You can usually guess a person’s age based on how they know the Armory in downtown Minneapolis.
If they tell you they went there once for a military event, they are probably old enough to have lived through the Depression.
If they caught a Minneapolis Lakers basketball game or a boxing match there, chances are good they’re postwar baby boomers.
If they attended the Police and XTC concert there, they’re likely in their 50s — and probably will complain about the acoustics.
And if they tell you the Armory was their parking garage, they’re somewhere in the age range to have worked in a downtown office building over the past two decades, when rain, snow, pigeon poop and sometimes weird corrosive goo dripped onto vehicles through the deteriorating ceiling.
Already a building that has gone through many manifestations, the Armory just emerged from its biggest overhaul yet. Fixing the roof was just the start to a remarkable, high-buck makeover.
The 83-year-old structure — at 5th Street and Portland Avenue S. in the heart of what’s now being ruthlessly marketed as East Town — was bought up by ubiquitous developer Ned Abdul for $6 million in 2015. His company, Swervo, has converted it into an 8,000-person live music and events venue.
It reopened midwinter just in time to reap Super Bowl concerts by Pink, Imagine Dragons and Kelly Clarkson. On Monday, the Armory hosts its first rock concert since its Super rollout.
In true fashion for a venue that once housed tanks and artillery, it’s a classic heavy-metal show. Judas Priest is playing its first Twin Cities date in nine years.
While a Priest gig doesn’t exactly underline how much the Armory’s new operators looked to the future, those first few Super Bowl concerts certainly did.
The Armory made a strong first impression. Its 65-foot arched ceiling and sand-colored, art-deco facade made for a visually dramatic setting when the stage lights lit it up, sort of like an airplane hangar mixed with a Smithsonian museum.
It was an impressive concert space logistically, too. Fans on the general-admission floor either pushed their way to the wide stage, stood in the spacious back corners, or lined up along the rails in front of the raised bar areas, which stretch along the building’s two long walls. (No lack of bar space here!) Upstairs in the two-level VIP balconies, patrons found plenty of places to sit along the tiered booths overlooking the performers and the audience below.
As for the big question: Yes, the acoustics are good now; not great, but certainly better than at any venue in town with capacity over 3,000 people — save for the relatively exceptional Xcel Energy Center. (The X’s neighboring Roy Wilkins Auditorium, for what it’s worth, would be buried by comparison.)
Making the place sound better was just one of many improvements made by Abdul and his team. They hired acoustic technicians from Minneapolis’ famed Orfield Labs, who recommended a spray-on foam for the ceiling and wall panels to soften the sonic bounce. Acoustic drapes and bass traps were also installed.
“When you get up to sports arenas, music is usually the redheaded stepchild, and things like acoustics aren’t a big part of the equation,” Abdul said. “But we definitely had music at the forefront of our considerations.”
A veteran real estate developer — or rather “redeveloper” — Abdul specializes in reviving old Minneapolis warehouses and other faded buildings, converting them into modern offices or condo properties. His projects have included the 510 Marquette, Nate’s Clothing and Western Container buildings.
The Armory certainly fits Abdul’s old-is-new-again model. Built in 1935 as part of Franklin Roosevelt’s Depression-fighting Works Progress Administration, the venue was used off and on by the Minnesota National Guard over the decades while also playing host to civic events, political rallies and even the final Minneapolis Lakers home games before they were moved to Los Angeles in 1960.
Since the ’80s, the property has been in flux, going from a proposed new county jail site to finally a parking garage, with the building’s makeover limited by its designation on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s very rare and very valuable to find a structure like this that’s not owned by the city or any government,” said Abdul, who dismissed the notion that he saw the Armory as something of a for-fun playhouse rather than a shrewd business investment.
“It was definitely more of a business decision. I think it’s going to be a vital, contributing building to downtown for decades to come.”
Abdul said he has invested “several millions more” in overhauling the property, including raising the floor, remaking the mezzanines and of course rebuilding the roof.
Abdul properties housed Epic and Karma nightclubs, of which he was a co-owner before they shut down in the late ’00s following violent incidents among patrons and a federal fraud investigation. He and his partner were never charged.
For the Armory, Abdul brought back Epic’s Beecher Vaillancourt to help book and manage along with another nightclub vet, Jack Trash. A DJ and electronic dance promoter who also co-helms the Summer Set dance music festival in Somerset, Wis., Trash already helped bring electronic music stars Steve Aoki and Above & Beyond to the Armory.
“People thought it would be all dance music or just like another Epic here, but it’s going to be way more diverse than that,” said Trash, who pointed to the venue’s coveted size as a great selling point: “It’s an arena-level feel and still a fairly large capacity, but it feels very intimate. That’s a very hard combo to find in the industry.”
Thumbs up from performers
So far, performers have seemed to like it. Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds called it a “beautiful venue” from the stage.
Above & Beyond co-leader Juno Grant said after his group’s New Year’s Eve show, “What’s great as an artist is that you are able to see the whole crowd.” The London musician also appreciated the historic feel of the place, adding, “It’s wonderful to see that the building has been lovingly reinvented for the future.”
After the Super Bowl, Abdul’s biggest partner in making the Armory a music venue became concert behemoth Live Nation, which booked a majority of shows on the newly expanded calendar, including the Head and the Heart, Slayer, Dua Lipa and Coheed & Cambria in upcoming months.
“We could not be more excited about this venue and the impact it will make to the Twin Cities music scene,” said Minneapolis-based Live Nation talent buyer Josh Lacey. “The work that Ned and his team have done to restore this historic facility is beyond impressive.”
Abdul said working with different promoters is just one way he intends to eventually beef up the Armory calendar to about 100 events per year. His crew will also host nonmusical events, such as an upcoming Premier Boxing match on April 13 between Jamal James and Abel Ramos, to be televised internationally via FS1 and Fox Deportes.
Probably even more lucratively, the Armory is also now pitching itself for corporate events. A large new kitchen was installed for catering, and different flooring and layout options are being offered to adjust for varying sizes and levels of VIP treatment.
“We’ve made it into really a very versatile, multiuse space,” Abdul boasted.
As if the Armory’s past uses weren’t already diverse enough.