History of the Rutherford Armory
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
By Rod Leith, Borough Historian
Nearly 126 years ago a unit of the New Jersey National Guard purchased property on Rutherford’s Park Avenue where they had an armory built. It was a magnificent, two-story brick and masonry structure that stood about where Suprema Restaurant is today.
Building a headquarters for Company L, Second Regiment NJNG was the brainchild of legendary figures of 19th Century Rutherford, like Captain Addison J. Ely (*see note below). Ely, a lawyer born in Caldwell, New Jersey, mustered into the National Guard in 1893. Company L purchased its lot on Park Avenue from the lawyer, Henry H. Copeland. With his colleague, Lieutenant Wilkin Bookstaver, Captain Ely organized Company L. They commissioned a well-known architect, Frank K. Irving of Passaic, to draw the plans in October 1896. Irving had been responsible for designing other armories, including the famous Paterson Armory, built the year before.
No sooner had bids been issued, with specifications and plans on October 1, 1896, when two local contractors stepped up to the challenge. And that is where the story of the building of Rutherford’s Armory takes on a special meaning, one that holds a tale of two brothers who excelled as English-trained carpenters. The general contractor for the Armory was Charles Dabinett, who was a sergeant with Company L. The interiors contractor was Louis Beck of East Rutherford, who was actually a painter.
But the tradesmen who performed the day-to-day carpentry on the building were the brothers, Richard and Alfred King of Rutherford. These two carpenters, born in Poplar, Middlesex County, England, led a crew of six to ten tradesmen to build the Armory, beginning in November 1896. Their work was completed in March 1897. The Armory announced its opening on March 11, 1897.
In just about this same period, Richard King immigrated to America in 1886. On July 20, 1896, Richard King purchased property on what was River Road (now Riverside Avenue), just north of Gouverneur Avenue in Rutherford, and built his home in May and June of that year. The King house at 491 Riverside Avenue has been very well maintained. Its current owners, John and Elisa Rosa, have proudly offered to have the house designated historic, mainly due to its connection with Richard and Alfred King and their role in the construction of the historic Rutherford Armory, which also served as Rutherford’s Borough Hall.
Known in Rutherford as Armory Hall, the 50 X 147-foot building with two stories, served as the main 48 X 76-foot drill hall for Company L. Captain Ely and his men trained as sharpshooters, preparing for eventual service in the Spanish-American War, beginning in April 1898. The Armory’s main floor hosted festival balls as well as theatrical performances. Space for Rutherford’s Borough Hall was provided on its second floor.
Company L used the Armory to drill for marksman competitions around the state. Captain Ely proudly proclaimed his company as 2nd in a competition that drew 56 companies from around New Jersey. When war broke out in 1898, Company L rallied with more volunteers than any other company in the Regiment.
Meanwhile, the King brothers had gotten busy with their house-building business. Records kept by members of the King family, which include those work days for day-to-day time sheets on the Armory. This was work conducted for Louis Beck from November 1896-to March 1897. Also, these records account for carpentry projects beginning in September 1893, and up through 1898. These projects included houses in Perth Amboy, NJ, as well as Tarrytown, NY. They also did jobs in Brooklyn and New Dorp in Staten Island. They were the contractors on some vintage projects on Staten Island which include the historic Boardwalk Midland Hotel in 1897.
Richard and Alfred King’s involvement in the building of the Rutherford Armory is a salute to a classic downtown structure, which was situated next to Edward Turner’s massive commercial building at 84 Park Avenue. The Armory served as Borough Hall up through the late 1930s when the Park Avenue School was abandoned and converted to Rutherford Borough Hall in 1939.
Although the Armory functioned as the headquarters for Company L for less than five years --- and then became the official Borough Hall its venue provided space for some historically important events. The well-known Rutherford history, “Things Old and New from Rutherford” by Margaret G. Riggs made its debut there during the 1898 Armory Hall Fair of the Woman’s Reading Club, later known as the Woman’s Club of Rutherford.
In February 1899, the Armory’s Hall hosted the New York Lumiere Cinematograph and Edison Wargraph Company. This was the most up-to-date exhibit ever placed before the public of battle scenes from the Spanish-American War. The Lumiere Brothers partnered with Thomas A. Edison of West Orange, NJ, to bring this historic exhibit to Rutherford’s Armory on February 16, 1899.
Richard King (1865-1944) was married first to Mary Elizabeth (nee Griffiths) (1857-1906). His second marriage in 1909 was to Emily Agnes Keeling King (1875-1953). They had one son, Harold Lawrence. Richard and Mary Elizabeth had three sons, Richard Griffiths, Alfred Wellington, and Horace Hollister. Richard King resided in Rutherford up through 1935.
His brother Alfred and his wife, Sophie, owned a home on 529 Riverside Ave, but after Sophie's death, Alfred resided at 105 Mountain Way. The brothers were buried at Hillside Cemetery in Lyndhurst.
* There is no doubt Captain Ely was a military leader of considerable reputation. But there is another aspect of his life and influence in Rutherford during the late 1890s that should not be overlooked. Research on the Mt. Ararat Church demonstrates that Captain Ely weighed in to prevent this Black church from establishing its first church near Rutherford's downtown area in a location at Franklin and Kipp. My research demonstrated that Ely purchased the property originally favored for the Black church and made an offer for the church founders to locate instead on Elm Street. In fact, a group of Black masons from Newark came to Rutherford to dedicate a marker on Franklin, corner of Kipp. But that site was never used for the Black church. They were established on Elm Street instead. It was an unfortunate episode of anti-Black sentiment. Ely's role was well documented.