This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.

Allen Ross lives in a castle, but it feels more like purgatory.

Ross is diabetic, arthritic and schizophrenic and had to turn to the Bedford Atlantic Armory Men’s Assessment Shelter when he could no longer pay his rent. He’s spending his day passing time in the shadows of the turrets that tower four stories into the air above Crown Heights. Like the rest of the residents of the 124-year-old edifice that has been a shelter since 1983, Ross is in the assessment phase of the New York City shelter system, meaning he is waiting to be placed in long-term housing. The typical stay at Bed-Atlantic lasts 21 days.

Ross spends his wait sitting on the steps of a boarded-up apartment block across the street, avoiding the armory which he says makes him sick. But each night, he passes back through the armory’s stone archway and under the wrought-iron portcullis with the old coat-of-arms of the defunct 23rd regiment of the New York National Guard. “Vigilantia” reads the regiment’s crest. The word is Latin for alertness, but can also mean wakefulness or a condition of not sleeping.

For Ross, the latter definition is more apt, for a bed provides relief from the weather but little rest. He complains about the food, the ministers who come to proselytize, and the fights that break out between residents on medication for a host of ailments. “They put people in there to get better,” he said, but “they get sick.”

He is just one occupant of a New York City shelter system serving the most people since the Great Depression. Together, at nearly 64,000 strong, they would overflow Yankee Stadium. For Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to remake New York City into the “fairest big city in America,” the homeless represent a canary in the coalmine of inequality. Since the mid-’90s, as rent soared in the city while wages remained mostly stagnant, the number of people without a home doubled.  Bed-Atlantic, which houses up to 400 men a night, is essential to “turning the tide,” as the mayor puts it.

Though this castle appears a curio in Crown Heights today, throughout the history of Brooklyn it’s been a failsafe of final resort. For it was constructed in another epoch of stark inequality — the Gilded Age, when labor unions and strikers threatened the newfound wealth of industrialists at the turn of the 19th century. The brownstone walls, Romanesque Revival architecture, and even the earth beneath it have always protected the city’s civic order — or its status quo, depending on how you look at it. This fortress that occupies almost an entire city block has served many purposes over the years: homestead for Brooklyn’s early gentry, symbol of law and order, event space for the city’s well-to-do, and now a refuge for those with nowhere else to go.

Today, the castle is guarded by parked NYPD cruisers, a few watchful officers of the peace, and a metal detector, but when Brooklyn celebrated the start of construction of the armory in 1891, crowds gathered for its inauguration. The 23rd Regiment of the National Guard, nicknamed “Ours” because it attracted the best of Brooklyn, marched through the streets of the city to a grandstand erected for Governor David B. Hill. The state architect Isaac G. Perry wrote in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle how he, along with architects Halstead P. Fowler and William Hough, had designed the armory’s castle-like features to “present a massive and imposing elevation” and provide “safe protection to sentinels when on duty in guarding the armory.”

But the imposing towers and turrets of the armory have not protected it from gaining a bad reputation. This year, The New York Daily News called the shelter one of the most “dangerous” in the city after an investigation showed police made 89 arrests at the facility in 2017 and responded to 865 requests for assistance. In February, 21-year-old Miguel Acosta bled to death after being stabbed in a dispute just outside the door. And the same month, the New York Post reported that a broken trash compactor unleashed a rat and cockroach infestation.

The Department of Homeless Services is trying to change the armory’s reputation by “opening the doors,” as Isaac McGinn, the department’s press secretary, put it on a recent tour.

“We’re not only responsible for helping New Yorkers experiencing homelessness get back on their feet — providing the staffing, services, programs, and supports that this round-the-clock mission requires — but for being conscientious stewards of a historic, landmarked building, ensuring it is well-maintained and thoughtfully utilized,” McGinn said.

On a recent Thursday morning, the inside of the shelter smelled more like bleach than bedlam. The shelter staff smiled as they filled out paperwork, and crews of custodians mopped the floors and changed sheets.

The Department has changed the armory from its “three hots and a cot” days when hundreds of men would sleep in the open-air drill hall of the armory. Today, eight to 12 beds occupy the rooms that used to be lounges filled with portraits of past commanders, plush furniture, and trophies won by the 23rd Regiment. One room even featured a large, stuffed eagle that a member of the regiment killed with a club while on a tour of Michigan.

Shelter residents gather in a recreation room with table tennis and pool tables, although most sit in chairs with hoods pulled over their faces, apparently trying to get some sleep. And in the drill hall, where the 23rd Regiment used to practice their marksmanship at a firing range and host sporting events like tennis and track, the Department of Homeless Services Police trains its recruits in skills like crisis management, understanding mental health disorders, and tactical training.

The Department of Homeless Services opened the training center at the armory earlier this year. It may not have been intentional, but the new training center returns the drill hall to its original use: preparation for a crisis.

