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Gary aims to raze historic Memorial Auditorium to make way for housing development

Gary aims to raze historic Memorial Auditorium to make way for housing development

President Harry Truman once delivered a fiery campaign speech at the historic Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium at the corner of Massachusetts Street and Seventh Avenue in downtown Gary.

The hometown hero and astronaut Frank Borman gave a talk about the space program there. Frank Sinatra performed before a packed house at the Memorial Auditorium. So did The Jackson 5, who won first place in an amateur talent show there.

Built in 1927 to honor Gary residents killed during World War I, the massive auditorium hosted countless concerts, graduation ceremonies and high school basketball sectionals until it was largely gutted by the arson that swept through downtown Gary in 1997.

The husk that's left is just a portion of the Italian Renaissance and Spanish Colonial Revival building architect Joseph Wildermuth designed. It has been visited mainly by urban explorers, photographers and graffiti artists in recent years.

The towering brick relic of Gary's heyday had retained enough grandeur to be one of the focal points of the city's Gary Preservation Tours over the past two years, and hundreds of photos of its haunting beauty have been posted online.

But now the decaying remains of the grand 92-year-old structure — the facade of which is inscribed with words like "art" and "athletics" — likely will come down.

Making way

Developer MVAH Partners plans to replace the stately Memorial Auditorium with a 38-unit housing project for seniors and middle-income residents, Gary Redevelopment and Planning Director Joe Van Dyk said. The $11 million Broadway Lofts project is being funded through the state's Moving Forward 3.0 project and will include apartments, a commercial space facing Broadway and Seventh Avenue, a bike-share rack and a greenhouse that will be operated by Gary's Faith Farms.

"The majority single-resident apartment building will be powered by solar energy and be the first energy-neutral state-backed project," Van Dyk said.

"This project means an investment in downtown from private capital, backed by the state of Indiana. It is a natural continuation of community-led planning with the Emerson Spotlight project, continued partnership with groups like FAITH CDC and Faith Farms, and further build-out of a commercial node along our public transit line."

Though there are other abandoned buildings and empty lots in downtown Gary, the Memorial Auditorium site was chosen because it's close to public transportation, including the Gary Public Transportation Corp.'s Broadway Metro Express Line and the Metro Center South Shore train station, Van Dyk said.

The Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium, which the Gary Redevelopment Commission acquired in 2016, had been on the National Register of Historic Places as part of a historic district downtown. But after a walk-through with the city's building commissioner, the state historic preservation office determined in 2013 that so little was left, and it had fallen into such disrepair, that it no longer contributed to the historic district.

If the Gary Common Council approves the plan Monday, the historic structure will be cleared to make way for more housing and retail.

"Demolition will take place later this summer," Van Dyk said. "The demolition specifications will include preservation of historic features of the building, including limestone, cornices, the keystone and other ornamental features to be incorporated in the future."

Van Dyk said the building was beyond saving.

"Ideally, this building would've been secured years ago. By the time the Redevelopment Commission acquired it in 2016, it was so far gone that it couldn't be salvaged," he said.

Gary is trying to preserve another historic building, City Methodist Church, and turn it into a ruins garden. But that's not always possible, given the extent of the decrepitude of some buildings in the city, Van Dyk said.

"There is a distinction between preservation and merely acknowledging history without a plan to save it," he said.

"Through partnerships with groups like the Decay Devils, the Knight Foundation and the Legacy Foundation, we've made great strides in preserving our history by planning and securing our historic buildings before they are beyond saving. For the buildings that have not been maintained or preserved, we still want to keep the sense of history and acknowledge their significance. Reclaiming historic components is a way of doing that."

A proud history

The four-story hall and auditorium stood 65 feet tall and featured many ornate architectural flourishes, including double-terraced stone steps, arched entrances and engravings. It hosted Golden Gloves boxing tournaments, an annual citywide music festival, conventions, trade shows and political rallies. 

It closed in 1972. Plans to revive it as a performing arts center, museum or sports hall of fame were floated but never got off the ground.

Tyrell Anderson, president of the Decay Devils preservationist group, said the majority of the hulking brick building was already lost, demolished after the 1997 arson.

The "Great Gary Arson" that rampaged through downtown Gary also damaged the abandoned Goldblatt's department store, the City Methodist Church and multiple other buildings, leaving some "a heap of twisted metal, bricks and charred wood," according to The Times archives.

"The majority of the building is torn down," Anderson said. "What you see there, that's just the entryway. It has the stairs that go upstairs, but the rest of the auditorium has been torn down."

Anderson hopes the new development pays appropriate tribute to the history of the site.

"I wish the developer and city would try to incorporate any portion of that facade into the new building," he said. "If they could at least incorporate some of the facade into the new structure, it would at least pay homage to what's there."

It's unfortunate that the 5,000-seat auditorium didn't survive when the comparable Hammond Civic Center is still in use today, Indiana University Northwest Professor James Lane said.

"Even though fire destroyed most of it, it's still sad," he said.

"Truman gave a 'give them hell Harry' speech there. Sinatra sang there for tolerance when there was a famous school strike over integration in 1945. Half the white students walked out of Froebel High School, and he performed to get them to go back to school. Bobby-soxers, as they were called, came in from Portage to hear him. It was a big national story that was in Life magazine. The auditorium is past its prime, but it's a shame."


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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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