Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop/American Precision Museum
National Register Nomination Information:
The Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop, erected in 1846, is an attractive example of nineteenth century American industrial architecture. The building, which faces southeast, stands on the south bank of Mill Brook, at the intersection of Main and Maple Streets in Windsor, Vermont. About ten feet northwest of the Armory is the dam across the brook which was its original power source.
The threeandahalf story Armory is a rectangular building, approximately one hundred feet long and fortyfive feet wide. It is constructed of handmade brick on a coursed rubble cellar foundation. The original wooden beams and rafters remain in place. The building has a pitched roof of slate, broken by eyebrow dormers which light the attic story, and is topped by an open hexagonal cupola of wood. At the west corner of the Armory is a square brick tower with wooden loading doors at each floor level. Windows throughout the building are twelveovertwelve sash and capped by stone lintels; those on the northwest elevation were bricked in when another building, since removed, was constructed abutting the Armory. The building is structurally sound and generally in good condition.
Though some changes have been made in the building in the course of its history, the original lines of its main block remain essentially unaltered. The only change affecting the size of the Armory has been the addition at its southern corner of a twostory brick office wing with gabled roof, approximately thirtyfive by forty feet in size.
Other alterations were made by the Central Vermont Public Services Corporation, an electrical utility, which purchased the Armory in 1926; these include the installation of garage-type doors on the northwest and southwest elevations and of partitions and plumbing to create a caretaker's apartment on the second floor.
Adjacent to the Armory are three intrusive structuresan electrical substation just south of the building and a switching station and another substation north or itall of which are owned and operated by the Central Vermont Public Services Corporation. Power lines connecting these structures and neighboring utility poles also detract from the Armory's immediate setting.
In 1966, the Armory and approximately threequarters of an acre of land were given by the Corporation to the newly created American Precision Museum, Inc. As funds allow, this organization is rehabilitating the building and developing it as an industrial museum. Alterations such as the garage doors and the second floor apartment will be removed; the office wing, historically associated with the Armory, will be retained for museum offices and exhibit space. The Museum also hopes to improve the setting of the Armory and has opened negotiations with the Public Services Corporation for acquisition of additional property and the removal of the intrusive structures noted above.
The brilliance of the work at Robbins and Lawrence achieved international fame in 1851. Taking advantage of an opportunity to participate in the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London that year, the Windsor concern exhibited six of the United States Army rifles that it had made. The firearms intrigued the Exhibition's visitors because of their interchangeability of parts, made possible by the machines developed by Robbins and Lawrence. A medal awarded by the Exhibition formally notified the world of the British opinion of the firm's rifles. Practically, the success of Robbins and Lawrence led to a contract with the British Government in 1854 for one hundred and fifty machine tools for a new state armory.
Despite its growing reputation, however, the firm was overextended financially and soon failed. It had erected a new plant in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1853 to expand its output. One contract was completed in the new factory and another order for 325,000 rifles was expected. When 25,000 rifles had been produced, it was discovered that there would be no order for the remaining 300,000. Robbins and Lawrence had invested too heavily in expanding its works and the incurred debts, plus old obligations, pushed the concern into bankruptcy.
Following this failures the Robbins and Lawrence Armory at Windsor was occupied by a succession of new manufacturing firms. During the Civil War, 50,000 rifles were made there for the Union armies. After the War and until 1888, the building was used as a cotton mill. It was owned by an electrical utility, the Central Vermont Public Services Corporation, from 1926 until 1966, when it was turned over to the American Precision Museum, Inc. This organization is now developing the Armory as an industrial museum illustrating the history of machine tools and their products. In addition, the Museum actively collects drawings, photographs, correspondence, catalogues, periodicals, and biographical materials for its reference files, many of which are housed at the Armory.
Richard S. Lawrence, who was to help transform Kendall and Company into a major producer of machine tools, became an employee of the firm in 1838. Born in 1817, he had experienced a varied career by the time he arrived in Windsor. Shortly after his appearance there, his repair of a doctor's rifle so impressed its owner that he took Lawrence to Kendall and Company, who recognized in him a skillful and ingenious craftsman and hired him immediately.
Kendall and Company abandoned gun making in 1842, but the following year Lawrence and Kendall opened a small gun shop in Windsor. This business prospered and, in the winter of 1844, undertook a Herculean task. At that time, S. E. Robbins, a business man, joined the concernwhich became Robbins, Kendall and Lawrenceand stimulated it to bid for a Federal Government order for 10,000 rifles. The new company's bid of $10.90 per rifle was ten cents lower than any other, and a contract was signed on February 18, 1845, to be completed within three years.
The firm then had neither the men, the machines, nor the buildings required to meet this order, but Lawrence and his colleagues moved rapidly to overcome these obstacles. With only twentyfive workers in their plant, they began to recruit skilled laborers and subsequently formed a highly competent factory crew of some one hundred and fifty men. In April, 1846, laborers began the construction of a threeand-a-half story brick armory on the south side of Mill Brook, just across from the firm's original gun shop. Most important, Lawrence pushed the development of new machine tools to be installed in the factory. .
Despite the long odds, the company fulfilled its contract eighteen months ahead of the deadlineand made an excellent profit. Shortly thereafter, Kendall's partners purchased his interest in the firm, which then became the Robbins and Lawrence Company.
The firm now entered its most notable period. Three men supplied the genius that established the company as an innovator and developer in the field of machine tools. Lawrence, who had been with the firm for several years, continued to contribute mechanical inventiveness and business acumen. In 1847, Frederick Webster Howe joined the firm as Lawrence's assistant and the next year became the plant superintendent A superlative machinest and an original thinker, Howe invented several machines that were used in industry for years after their development. He produced a profiling machine in 1848 that became widely used in gun factories. In 1849, Howe, in conjunction with Lawrence, developed a milling machine that remains basic to industry, and in 1850 made the first commercially successful universal milling machine. The final member of the Robbins and Lawrence triumverate was Henry D, Stone. In the 1850's he collaborated with Lawrence and Howe in devising improved machine tools, plus developing some on his own.
Hubbard, Guy. "Development of Machine Tools in New England," American Machinist, 59 (July 5 and December 20, 1923) and 60 (January 24, 1924).
Roe, Joseph W. "Early American Mechanics Robbins and Lawrence Shop," American Machinist, 41 (October, 1914)
Singer, Charles, et. al. A History of Technology (Oxford, 1958), Vol. IV.
DATE ENTERED: October 3, 1972; As a National Historic Landmark: November 13, 1966.
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