Gary Memorial Auditorium
The Gary Memorial Auditorium is an abandoned civic centre in Gary, Indiana. It was built as part of a widespread movement after World War I that sought to commemorate the efforts and sacrifices of the entire nation, not simply by erecting monuments, but by building significant and public utility.
The building was commissioned by United States Steel’s (USS) subsidiary, Gary Land Company, who constructed Gary as a company town for the steel mill in the early 20th century.
City officials decided in 1919 that a memorial auditorium was needed to commemorate former Gary students who had lost their lives fighting in World War I. 3 Enough money was raised in two years to begin the planning process for the new facility.
Local architect Joseph Henry Wildermuth was selected to design the new memorial auditorium, who chose to style the new building in the Italian Renaissance and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. 3 Wildermuth had previously worked for the Gary School Board to draw up plans for new school buildings.
In dual ceremonies, cornerstones were laid at the new city hall and the Memorial Auditorium sites on October 12, 1927. 1 The Memorial Auditorium cornerstone laying ceremony was attended by several thousand upper-grade school students who had been given a half-day holiday to participate. The ROTC units of two schools formed a guard around the platform while the combined bands of the schools furnished music. Twenty students gave short addresses and placed memorials in a bronze time capsule. James A. Farrell, president of USS, gave a short and impromptu speech.
The new Memorial Auditorium opened in 1928 at the cost of $5 million 4 and comprised of three sections: a 55-foot high central block that faced Seventh Avenue, a 55-foot high central block with an auditorium with a balcony, and a 65-foot tall rear that contained the stage. 3 The front of the centre along Massachusetts Avenue had double-terraced stone steps that led up to five arched entrances, where guests entered under a “Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium” engraving. Other engravings on both sides of the entrance read “Athletics,” “Drama,” “Art,” and “Music.”
The engravings were part of a unique educational plan initiated by Gary’s first school superintendent, William Wirt. 3 Wirt’s Work/Study/Play system drew national and international praise. Wirt was superintendent of schools when the Memorial Auditorium was built, and his Work/Study/Play system influenced both the design and function of the structure.
The building’s layout allowed for the main floor to function as a gymnasium and auditorium, with seating for 5,000 people. 3 The parquet floor seats were removable, making the floor space available for basketball tournaments and other athletic events. The stage, at the south end of the building, was 50-feet deep by 125-feet wide and 65-feet high and was one of the largest in the region. The asbestos curtain, at 90-feet by 30-feet, was the largest of its kind at the time of installation.
The facility was used as an art centre, public auditorium and gymnasium, hosting school graduations, musical events, basketball games, and boxing matches. 3
Notable events included the annual Golden Gloves Boxing Tournaments from 1939 to 1959, the yearly city-wide Music Festival from 1943 to 1952, and a city-wide talent contest held in the late 1960’s, which included the Jackson Five. 3 By the 1940’s, the function of the centre turned towards more civic events, such as conventions, rallies, and trade shows.
The Memorial Auditorium closed in 1972. It had planned to be renovated into a Sports Hall of Fame, a museum exhibit for local history, and a performing arts centre. 3 Those plans were aborted when a massive fire in the city on October 13, 1997, destroyed much of the Memorial Auditorium. 2 Only the entryway remains.