By Nancy Bertrand
The handsome brick building on the corner of Main and Armory Streets was built in 1913 to house the town’s military company. It was actually the tenth home of the fabled “Richardson Light Guard.”
The RLG was founded in 1851 and was composed, mainly, of men from South Reading. The company took the name of “Richardson Light Guard” in honor of Solon O. Richardson, a local businessman and philanthropist who, in becoming the sponsor of the company, donated $500 toward its support. Dr. Richardson would continue to support the company throughout his lifetime.
The company would later distinguish itself in the Civil War and the Spanish American War as Company A of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry. Its first home was the old Town House on the Common; later it would move to the old bank building on the corner of Albion and Railroad St (now North Avenue). From 1861-1866, it was housed in Kingman’s block, on the corner of Main and Albion Streets, then, from 1866 – 1869 in the ‘Albion Hall’ on Foster Street From 1871-1873 it moved to Town Hall on the corner of Main and Water Street, and thence to the old Town House, which had been moved to Main and Salem Streets. It was later relocated to the Rink Building on Main Street until 1895.
In 1894, Town Meeting finally voted to build a dedicated home for the military company. The town appropriated $12,000, purchased a lot of land near the Town Hall, and erected a large wooden structure, with an attached drill hall. The town’s wooden Armory served it well, but on July 6, 1911, the Cutler Building, which stood on the corner of Main and Water Streets (site of the present Hart’s Hardware), was struck by lightning during a violent thunderstorm. Despite valiant efforts by the town’s fire department, the building was destroyed by fire. Luckily, the Richardson Light Guard, assisted by Spanish American War veterans, had been successful in saving their records before the flames consumed the building. The Light Guard moved to their ninth temporary home in the Taylor Building (corner of Main and Lincoln Streets).
In 1913, the new brick Armory was built. Located across the street from the previous armory, the new building adjoined the estate of Cyrus Wakefield and a grove of elm trees. Built of brick in the neo-historical style that had become popular in public buildings, the structure was dedicated with a ceremony that drew 500 people, including Massachusetts Governor Eugene Foss .
Since its erection, the building was not only an armory, but also the home of landmark events and activities. It served as the location for the launch of the Wakefield Chapter of the American Red Cross in 1920, and as the setting for the grand Welcome Home ceremony for returning soldiers from World War I in 1919. In 1920. Richardson Light Guard re-organized as Company K, 101st Infantry, Massachusetts National Guard, and the Armory became the Massachusetts National Guard Armory.
After years of proud service as a National Guard Armory, in 1975, the building was de-accessioned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; the town of Wakefield took the opportunity to purchase the building for the sum of $1.00. After some much needed repair, the town moved to rename the structure. A contest was held in the Wakefield Daily Item newspaper with 81 residents suggesting possible names for grand old building. The winning suggestion was made by Daniel Burbine, who proposed naming it after the Americal Division. The Americal Division had fought in the Pacific during World War II, and had included units from Wakefield. On April 21, 1976, an official re-naming was done at a ceremony presided over by Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
The building was used by local civic and sports organizations, and was maintained by the Department of Public Works, but its operation was expensive, and, in 1981, the building was closed while officials debated selling it. An ad hoc citizens group formed a “Save the Americal Civic Center” organization and proposed that the building be privately managed.
In 1983, the Americal Civic Center Association was formed in order to take over the stewardship of the building. Through the volunteer efforts of the Civic Center Board, the building has been well-tended over the years, sustaining itself by means of rental income. Today the home of the Citizens Scholarship Foundation and the Wakefield Interfaith Food Pantry, among other organizations and businesses, the Americal annually hosts hundreds of town meetings and community events and is an important asset to the Town of Wakefield.
The Town of Wakefield has recently announced that it will be taking over the management of the grand old building, with thanks to the Americal Civic Center Association, which heroically acted to save the grand old building in 1981 and has been managing it since then. The Town’s management will assure that the building will continue to serve the town into the future.
As it approaches its 103th birthday (in 2016), the Americal Civic Center remains a vital part of the community that proudly erected it.