When the armory was built during the Gilded Age, the United States was growing into an industrial power at the same time large amounts of immigrants began arriving in the city. Tenements, riots, and strikes began to dominate headlines and concern the gentry.

“THE MOB RULES … Incendiary Utterances by the Communists of New York … A Reign of Terror Throughout the Land … Law-Abiding Citizens Looking The Situation Square In The Face … They Realize that Mob Violence Must be Suppressed at all Hazards and Whatever Cost,” declared the headlines of the Detroit Free Press in a Tuesday night dispatch from July 25, 1877.

The national guard became the response of choice, and armories like the one the state built for the 23rd Regiment provided a base for those units to train and deploy. The state formed the regiment during the Civil War to look after the families of the soldiers at the front as well as to protect the city, according to the New York Tribune. The soldiers of the 23rd deployed to Gettysburg in the summer of 1863, but were ordered back to New York after the Draft Riots ravaged the city that July. Irish immigrants, set off by President Lincoln’s draft orders, began looting and killing black people in Manhattan, whom they blamed for the war. Historians call it the nation’s bloodiest race riot.

This was only the beginning. Over the years, the 23rd became adept at threatening and intimidating rioters and strikers into submission. In 1902, Jasper Ewing Brady, the national guard correspondent for Brooklyn Life wrote, “Just get up a riot in this city and every one will feel very much safe if the Twenty-third is out. This has been proven time and time again.”

In the decades following the war, labor strikes and violence continued across the northeast. “Scenes of riot and bloodshed accompanied it such as we have never before witnessed in the uprising of labor against capital,” wrote Harper’s Weekly of the railroad strikes in Baltimore on Aug. 11, 1877.

That year, as railroad workers organized and protested their working conditions, the 23rd deployed to the railroad strike in Hornellsville, New York. The telegrammed orders were clear: “You are wanted here as soon as you can come.” The regiment also protected the status quo in Brooklyn, assisting the sheriff in incidents like the 1870 hanging of an Irishman named William Chambers who was convicted of murdering one of Brooklyn’s well-to-do. Fearing a mob set on freeing the prisoner, the Kings County sheriff called upon the National Guard with the words, “Apprehending tumult and riot, you are directed to order for service this evening at 7 o’clock…” The regiment deployed to make sure Chambers hanged without incident.

During these years, New York went on a spree of armory building. By 1900, the city, county and state pooled resources to build 50 of these fortresses. The state constructed one on Clermont Avenue a few blocks west of Fort Greene Park for the 23rd in 1972, but just 18 years later the regiment leaders began petitioning Albany for the funds for a new headquarters and training hall. As the city’s crack riot-busters, they got their wish.

On May 7, 1889, the state assembly passed a bill that gave the 23rd $300,000, which is equivalent to $7.9 million today, for the purchase of land and construction of the new fortress. Col. John N. Partridge, a civil war veteran and commanding officer of the regiment, soon settled on the southwest corner of Bedford and Atlantic Avenues. It’s not clear why he preferred this site, but the strategic advantage is obvious. An 1885 map of the Long Island Railroad shows the Bedford station just across the street. From this position, the national guard could quickly deploy to protect the railroad or travel to other parts of the city or state.

A rumor even passed around the regiment’s ranks that its rival, the 13th Regiment, was eyeing the land for its new armory. Regiment history holds that Partridge secured the land with a downpayment from his personal funds just a day before the 13th Regiment made its bid. In the months leading up to the state’s purchase, real estate records reveal a scramble for the land.

Silas Condict, a real estate developer and banker from Pittsburgh, purchased part of the plot from the Mutual Life Assurance Society just before the legislature in Albany passed the bill. Russell O. Frost, a builder, acquired the other plots on the proposed building site only two weeks after Condict. While the two speculators tried to drive up the asking price for the land, a commission of local real estate agents settled the final amount. The men received modest profits. On January 16, 1890, the state paid Condict $81,000 for his plots and Frost $25,000 for his.

The next year, the regiment celebrated the laying of the cornerstone by Governor David B. Hill. But as the design and construction commenced, controversy followed. The state architect Isaac G. Perry took credit for the design and wrote effusively of the turrets, portcullis, and ventilation ducts that would carry away the smoke from the gun range. But Halstead P. Fowler and William Hough, the architects hired by Perry to design the armory, felt they deserved more credit. In the New York Times’s “National Guard Notes” column from October 8, 1893, the architects complained that they were listed as associate architects to Perry. While they had not designed an armory before and wouldn’t again, Fowler was a captain in the regiment, which likely helped the firm win the contract. Perry, on the other hand, designed several Romanesque Revival armories throughout the state and is responsible for many of the buildings of that style.

