistication to what the town has to offer and makes me proud of my community. It adds to the attractiveness of our Main Street and offers a much-needed commodity, a fine hotel and conference space.
The Inn at Middletown also serves as a valuable example of adaptive reuse of a historic building. Formerly one of three major Connecticut armories, the building had been eyed by Middletown officials and entrepreneurs for many, many years before it was finally acquired for rehabilitation and reuse.
The building at 70 Main Street goes back even further than its days as an armory and has its roots as the 1810 residence of John R. Watkinson. The northern half of the structure was originally the home of Watkinson, an English émigré who opened the earliest textile mill in town. His mill, later purchased by Wilcox, Crittenden & Company, was the small factory building on South Main Street that is now part of the Parker House condominium complex.
When the state of Connecticut purchased the Watkinsons's Main Street property from his descendants in 1919 to convert it to a new armory for Middletown, the old brick residence was retained and “wheeled-around” to face south and a matching wing was built facing it. The two sides were connected by a large addition to house the drill shed.
Back when each town had a local militia, Middletown provided space for an armory beginning in 1847. Charlie Company of the First Battalion, 102 Infantry, was stationed in Middletown beginning in 1880. At that time, the armory was situated in the building known as the Bank Block on the west side of Main Street.
This structure, which once stood where the northern parking lot is for Bank of America, replaced the Shepard Block, which collapsed during construction in 1873, killing six workers and injuring 16 people. (It had also been the former site of the 1795 Congregational Church which was moved to the north end of Main Street when the church built its new home on Court Street.) The Bank Bock had commercial space on the ground level, and the armory occupied the third floor.
By 1913, not only was the third-floor space inconvenient for the servicemen, who had to carry all their equipment up and down three flights of stairs, the structure was in deplorable condition. Talks were held to encourage the state to consider new facilities for Middletown. The state dragged its feet, and by 1919, the requests were louder and the complaints less polite.
Local representatives insisted that Middletown’s armory was too small and not suited for drilling. Described as “absolutely rotten” and a “fire trap” by a Mr. Wilcox, the armory was referred to by Captain SS Warner as a “death trap.” It was explained that, when a platoon drilled on the third floor, the whole place shook. Those who spoke at the state hearing insisted that a new armory be provided at Middletown.
With taxpayer money, the state bought the old Watkinson property for $23,000 in 1919 and the Legislature kicked in $150,000 to build a new armory. The plans reveal what was eventually constructed. The two wings sat perpendicular to Main Street and the large drill shed faced Main with an elegant Colonial Revival façade.
The old, original house had its floors replaced and interior walls moved. The wings incorporated residential quarters for the colonel and field and staff officers, and there were parlors to elicit a “club” ambiance.
The second floors were reserved for the “band meeting room” and space for military organizations to meet. The basement had storage for ammunitions, extra clothing and equipment, target and pistol ranges, a mess and a kitchen. The large open space in the center of the facility was reserved for drilling and training exercises. The exterior incorporated the original Watkinson iron fence and brick gateposts to maintain the “colonial aspect.”
All was copacetic from the day it opened in 1920 and for the next 50 years or so. World War II saw the 43rd Infantry Division’s Medical Detachment and B Company of the 169th Infantry Division depart for overseas from the Middletown armory (shown here). Most old timers in Middletown remember going to the armory for the multitude of events that were offered in the drill shed.
There was a Halloween party in 1952, fireman’s dance in 1965, public dances virtually every year, track and field events in the 1950s, prize fights in 1926, VFW meetings 1936, and many more advertised in local papers. One of the most notable events was the 1922 Middlesex County Civic-Industrial Exposition held at the Armory.
Hundreds of local civic groups, industrial firms, and commercial operations set up booths to display their products for the four-day open house. As a historian, the photographs from the expo provide significant detail about the firms and their products to better understand commerce of the time.
After World War II, an honor roll of those who served was built in front of the armory, as shown in the 1940s photo shown here. It listed almost 3,000 names when it was dedicated in 1943 on a plywood wall that arched over the main entrance.
After the soldiers returned from the war, it was taken down and Veterans Memorial Park on Washington Street took its place as a way to honor our local servicemen.
By the 1970s, Middletown officials were itching to get their hands on this prominent location on Main Street. In 1974, during redevelopment of Metro Square, the city had discussions with the state, offering 10 acres in Maromas in exchange for the downtown site. The state wasn’t ready. Discussions heated up by 1981, when a citizen’s committee hired architect Jared Edwards to create a plan for the armory site, in hopes that the state would consider turning it over to the town.
Edward's commercial center plan, that he referred to as “like Boston’s Quincy Market,” called for 34,490 square feet of retail space on the first floor of the reconditioned Armory building and offices on the second floor. The state started to consider the switch over, but it wasn’t going to happen that fast.
Gerard Weitzman, who owned Pelton’s Drug Store next door, led the efforts to convert the old Armory into a cultural center for the City of Middletown to be named in honor of his parents Ben and Fay Weitzman. The city bought the structure from the state in 1992, and sold it to Weitzman in 1997.
His efforts were on hold due to financial struggles when he died in 1999, but less than three years later, the old, abandoned armory was on a fast track to becoming a fine hotel to serve Middletown. The city committed $400,000 to the project undertaken by developer Robert B. Friedman and Group One Architects out of New Haven.
The Inn at Middletown opened in October of 2003. It incorporated a large five-story addition to the central drill shed, a marble lobby with an elegant spiral stairycase, and a restaurant in the old Watkinson family living room. The wings have meeting space on the second floor.
One newspaper article on the day that the hotel opened indicated that Middletown hadn’t had a “real” hotel since the 1950s, and the Inn at Middletown clearly filled a void in the local economy and service sector. It stands as a proud testament for rehabilitation and preservation, in all its glory.
We have Gerald Weitzman to thank for saving the building for all those years, and for the city leaders who never gave up on the efforts to establish a hotel and to preserve the armory building. Many thanks.