By Donna King
United States Naval Armory on campus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is slated for demolition in the campus’ 2019 Master Plan. The plan was developed in 2015/16 to align with the university’s strategic priorities, but was on a shelf during the pandemic. The Armory building is slated to be razed to make way for meeting space in the new Institute for Convergent Science.
Alumni of UNC’s Naval ROTC program say ‘not on our watch,’ launching a letter-writing campaign to save the 1943 building. Nearly 100 letters have already made it to UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz‘s desk.
The 18,519 square foot Naval Armory, along with many buildings on the campus, were built by the United States Navy during World War II. Then-Chancellor Frank Porter Graham tapped his friendship with President Franklin D. Rosevelt to secure UNC as one of five campuses to offer pre-flight training for Naval aviators. The designation led the Navy to make massive campus infrastructure investments and then turn the buildings over to the school after the war.
The pre-flight program likely saved the institution, according to NRTOC alumni Robert Rivers, because 80% of the UNC student body left for military service once the war started. According to UNC’s Alumni Review, 333 UNC students died in World War II.
“Even the brick pathways we love so much, many of them were laid by pre-flight cadets,” said Rivers, a 1973 graduate.
After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, Rivers went on to be a Naval aviator and NASA test pilot. Today he is still flying as a contract test pilot and aerospace consultant, along with following his passion on the Naval Armory Preservation Committee. Rivers’ oldest son followed in his footsteps attending UNC’s Naval ROTC program while his youngest son will soon be attending Navy Officer Candidate School after graduating from UNC.
“It has such a rich history that it’s hard to imagine that Carolina would want to demolish a building, with the recent missteps with Silent Sam and Hannah Nikole Jones, not all of which was Carolina’s fault, but it just didn’t go well for them in the press. Why would they want to destroy a building where the first African Americans in the country who officially enlisted in the United States Navy served?
In comments from the UNC’s media relations office, the 2019 Master Plan was developed in 2015/2016 with input from stakeholders, including the prior staff from the NROTC program.
“While the University strives to preserve the character of its historic campus, it must balance those aspects with the evolving needs of current and future students,” wrote UNC spokesperson, Pace Sagester, in a statement echoing the message sent to alarmed alumni. “The Naval Armory site and adjacent parking lot will be redeveloped to house the Institute for Convergent Science. The new building will bring together medicine, engineering, physical and life sciences and foster interdisciplinary collaboration in world-class research.”
Sagester also said that destruction of the building is not slated for another five years, according to the Master Plan. However, the plan does not indicate building a new facility for NROTC on campus.
Alumni of NROTC say that if the university decides to spread the program spaces out around campus, it would uproot the longstanding traditions and camaraderie that help ROTC cadets train and thrive. Ultimately, Rivers says it further could hurt recruitment. Military recruitment across the services in N.C. is already down 30%, the lowest level since the draft.
Rivers said that while criticism of UNC’s recent handling of historic markers is warranted in many cases, the attitude on campus toward military is actually improved over the 1970’s when he was there. Then, students would throw tomatoes at midshipmen when they were in their white uniforms, walking to and from the Naval Armory for training. Once, the NROTC students even had to stand between the historic building and an angry mob.
“A group of student radicals had vowed to burn it down,” he said. “They showed up and we wouldn’t get near the Armory. The police came and dispersed the crowd. We actually had to go defend the Armory in 1970 from being burned down.”
Even some faculty during that time were openly hostile toward ROTC students.
“I would go into a class in my uniform, because I had drill right after, and the professor would say, ‘well, here comes the baby killer,’ ” said Rivers. “Professors did that to us. Half the class would be devoted to just crucifying those of us in ROTC. It’s a lot better than that now.”
Proud alumni want to save the Naval Armory not just for its history, but because it honors generations of sacrifice made by UNC students. The ongoing letter-writing campaign gives first-hand account of the Armory’s significance, and the commitment its students have to defend this nation.
“It has galvanized me to be even more dedicated to saving the Armory,” he said. “I’ve read a letter from a former midshipman in the 60s whose two friends quickly died in Vietnam after they graduated,” said Rivers. “Or a midshipman in the 90’s who went to Arlington National Cemetery for the funeral ceremony of Pat Connor who died in Desert Storm.
These are students who in their 20’s graduated, got commissioned, and then gave their lives for their country. It’s inconceivable to use that UNC would demolish a building that so many of us have an attachment to.”
Naval ROTC alumni are attacking the Master Plan on two fronts. One, they are keeping letters coming from ROTC members in all services and from powerful university alumni. Meantime, they have applied to have the UNC Naval Armory declared a historic building.
The NROTC Alumni Association submitted that application to the North Carolina National Register of Historic Places in August and expect to hear back this fall. The next hurdle will be another committee to examine the finalists requesting historic status for a property. A final decision is not expected until 2023.
Sagester points out that the Armory is in poor condition and that wherever the NROTC program later resides on campus, the Naval Armory’s historic artifacts will be preserved. The alumni group says the building’s current state is the fault of the university, but has offered to underwrite any costs to renovate it.
“The University remains committed to the ROTC and its critical role in building leaders on our campus and will work closely with the ROTC and the College of Arts and Sciences to address their current and future needs and to explore how its rich history will continue in a new location,” UNC’s statement reads.
The Armory now sits in the middle of the Science Complex on campus, and is replacement would be a part of that group of buildings alongside the new Venable Hall, a 1930’s science building that was torn down and replaced in 2010.
However, the Naval Armory is not just another historic campus building where generations of students studied. It also represents those who left campus and died in battle, some just months after graduating.
“We are standing on the shoulders of the heroes who came before us and many of them were in that armory, they trained there,” said Rivers. “We want to emulate them, serve our country as they did. When you go through those doors you know you are where people later won medals of honor or gave the lives for their country. It means something.”
Demolishing the building could cost UNC more than a piece of its history. Many angry alumni are donors too. Charles Wolfe, Class of 65, graduated from Naval ROTC and received his commission. Now in retirement, he and his wife have established a scholarship awarded annually to a midshipman at UNC.
“The destruction of the Naval Armory would send an unambiguous message in my opinion regarding the university`s commitment to military training on campus and its support of national defense,” Wolfe said. “It would greatly sadden and dishearten many of us, and make us rethink our continued commitment to Carolina.”
Also slated for demolition in UNC’s Master Plan are Abernathy Hall, Grimes Residence Hall, Ruffin Residence Hall, Berryhill Hall, Parker Residence Hall, Teague Residence Hall, the Evergreen House, and others.
“Acknowledge the good history of Carolina, some good things in our past, like sacrifice and loyalty, the things are important to holding a society together,” said Rivers. “They are symbolized in that building, For UNC to give that away seems unfathomable to us.”