Time Machine

Time Machine | Remembering the Cedar Rapids Auditorium

Growing city needed a large indoor venue when building opened in 1900

This Gazette illustration from May 10, 1900, announced the opening of the Cedar Rapids Auditorium that evening, with music by “Phinney’s famous United States band.” The newspaper reported the Auditorium was built at a cost of more than $25,000 and could seat close to 4,000 people. (Gazette archives)
This Gazette illustration from May 10, 1900, announced the opening of the Cedar Rapids Auditorium that evening, with music by “Phinney’s famous United States band.” The newspaper reported the Auditorium was built at a cost of more than $25,000 and could seat close to 4,000 people. (Gazette archives)
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In 1897, Company C of the Iowa National Guard in Cedar Rapids raised $1,000 to attend President McKinley’s inauguration. But when an editor at The Gazette suggested using the money instead to build an armory in Cedar Rapids, on land the company owned on First Street East, the soldiers were interested.

Cedar Rapids, a growing city of about 22,000, also needed a large indoor venue that could seat a number of people. At the time, large events were held in big tents, and the weather sometimes didn’t cooperate.

An architect, working with Company C, drew up some plans. Company C’s active involvement ended when it was called away to the Spanish-American War, and the Commercial Club (forerunner to the Chamber of Commerce) took up the campaign.

A site for the auditorium wasn’t picked until March 1899 when Capt. George W. Bever of the 5th Iowa Battery offered the 120-foot lot belonging to Company C — fronting First Street East at the corner of A Avenue. Company C exchanged the property for $1,000 worth of stock in what would be called the Cedar Rapids Auditorium, or just the Auditorium.

“The site selected is in the opinion of The Gazette the best that can be had in the city,” The Gazette pronounced. “It is convenient to all the streetcar lines and yet remote enough so that the noise of the traffic will not disturb any meeting, even when the doors and windows are all opened.

“The tract selected is large enough to permit the construction of a building with a seating capacity of nearly five thousand, and yet an areaway of fifteen feet can be left on each side, affording facilities for exit from the building and protecting it against fire.”

Design Options

The design of the building, at 127 First St. NE, went through a couple of drafts.

The first, by architect Charles A. Dieman, called for a 100-by-200-foot auditorium, with two domed towers, to seat 6,000 at a cost of about $15,000. It included room on the gallery floor for Company C headquarters, including a captain’s office, parlor, a billiards room and reading room and library.

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The eventual design, from architect W.A. Fulkerson, was smaller — 98-by-138 feet — with one domed tower and a higher cost — around $25,000. Finished in brick and stone, it could seat almost 4,000 people, including 2,000 in a balcony supported by posts. A bicycle track was designed inside the posts, with 12 laps to a mile.

Only One In State

While the Auditorium was under construction, the only other large auditorium in the state, in Des Moines, was converted into a theater.

“Cedar Rapids will stand alone in its class when it comes to securing meetings and conventions,” Commercial Club President George T. Hedges said.

Club members rushed to raise the final $5,000 on May 10, 1900, as the auditorium was hours away from its dedication. Even during the dedication, $3,500 in stock remained to be sold.

“The people of Cedar Rapids can dedicate this handsome Auditorium free of debt with the slightest effort. Will you do your share?” The Gazette asked its readers the day of the dedication.

Candidates Visit

The Auditorium’s first big event was the Traveling Men’s Day on Oct. 5, 1900, a day to cater to traveling salesmen and their customers from hundreds of towns around Cedar Rapids. The day’s special guest was Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, governor of New York and the Republican vice presidential candidate.

When the third annual meeting of the Cedar Rapids Auditorium Co. was held Feb. 7, 1903, the auditorium showed a loss of $318.59.

In 1905, the board of directors voted to open a stock offering to the public to cover the company’s indebtedness.

On Oct. 6, 1908, William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat nominee for president, came to the Auditorium. Special train service was arranged.

“It has long been known by Mr. Bryan’s friends here that he has a warm spot in his heart for Cedar Rapids. He has repeatedly said that whenever he was wanted for an address here, upon any occasion, he would arrange it to come if he possibly could,” The Gazette reported.

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Following a small, private dinner at the Montrose, he went to the Auditorium at 7:30, leaving Cedar Rapids at 11 for Chicago.

‘Old Auditorium’

In October 1916, the Auditorium hosted the 39th annual session of the Grand Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star in October 1916, bringing representatives from more than 400 chapters statewide. By then, though, a movement had begun to replace the “old auditorium” with a new coliseum.

When the Veterans Memorial Building, with a coliseum, opened on May’s Island in August 1928, the Auditorium took a giant step toward obsolescence. Events still were held there but less often and of less importance.

The old Auditorium was renovated and redecorated in 1934 and a new heating plant installed for $4,000. The next year, it was sold to Pla-Mor Ballroom.

When the ballroom closed in 1940, the Fraternal Order of Eagles took over the building, remodeling it into lodge rooms. The building was razed in 1970, and the short-lived Midtowne Mall opened on the site.

The site is now a landscaped bank along the Cedar River, near Cedar River Tower.

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d,fannonlangton@gmail.com

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