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Memorial Auditorium | Photo © 2020 David Bulit

Memorial Auditorium

Location Class:
Built: 1927 | Abandoned: 1972
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (1994)
Status: Demolished
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Memorial Auditorium

The Gary Memorial Auditorium is an abandoned civic center in Gary, Indiana, constructed to commemorate residents who were killed fighting in World War I. Commissioned by the Gary Land Company, a subsidiary of the U.S. Steel Company, the building was designed by local architect Joseph Henry Wildermuth, who had previously worked for the Gary School Board designing new school buildings.

Construction on the Memorial Auditorium, which cost $5 million and was completed in 1927, was completed in 1927. It features a gymnasium and auditorium with a seating capacity of 5,000. The auditorium’s stage was the largest in the region at the time of its construction, and the asbestos curtain was the largest of its kind. Gary’s first school superintendent, William Wirt, influenced the building’s function, whose Work-Study-Play education system drew international praise.

Memorial Auditorium
Postcard for Gary’s Memorial Auditorium. Abandoned Atlas Archives

The auditorium’s floor seats were removable, allowing the building to be used as an art center and host school graduations, basketball games, music concerts, and boxing matches. Some notable events include the annual Golden Gloves Boxing Tournaments between 1939 and 1959, a campaign speech by President Harry Truman, and a city-wide talent contest held in the 1960s, in which the Jackson Five won first place. Frank Sinatra played a performance at the Froebel School in 1945 to ease tensions as schools attempted to desegregate. He also visited the Memorial Auditorium, where he played “The House I Live In” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Memorial Auditorium
1945 Sanborn Insurance Map for Gary, Indiana. Library of Congress

The Great Gary Arson of 1997

The Memorial Auditorium closed in 1972 as the city was declining. Plans to reopen the building as a Sports Hall of Fame, a museum exhibit for local history, and a performing arts center were scrapped after the Great Gary Arson of 1997.

The fire began inside the abandoned Goldblatt’s Department Store building directly north of the Broadway Shopping Mall, engulfing the Memorial Auditorium to the east, the historic Radigan building to the north, and across to the roof of Gary Public Housing Authority’s Genesis Towers and the abandoned City Methodist Church.

By the end, eight buildings were severely damaged or destroyed, and only one-fourth of the Memorial Auditorium remained. After the fire was put out, scavengers grabbed as much scrap metal as they could hold inside the smoldering remains of the Memorial Auditorium. Firefighters said they had chased out ten scavengers from the premises. Although many believe the fire was an act of arson, the fire marshall stated that while the fire was highly suspicious, they don’t believe it was arson.

Gary, Indiana 1997 Great Fire
An aerial view of the 700 block of Broadway after the fire. Memorial Auditorium can be seen at the top of the photo. October 1997. The Times

Demolition of the Abandoned Memorial Auditorium

In 1994, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure of the Gary City Center Historic District. In 2013, the state historic preservation office determined that so little was left and the building had fallen in such disrepair that it no longer contributed to the historic district. The Gary Redevelopment Commission acquired the building in 2016 and aimed to demolish the remains of the Memorial Auditorium to make way for new development. In 2019, it was reported that the building would be razed to be replaced with a 38-unit housing project for seniors and middle-income residents, but it wasn’t until August 25, 2020, that demolition of the structure began.

Memorial Auditorium
Inside the Memorial Auditorium before its destruction. 1993. www.historic-structures.com
Memorial Auditorium
Another angle of the interior of the Memorial Auditorium. 1993. www.historic-structures.com
David Bulit

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6 days ago

[…] vacant except for two small stores on the ground floor. A couple of blocks from the hotel was the Memorial Auditorium, which had been closed by the city’s school […]

19 days ago

[…] Department Store just north of the Broadway Shopping Mall and quickly spread, engulfing the Memorial Auditorium to the east and the Radigan building to the north, then across to the roofs of the Genesis Towers […]

19 days ago

[…] Froebel School, prompting a visit by Frank Sinatra to help ease tensions, speaking at the Gary Memorial Auditorium about equality and acceptance. In 1946, the Gary school board adopted a desegregation policy, but […]

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