The Chicago Coliseum

Anyone who has spent any time studying Chicago’s history on-site arrives fairly quickly at a sad conclusion: the City of Chicago has done a terrible job of honoring its architectural history. In my own thirty years worth of excursions to specific neighborhoods, I’ve watched Packingtown disappear one building at a time. The Lexington Hotel went in 1996. The Lexington was on the National, State and City of Chicago Registers of Historic Places. No matter. Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted all traces of Capone gone, and so it went. The International Amphitheater, home to the infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention: bulldozed and replaced with a massive Aramark warehouse. The Chicago Stadium with its massive theater organ that was actually built into the building – destroyed. My friend, Steve, and I watched Bulls playoff games from the 3rd balcony for $3.50 a ticket in the days of Tom Boerwinkel and Stormin’ Norman Van Lier. The combined smell of cigar smoke and urine in the narrow, steep staircases that led to those balconies is a long-gone memory: there’s nothing like it in the plastic, antiseptic, suburbanized new United Center that went up across the street. On two occasions in the 1980s when the Chicago Sting was drawing 20,000 people to its indoor soccer games at the old Stadium, I ran the scoreboard right at rink-side, which was fun in its own right, but the highlight of the job was pressing a round, metal button when the Sting scored, which activated the loudest diesel horn known to mankind. Talk about a power trip – 20,000 screaming people and you’re pushing a button that’s louder than that. (Listen to a Blackhawks game at the new United Center and you’ll hear that horn – they couldn’t leave that sound behind.) There’s a wonderful, but sad, book They All Fall Down, by Richard Cahan, the story of Richard Nickel, whose mission was to save what he could, but who lost his life in the collapse of an old Chicago building he was investigating. Nickel’s thesis was essentially the opening statement of this blog entry. Another book,  Lost Chicago, written by David Lowe, tracks the loss of hundreds of wonderful Chicago buildings of historical importance.

Another famous Chicago building explored by this amateur historian, the Chicago Coliseum certainly falls into the VIB (very important building) category: it fell to the wrecking ball in 1982.

It was my freshman year at Wheaton College. On May 10, 1968 I heard Jim Morrison and the Doors at the Chicago Coliseum. My date was a very nice girl from New York by the name of Lynn Massengill. Besides the excitement of possibly getting our fire lit, there was the added excitement of what Morrison might do on stage. He had been arrested earlier that year in Florida on charges of indecent exposure on stage and one never knew what he might do next. It was the 60s.

'The Doors' Poster - Photo from e-five.HubPages.com

Figure 1 – Pretty sure we had the cheap seats. $5.50 was beyond my budget

I knew nothing of Chicago at the time. The concert was held in a huge old dump of a place on Chicago’s near southside. I remember going into the crumbling remains of what looked like a castle, and then into what seemed like a huge abandoned gym. It was shabby, dark, and it smelled; it gave off a feeling of being well past its prime We had balcony seats, and in all honesty, the balcony didn’t feel that stable, but we were young and nothing could go wrong. The seats were all rickety folding chairs. This would be a mistake by the organizers, as the concert ended with some in the balcony audience (not us) heaving these chairs over the railings. I remember watching with a degree of concern and helplessness as chairs rained down on people on the main floor. I don’t remember why people were throwing them, but it was 1968 – did there need to be a reason? King had been killed the month before, RFK would be killed a month later – there was blood on the moon. I remember leaving the building feeling sad.

I was a history major. If only I had known where I was. That building at 15th and Wabash had a fascinating history. As mentioned, it was torn down in 1982, (Fig. 2) but the front wall stayed standing until the 90s. (Fig. 3) Some of that wall now resides at the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society).

Demolition - 1982 - Photo from MidwestWrecking.com

Figure 2 – Demolition – 1982

Early 1990s - only the facade remained - Photo from Flickr.com

Figure 3 – Early 1990s – only the facade remained

I rediscovered the Coliseum in my southside ramblings looking for Capone in the late 1980s/early 1990s. It was, after all, located at the northern edge of his Levee district. When Lois and I found it, it looked much as it does in this picture (Fig. 3). We really knew nothing about it even then, and we were puzzled by what kind of building it must have been. Was the whole thing built like a castle? Why would they leave one wall of it standing? The floor space behind that wall was impressive in size. What was this thing? We began to do some research, and over the years the internet has enhanced our knowledge.

The Coliseum at 15th and Wabash was actually the 3rd Chicago building of that name. The first one was downtown at State and Washington, and served the city in the late 1860s. We haven’t confirmed this, but presume it was lost in the 1871 Chicago Fire. The second one, located near the south-side site of the 1893 World’s Fair, hosted the Democratic National Convention in 1896 where William Jennings Bryan delivered the Cross of Gold speech, one of the most famous in American political history. It was a huge building for its time, with seven acres of floor space. But this one burned to the ground in 1897.

It being Chicago, there was the need for convention space and the third building went up farther north at 15th and Wabash. But it’s not that simple. There was already something on that site.

After the Civil War, victorious northerners were fascinated with all things Civil War. Candy manufacturer Charles Gunther, a Civil War memorabilia collector, saw an opportunity. In 1889 he purchased Richmond’s infamous Libby Prison, (Fig. 4) located on a canal leading to the James River.

Libby Prison, Richmond, VA - Photo from Wikipedia
Figure 4 – Libby Prison, Richmond, Virginia

Libby was the worst Southern prisoner of war facility outside of Andersonville. Gunther had it taken apart brick by brick and shipped by train to Chicago where he had it reassembled at 15th and Wabash as the Libby Prison War Museum. Here he housed his excellent collection, and the museum became not only a local, but a national tourist site.

