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Chicago Coliseum was the name applied to three large indoor arenas in Chicago, Illinois, which stood successively from the 1860s to 1982; they served as venues for sports events, large (national-class) conventions and as exhibition halls. The first Coliseum stood at State and Washington streets in Chicago’s downtown in the late 1860s. The second, at 63rd Street near Stony Island Avenue in the south side's Woodlawn community, hosted the 1896 Democratic National Convention. The third Chicago Coliseum was located at 15th and Wabash on the near south side; it hosted five consecutive Republican National Conventions, 1904 through 1920, and the Progressive Party convention in 1912. In the 1960s and early '70s it served as a general admission venue for rock concerts, roller derbys and professional wrestling matches; it was closed in 1971 and taken down in 1982.
History: the first Coliseum
The first Coliseum hosted horse shows, boxing matches, and circus acts beginning in 1866. Typical of most nineteenth century cities, Chicago had a flourishing bachelor subculture, which made events at the Coliseum often rowdy affairs. The arena's history is hazy as there is no knowledge as to when it was opened and when it closed down.
The second Coliseum
The second Coliseum, situated in Woodlawn on the south side, had a difficult history. Initial construction began early in 1895 on a 14-acre (57,000 m2) site of the World's Columbian Exposition, but in August of that year the incomplete structure collapsed, and builders had to start over. Construction of the 300-by-700 foot building entailed the use of 2.5 million pounds of steel, 3.2 million feet of lumber, and 3 million bricks, and was finally completed in June 1896. The building was impressive in size for its day, twice as large as Madison Square Garden; its interior was supported by 12 massive arches, 100 feet high with a span of 230 feet. There were seven acres of interior floor space.
Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show opened the facility, and in July, 1896, it hosted the Democratic Party's national convention, which nominated for the presidency William Jennings Bryan; he famously electrified the crowd with his historic "Cross of Gold" speech. In October 1896 the Coliseum hosted the Barnum and Bailey Circus, the largest three-ring circus in the country.
College football teams immediately saw the feasibility of playing indoor games in the Coliseum, and four big games took place:
- University of Michigan vs. University of Chicago, Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1896; won by Chicago, 7–6.
- Carlisle Indian School vs. University of Wisconsin, December 19, 1896; won by Carlisle, 18–8.
- Carlisle Indian School vs. University of Illinois, November 20, 1897; won by Carlisle, 23–6.
- University of Michigan vs. University of Chicago, Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1897; won by Chicago, 21–12.
The Carlisle games represented the first time the Carlisle Indian School played in the Midwest. In 1896, 8,000 fans each attended the Chicago-Michigan and Carlisle-Wisconsin games, and in 1897, 12,000 fans attended the Carlisle-Illinois game and 10,000 showed for the second Michigan-Chicago game.
In January 1897, the Coliseum hosted one of the largest trade shows in the country, the annual Bicycle manufacturer's trade show. Another grand trade show took place in October, the Chicago Horse Show.
The Coliseum by this time was being hailed as a financial success. Besides football games, the facility hosted bicycle races, the Military and Athletic Carnival of the AAU, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, horse shows, agricultural exhibitions, and commercial trade shows. But all this would soon come to an end. On December 24, 1897, around 6:00 PM, during the Manufacturers' Carnival and Winter Fair, after many visitors had left the exhibit for supper, a fire broke out and swept through the building. Despite initial reports of numerous deaths, only one fireman died. The building was completely destroyed, primarily when one of the 14 arches supporting the roof fell over to bring down all the other arches like a row of dominoes. The fire consumed the building within twenty minutes. This massive structure, one of the greatest indoor facilities of the nineteenth century, had a lifespan of only 19 months.
The third Coliseum
The third Coliseum was built on Wabash Avenue, between 14th and 16th Streets, by candy manufacturer Charles F. Gunther, in 1899. He purchased Libby Prison, a former Confederate prison in Richmond, Virginia, which had originally been a warehouse and was converted to a prison during the American Civil War. Gunther had it dismantled, shipped it to Chicago on 132 railroad cars, and rebuilt in 1889 as the Libby Prison War Museum, which was operated as a Civil War museum. After about a decade the old prison was torn down again, except for a castellated wall that became part of the new Chicago Coliseum.
The preserved part of Libby's facade led to the misconception that the Coliseum itself had once housed Union prisoners of war. (In fact, the only penitents to "serve time" within the Coliseum's walls were hockey players sentenced to the penalty box.)
Until 1908 the Coliseum hosted the notorious First Ward Ball, an annual political fundraiser for the two First Ward aldermen "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna – Coughlin and Kenna had been known as the "Lords of the Levee". The Ball was finally closed down in 1909 by Mayor Fred Busse.
