CELEBRATING 25 YEARS Armory Art Center celebrates evolution to thriving art school

The Armory Art Center didn’t start out as the handsome, functional art school it is today. Back in 1986, when the original 1939 building was being eyed as a possible home for students and teachers displaced that year by the closing of the Norton Museum’s art school, the structure left much to be desired. The former National Guard Armory, which had been vacant for four years, was a haven for drug dealers, prostitutes and vagrants.

“The floors and the roof were in bad shape,” said Matthew McCarthy, who’d been a drawing and painting teacher at the Norton School. “There was no electricity. It was full of mold and mildew. It was pretty nasty.”

Nasty no longer, the Armory will celebrate its 25 years in business with a birthday bash from 5-7 p.m. March 23 at the center in West Palm Beach.

Two groups came together to rescue the Armory from the demolition the city had determined was the best solution for the derelict building. One was the former Norton school teachers and students, and the other was the budding Flamingo Park Homeowners Association, which envisioned the center as an anchor to help turn around the struggling neighborhood.

The artists appealed to the Palm Beach County Council of the Arts (now the Cultural Council) for help finding suitable space. The council lent employee Sylvia Chayat to the effort and found temporary quarters for the school as the council and community leaders lobbied city leaders for possession of the Armory.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” said Will Ray, who headed the council at the time. “It was an opportunity to do the right thing for artists at a time when we weren’t doing anything for visual artists.”

In April 1987, the city agreed to lease the property for a nominal rent to the newly formed nonprofit Armory School and Visual Arts Center. “We were naively and supremely confident,” said David Smith, the group’s first board chairman.

The next task was finding the money to refurbish enough of the building so classes could begin. Ray turned to Palm Beach attorney Bob Montgomery, whose wife, Mary, had studied painting at the Norton school. Montgomery’s law firm put up $100,000, which was matched by smaller contributions, to retool 4,000 square feet on the south side of the 14,000-square-foot building.

In the days before the Kravis Center, the Palm Beach County Convention Center and CityPlace, “we knew it was a gamble,” said Mary Montgomery, whose husband died in 2008. The Montgomerys became the Armory’s most generous contributors, frequently keeping the organization afloat through troubled times. Mary Montgomery has served on the board since its inception. “Bob really loved it,” she said. “That was his real baby.”

Montgomery commissioned Clarence “Skip” Measelle, one of the Armory’s original instructors, to paint an over-sized version of the law firm’s check that still hangs in the building.

Whipping the building into shape was a community effort. “Everybody helped out,” said McCarthy, another of the Armory’s original teachers. “That was the fun of it. Everybody pitched in.”

In October 1987, the first classes were held in the building. Enrollment that year was 683, and the annual operating budget was $235,000. “It was pretty basic,” McCarthy said. “We had the walls, floor and ceiling — but that’s all we needed to teach classes.”

The new organization struggled in its first months, as the board quarreled, fund-raising lagged, and administrators came and went. Montgomery insisted that more businesslike leadership be put in place, Ray said.

Developer William Finley took over as board chairman, and David Edgar, who’d managed the Crealde School of Art in Winter Park, arrived in August 1988 as executive director.

Edgar recalls his first sight of the building. Smoke stains edged boarded-up windows on two sides and the original entrance was covered with plywood. Beer cans littered the parking lot.

His job was to move the scrappy, volunteer-driven organization forward. “We were trying to make it happen at the least possible cost,” he said. “We were working on a shoestring.”

By the time Edgar left in 2000, the organization had moved into the remainder of the original building, renovated the Kaplan sculpture building and was raising money to construct the Young Artists Studio, which opened in 2003.

Today, under chief executive Sandra Coombs, the center is operating in the black, has an annual enrollment of 4,411 and offers 1,224 classes, art camps and workshops annually, as well as exhibitions, lectures and other programs.

“We’ve survived,” Smith said. “It’s 25 years later. I’m very proud of that.”