The land where the Armory Building now stands was transferred to the State of Missouri in September of 1938 by the City of Columbia for the express purpose of use as a National Guard Armory. The Warranty Deed stated that it was "...understood and agreed that the City of Columbia, the party of the first part, and the Board of Education of the City of Columbia and the various civic and service clubs of said City, with the permission of said City of Columbia, shall have perpetual easement in the use of the buildings and premises and/or any buildings to be constructed on the within premises so long as such does not conflict with the use and benefit of the Missouri National Guard as an armory." In layman's terms, this meant that the city could still use the building as long as that usage didn't interfere with the National Guard's business. Also, in the words of Fred Boeckmann, City Counselor, in 1989, "It is my opinion that if the State ceases to use the property as an armory, the City, under its easement, can make whatever use it chooses of the property."
The original armory building was constructed in 1938 at a cost of $118,810. The City paid $38,972, the State paid $8,003, and the Federal Government paid $ 71,835. In 1993, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's architecture was (and remains) Art Deco, a style born in the early twentieth century. As well as for its architecture, construction of the armory is historically relevant, because it was part of the country-wide New Deal construction boom. Armories were built across the country during this period, and style was largely left to local control for the first time. Until then, Armory construction had followed a more uniform code, and the buildings were made to look formidable and opposing. Columbia's Armory is also socially important, as, from its very start, it has served dual functions as both a state military and community activity site.
Art Deco, like its predecessor, Art Nouveau, was a break from the traditions of Greek and Roman art. A product of the times (1909-1940), Art Deco utilized modern technology to produce art that was available to the common person, not just to the wealthy as classical art had been. Though very popular, this style of architecture was highly transitory, and few examples of it remain in central Missouri. As written in the Department of Interior document that established the armory on the National Register of Historic Places: "The Columbia Armory is an excellent example of Art Deco in the state of Missouri." Specific characteristics of the Armory noted by the National Register were the symmetrical windows and the lamella roof structure. Lamella, or diagrid, roof construction was a novelty at the time and produced a tell-tale latticework or honeycomb appearance.
Parks and Recreation in the Armory: From the very beginning, the City took advantage of the building as permitted by the 1938 deed (quoted above). Primary usage of the armory by the City was for recreational activities, and the City paid costs associated with that usage. Among costs paid by the City were utilities for the armory and various expenses involved in maintaining the gym floor. A 1989 assessment by the Parks and Recreation Department determined that the facility had been used for recreation a total of 809 hours that year by a total of more than 19,000 participants (including spectators). The recreational activities at that time were basketball and volleyball leagues, as well as Noon Club basketball. It was estimated that just over $20,000 was saved by the Parks and Rec using the armory for those activities, comparing the price to what using local school gyms would have cost. In reality, many of those activities would have been eliminated, rather than played somewhere else at such higher costs.
In 1996, the National Guard finished a new building at 5151 Roger Wilson Drive and moved out of the old armory. For about the next year, various discussions were held regarding use of the facility, and these covered many different topics and concerns. Use of the building by Boone County, the Police Department, and the Fire Department were all considered, as well as continued and expanded use by the Parks and Recreation Department. By the end of 1997, new buildings for both the Police and Fire Departments were in the works, and Parks and Recreation was left with the armory.
Discussion, planning, and bidding on renovations to the building then began and lasted into 1999. Chief concerns in the renovation of the armory were the leaking roof, the damaged gym floor, and-first and foremost-bringing the building up to ADA standards. A contract was finally awarded to Prost Builders for the renovation in August of 1999. During the work, the Columbia Historic Preservation Committee was consulted to insure the historic appearance of the building was not adversely affected by the renovations. The features specifically talked about were the front doors, the windows, and the roof. The committee was also consulted on paint color for the exterior of the building.
In April of 2000, the City Council officially terminated a ten-year agreement between the City and County, giving the City sole possession of the armory, because the County no longer needed space within the building. Renovation was in full swing at this point, and the council officially named the facility the Armory Sports Center as recommended by Parks and Recreation staff. On May 23rd, 2000, Ray Beck announced that, "...for all practical purposes, the work authorized by contract has been completed and Parks and Recreation has been advised they may take possession of the facility except for the locker rooms that will be impacted by pending decisions." Decisions were also being made regarding the gym floor, but Parks and Rec staff began moving into the building.
Renovations brought the building up to code and included a new gym floor, air conditioning and heating to allow year-round programming, new locker rooms for men and women, restrooms, elevator and new program rooms. The outside of the building was painted and old windows replaced. By the fall of 2000, the Armory had been completely renovated and back in full use.
In 2003 the Community Recreation Program, formerly at 4th and Wilkes, was moved to the Armory Sports & Community Center.