On November 4, 1894, the regiment marched through the streets from their old armory on Clermont Avenue, past the residence of Brooklyn’s mayor, Charles Schieren, and into their new headquarters. The “society people of the Heights and Hill” then came out to the opening fair to inspect the new building, witness the marksmanship of the guardsmen at their firing range, and make sure they were seen by Brooklyn Life, which documented the women’s choices of gowns. “The event was stamped with the hall mark of success, social and financial, on that night,” the weekly noted.

This was not the first time the gentry claimed the land, though. For dating back to the colonial era, the Lefferts family had worked this ground to rise to become one of Brooklyn’s first leading families. A family Dortrecht Bible records that Laffert Pieterse van Haughwout (meaning Laffert, son of Peter from Haughwout) immigrated to the country from northern Holland in 1660. He moved to one of the early Dutch settlements to Flatbush, then considered part of Long Island. Laffert Pieterse and his wife Femmetje Hermanse had 14 children and bought up large tracts of land in southern Brooklyn, including a plot in the hamlet of Bedford, which was centered where Fulton Street meets Bedford Avenue today. One of his sons, Jacobus, moved north to Bedford and established his homestead there. On April 4, 1753, he bought a plot of land for £760, which is about $170,000 today, from a blacksmith named Hendrick Fine who happened to also be his son-in-law.

The plot lay on the south side of the Brooklyn and Jamaica turnpikes (Atlantic Ave. today) and west of the old clove road (Bedford Ave. today) that led up from Flatbush. The family built a mansion on this plot, and behind it cultivated fields where the armory now stands.

An early map from Bernard Ratzer’s survey of Long Island in 1766 and 1767 indicates a slave burial ground across the road from the Lefferts’s farm. Indeed, Jacobus Lefferts, like many of the settlers, reported having one male and two female slaves on the 1755 census.

The family accumulated land and wealth in the area and Jacobus’s sons and grandsons became prominent figures in Brooklyn. His son Barrent signed the Declaration of Independence in November of 1776 and served at the Provincial Congress. After the British occupied Long Island, Barrent wasn’t feeling as patriotic and returned his allegiance to the King until after the war.

Barrent’s older brother, Leffert, served as the town clerk of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. He kept the town records in the second story of the family mansion in Bedford. At the outbreak of the war, his assistant, John Rapalje, a British loyalist, came to the house and told Lefferts’ wife Dorothy Cowenhoven that he wanted to move the town records to a safe place. For several hours, Rapalje sorted through the papers, choosing the ones that would be most valuable, then promptly absconded with the papers, rowing over the East River and then fleeing to Canada to cross the Atlantic to England.

Town tradition and Henry Reed Stiles’s 1867 A History of the City of Brooklyn holds that his granddaughter, accompanied by her husband, William Weldon, brought the records back from England around 1810. They offered to sell them back to the city for $10,000, but the civic leaders balked, and many of Brooklyn’s colonial records remain lost to this day.

The lack of documentation didn’t keep Brooklyn from romanticizing the past though. At the height of its glory in 1915, the armory was the venue for the city’s premiere event: The Brooklyn Historical Pageant. On a Friday morning in May, nearly 7,000 people braved the rain and mist to witness a production that featured 1,300 performers and a chorus of over a thousand, reported the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The weekly Brooklyn Life praised the production, noting that “it was unquestionably the biggest and most elaborate of the kind ever carried out in Brooklyn and perhaps anywhere in the country.”

Martin H. Weyrauch, the playwright and a staff member of the Eagle, wrote in the program that he hoped to reveal a city “proud of its past, confident of its future.” The performance featured eight episodes with titles like The Spirit of Nature Reigns, The Canarsie Indians, The Spirit of Nature Dethroned, and Bruekelen Town. A melodramatic history of Brooklyn unfolded: Canarsie Indians listened to a medicine man prophecy of the “arrival of the pale faces,” elderly Civil War veterans known as the “red-legged devils” took the stage to thunderous applause, and ladies from the Women’s Suffrage Party carried a banner during the postlude depicting “The Future.”

The audience included acting Brooklyn mayor George McAneny, and everyone watched “spellbound and altogether charmed.”

While the armory no longer attracts Brooklyn’s aristocracy, it may soon regain a bit of its theatrical glory. As part of the Department of Homeless Services’ effort to open its doors to the public, Theater of War Productions is eyeing the old space as a venue for a performance for the armory’s residents. The company uses classic Greek literature to spark discussions on modern social issues like gun violence or post-traumatic stress disorder. Actors dramatically read a classic play, and then the audience discusses how the play struck them personally.

As Marjolaine Goldsmith, the company manager for Theater of War Productions, toured the armory, she smiled when she found a room that could be used for the performance. It’s a long hall with original wooden floors, a high ceiling, and a skylight. Both walls are lined with doors that lead to the rooms where the men sleep, waiting to hear if they can move out of the castle.

“This is perfect,” she said.