Use by the Blackhawks
The Coliseum hosted the Chicago Blackhawks of the NHL from 1926–1929 with a seating capacity of 6,000. It was also the home of the Chicago Cardinals (later renamed Chicago Americans) of the American Hockey Association 1926–27 and the Chicago Shamrocks of the American Hockey Association 1931–32. In June 1928, fight promoter Paddy Harmon announced plans to construct Chicago Stadium, with the Black Hawks as the marquee tenants.
As the 1928–29 NHL season approached, the Stadium was not yet ready, and Blackhawks owner Major Frederic McLaughlin had had a falling out with Harmon. Consequently, the Blackhawks arranged to continue playing at the Coliseum. However, they could only get ice time through January 1929; they played the remainder of their "home" games in Detroit and in Fort Erie, Ontario, across the Niagara River from Buffalo.
The Hawks were back at the Coliseum as the 1929–30 season opened, but negotiations with the Stadium resumed in the fall of 1929 after Harmon was deposed as head of the Chicago Stadium Corporation. In December 1929, they began play at the Stadium.
In 1932, another dispute led the Hawks to return temporarily to the Coliseum, for their first three home games of the 1932–33 campaign. On November 21, the Black Hawks defeated the Montreal Canadiens, 2–1, in their final game on Coliseum ice. Canadiens superstar Howie Morenz was the last player to score an NHL goal at the Coliseum, assisted by Aurel Joliat and Johnny Gagnon, at 7:06 of the second period.
With the Black Hawks gone, and the Depression on, use of the arena was limited. In 1935, promoter Leo Seltzer, drawing on the Depression-era popularity of roller skating, conceived the idea of a Roller Derby. In 1935, he staged the world's first Roller Derby at the arena. The event drew more than 20,000 people.
The Coliseum also featured professional wrestling from promoter Fred Kohler. Buddy Rogers vs Killer Kowalski is on YouTube from the historic Chicago Coliseum.
Refurbishing for the Chicago Zephyrs
The arena was re-furbished for use by the Chicago Packers, an expansion NBA team. Among the improvements was an increase of the seating capacity to 7,000. After playing their first season in the International Amphitheater, the Packers changed their name to the Zephyrs and moved into the Coliseum in 1962. In 1963 they moved to Baltimore and once again renamed the team, as the Bullets. (Today they are known as the Washington Wizards). The NBA would return to Chicago with the Bulls expansion team in 1966, but the Bulls opted to use the International Amphitheatre and then Chicago Stadium as their home courts, so the Coliseum remained without a major tenant.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Coliseum was a popular venue for professional wrestling matches, many of which were televised. Wrestlers like Gorgeous George and Angelo Poffo wrestled a number of matches there.
After the Zephyrs
The arena stood for a number of years after the Packers left, serving rock concerts, and protests during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radical antiwar organization, held their last national convention at the Coliseum in June 1969.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, The Coliseum saw duty as "The Syndrome", a general-admission venue for rock music concerts. Many popular bands of the era played there, including The Grateful Dead, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad, Steppenwolf, Jethro Tull, Jimi Hendrix and The Doors. The venue was also hosting roller derbys and pro wrestling matches.
In 1971, the city shut the building down for fire violations, and the building fell into disuse, finally being demolished in 1982. Part of the Libby facade was given to the Chicago History Museum. The site is now occupied by the Soka Gakkai USA Culture Center. Coliseum Park, across the street at 14th Place and Wabash Ave., commemorates this historic structure.
- Pruter, Robert. "Chicago's Other Coliseum." Chicago History Magazine. Spring 2012, pp. 44–65.
- Robert Pruter (Spring 2012, p.46). "Chicago's Other Coliseum". Chicago History Magazine.
- Robert Pruter (Spring 2012, p.46). "Chicago's Other Coliseum". Chicago History Magazine.
- Robert Pruter (Spring 2012). "Chicago's Other Coliseum". Chicago History Magazine: 48–49.
- Robert Pruter (Spring 2012). "Chicago's Other Coliseum". Chicago History Magazine: 63.
- Chicago Tribune, July 7, 2013
- Hareas, John. "A Colorful Tradition". Washington Wizards. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Chicago Coliseum.|
- CinemaTreasures.org description of Tower Theatre
- Chicago Coliseum on ballparks.com
- Encyclopedia of Chicago entry on political conventions
|Events and tenants|
|Home of the Chicago Black Hawks
|Home of the Chicago Zephyrs
Baltimore Civic Center