Being a basic red brick warehouse, in order to spice the place up Gunther had a spectacular limestone crenelated castle “wall” put up in front of the place, with various entry gates for access to the museum behind it. (Fig. 5)

Libby Prison War Museum, Chicago, Illinois - Photo from ChicagoHistory.org

Figure 5 – There, doesn’t that look better? (see the old prison back there?)

It was so popular, a hotel was built across the street to accommodate out-of-town visitors. (Fig. 6)

Libby Hotel - Photo from ChicagoHistory.org

Figure 6

By the end of the century, the number of visitors to Gunther’s museum was waning, and Gunther, probably spurred by the destruction of Coliseum #2, made a change. A big one. I’m not sure what happened to the original Libby Prison building, but it was gone. In its place rose a massive convention hall, holding up to 12,000. (Fig. 7). He kept the castle wall and it served as the front for the new convention center.

The Coloseum in the 1930s

Figure 7 – The Coloseum in the 1930s

Being the largest venue of its kind in the city, it attracted the largest events, including five Republican conventions between 1904 and 1920 (that would be all of them), plus the Progressive Party (Bullmoose) convention in 1912 that nominated TR and split the party, allowing a Democrat (Wilson) to walk into the White House. (Fig. 8)

800px-Chicago_Coliseum

Figure 8 – Ready for the 1912 Republican convention

It also attracted the infamous annual First Ward Ball, (Fig.9) of which I wrote in my previous post. (It’s location in the Levee District must have been quite an added attraction for Republican conventioneers. Ever the family-values party, I guess.)

The First Ward Ball

Figure 9 – The First Ward Ball

The Blackhawks played their early games here. Roller derby was invented for this building. College football games were played here – Carlisle Indian School (Jim Thorpe) v. University of Chicago (Amos Alonzo Stagg) and so on.

When the larger Chicago Stadium was built in the early 1930s, it signaled the beginning of the end for the Coliseum, and in its final years, it was hosting a series of cheap events including, well, the Doors.

By the time Lois and I saw it in the 90s, of course, there was nothing left of it but the fancy old limestone facade, whose turrets were by that time crumbling in on themselves. We wandered around “inside”, which meant walking through the old crenelated facade and into the open air of the only remaining vestige of the magnificent structure – the concrete floor, weeds sprouting from the cracks. With a lot of squinting and little imagination, you could either hear Teddy Roosevelt accepting the nomination… or Jim Morrison belting out “Back Door Man”. We took a piece of that front wall for the collection, (Fig. 10) and left the building feeling sad.

Piece of the crenelated Coliseum facade

Figure 10 – Piece of the crenelated Coliseum facade

A few years later it was completely gone, even the concrete floor. Just another empty lot in Chicago. By the year 2000 the lot was home to Soka Gakkai USA Culture Center, a Buddhist regional center. I guess you’d have to say it’s an improvement over a prisoner of war camp or the annual First Ward bacchanalia, or even Jim Morrison, and yet…

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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2 Responses to The Chicago Coliseum

  1. Jim Hofman says:

    Excellent overview of the Chicago Coliseum. I’ve collected Coliseum memorabilia for years and have had contact with the family of the building’s former owner (Morelli family). By the time you visited for the Doors concert, the Coliseum was in its waning years. Cream played there twice in 1968, as did Jimi Hendrix (Dec. ’68). The Grateful Dead played there in Nov. 1970. The venue around that time (’69-’70) was retitled The Syndrome in an effort to give it new vibrancy.

    The last even was a Carole King/James Taylor concert March 1971. A few days earlier, the Coliseum hosted a closed circuit tv broadcast of the famous Ali-Frazier heavyweight fight. The closed circuit failed in Round Three and a near riot erupted. Some of those same folding chairs you mentioned in your write up were used to smack other patrons over the head, including a Chicago Fire Dept. captain. The next morning, fire code violations were slapped onto the Coliseum, and the final event was allowed to take place as a compromise.

    In 1976, when the building had been vacant for five years, the caretaker (John Trim) who lived on site in a small apartment was fixing part of the roof. A panel gave way and he fell to his death on the concrete floor below. It shadowed an event in 1899 when workers constructing the Coliseum were killed when metal supports collapsed.

    The Bulls played their first ever playoff game at the Coliseum March ’67 as McCormick Place had burned down and all those events shifted to the Amphitheatre where the Bulls played their games. It was the last sporting event ever in the Coliseum, I have an unused ticket to the game.

    The hotel you showed across the street from the Coliseum is now the site of Coliseum Park, a small dog friendly park. It was me who wrote to Mayor Daley and the Chicago Park District suggesting it be named after the historic structure as opposed to the proposed name, South Loop Park. They agreed, and it is the only visible remembrance of the Chicago Coliseum. No plaque was ever installed in the park telling the history of this historic building.

  2. Tony P. says:

    In the late 70’s, I was a parts driver for a Chevy dealer in Hinsdale. I used to deliver to a place on Wabash near the Coliseum. I drove by it once a week and since I had a fascination with “what was” I was tempted to urban explore…..before there was such a term.

    Time passed and in the late 80’s I convinced a friend of mine to go back there. This was before the internet so I had no idea all that remained was “the wall”. This was still a somewhat sketchy
    area (south loop). So my friend and I got out, walked around, snapped some pics and I grabbed a rock and left. So much for treasure hunting.

    Anyway – your story filled in the blanks….thanks for the effort!

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