Grays Armory is meant to be one of the most haunted buildings in Cleveland (right up there with Franklin Castle, which is not open to the public), and it’s certainly one of the coolest looking ones. Even though I grew up in Cleveland and went downtown with reasonable frequency (considering there’s not actually much to do in downtown Cleveland), I don’t recall ever seeing this building before. It is open to the public for tours on the first Wednesday of every month from 10-4, which happened to coincide with my recent visit to see my family, so my mother and I decided to check it out (though we were not optimistic about actually seeing any paranormal activity).
We managed to find metered parking on the street behind the Armory (we were short on quarters, so we paid for an hour, which was cutting it close – I’d probably pay for at least an hour and a half to be on the safe side) and headed in, only to be greeted by one of the biggest dogs I’ve ever seen (picture does not give sense of scale). I can sometimes be a bit scared of big dogs, so walking in to see one the size of a wolf waiting for me was initially a little intimidating, but he was very friendly, and I was happy to give him all the pats once we’d gotten better acquainted and I realised he was a total sweetheart. Tours normally cost $8 per person, but the day we visited was free for some reason (though we did leave a donation at the end).
We were initially the only visitors, but after waiting a few minutes with no one else turning up, the guide was happy to start the tour (a couple came in about a third of the way through, and she offered to recap for them at the end, but they just left immediately after the tour finished). Since I was keen to see the building, I thought we’d start walking around it right away, but most of the “tour” was actually just a talk delivered in the reception room (which also served as the ladies’ waiting room back in the day before ladies were allowed to join), which was fine, just not what I was expecting, so the whole time we were sitting there I was anxious that we wouldn’t actually have time to see the rest of the building.
I didn’t really know anything about the Armory going in, and the poster behind our guide was a little misleading because of its incorrect punctuation, which read “Gray’s Armory,” so I reasonably assumed it was named after someone called Gray. Nope. It should actually be Grays’ Armory, or Grays Armory (as they call themselves on their website), because it is named after the Cleveland Grays, one of America’s oldest militias, and it is America’s oldest independent armory. I’m not really down with the whole militia thing, especially given what it’s become today (weirdos with a million guns living in compounds in Idaho), but I can concede that there probably was some need for law and order in the days before a police force when Cleveland was essentially frontier. The Grays were founded in 1837 and the current building dates to 1893, its two earlier incarnations having burnt down. This building actually partially burnt as well, but the thick stone walls saved the front portion of the building where the reception room was located. I guess after the third burning, they finally learned to stop using fire in a building where gunpowder was housed, or they just stopped housing gunpowder there.
Given the armory’s reputation as super haunted, I would have assumed some people died in the fire, but apparently no one did (which is good news, but not great for alleged paranormal activity!). So maybe the whole haunting idea stems more from the fact that some of these men did serve in the American Civil War, where undoubtedly some of them died, and maybe they returned to this building in the afterlife. The Grays were named after the colour of their uniforms, so you can imagine that caused some confusion in the Civil War, what with being a Northern unit and all! They were pretty quickly switched to the standard Union blue, and veterans of the war were subsequently allowed to wear a blue uniform to militia related events, including standing guard over Lincoln’s coffin, which they did when it passed through Cleveland on the funeral train and was laid out in Public Square. They were meant to take part in the Spanish-American War, but by the time they completed training, the war was basically over. And the US government got rid of independent militias in 1903, so that was the end of the Grays as a fighting unit.
However, the Grays still exist as a social and historical organisation, which women are allowed to join (the tour guide gave us a bit of a hard sell, but since I don’t even live in Cleveland (and am not much for clubs), I declined), and they still have their original uniforms, which is pretty bad ass! When we were finally allowed to leave the reception room, one of the rooms our guide took us to see was the uniform room, which had been ingeniously designed with flip down seats in front of each locker, and air vents at the top to keep things ventilated (not great for keeping out clothes moths, but I don’t think they’re as much of an issue in the US as they are in Britain). They also still have some of their original bearskin hats, which look very similar to what the Queen’s Guard wear in the UK. The guide mentioned that the type of bear they’re made from is now endangered, so they will fortunately be switching to a synthetic version when they need replacing.
I’d like to really emphasise the social part of the organisation, because when the militiamen weren’t off fighting, they just seemed to party. The Armory, although it did house weapons, was basically a big clubhouse, and I get the impression the men just hung out upstairs drinking and smoking. Women were allowed to attend certain events here, and the large drill hall was the perfect space for dances and performances by the Cleveland Orchestra. It has housed a 1930 pipe organ since 1969 when Warner Brothers decided to donate it, so they still put on concerts using it, as well as hosting lectures and “haunted evenings,” none of which took place during my visit to Cleveland, sadly.
We were eventually allowed up to the first floor as well, which had some uber masculine wood panelled rooms, one of which is meant to be haunted by a cigar smoking former member (the only ghost mentioned by the tour guide). I don’t know about all that (definitely didn’t smell any cigar smoke, and to be fair, the guide pointed out that a smoke smell likely seeps out of the walls when it gets hot outside, so she wasn’t exactly credulous either, which I appreciate. I like to learn about ghosts, but people who take them seriously are a bit much), but there was a splendid little collection of taxidermy, including a furry deer butt, and a goat in a sailor hat.
Unfortunately, the second floor is currently closed for restoration, so that ended our tour. Considering it was free, I think it was really pretty informative – though there were a few incorrect facts (general historical ones – I don’t know enough about the Grays to know if that information was accurate) and of course the irritating punctuation mistakes throughout the signage (at least get your own name right!), it was definitely interesting to learn about this lesser-known piece of Cleveland’s history, and the building was of course fantastic. I can’t say if it’s actually haunted (probably not, since ghosts aren’t real), but it sure looks haunted, and that’s really all I care about. I will say that there are various Haunted Cleveland tours that will take you in here, but they are about ten times the price of the Armory’s tour (when it’s not free), and they have pretty crap reviews, so I think this is your best way in to the building, and at least this way you know the money is going to preservation. 3/5 for the Armory tour. As I said at the start, you can’t go inside Franklin Castle, which is meant to be even more haunted (if ghosts existed), but it is nearby (Ohio Cityish, past the West Side Market), so if you want to grab a shot of the exterior whilst you’re downtown, it is definitely doable. You can see my photo of it below. Spooky!