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Unearthed plans for "City Coliseum" and "Victory Center" fascinate -- and stump -- historians

Artifacts show county wanted to honor veterans long before Memorial Coliseum came along

Thursday, September 19, 2013 - 8:44 am

History records that the seeds of Allen County’s War Memorial Coliseum were planted in 1944, when Anthony Wayne Bank President Paul Gronauer suggested the idea to the Junior Chamber of Commerce. Voters approved the idea by a margin of 25,705-5,720 two years later and the $3 million building opened in 1952.

But when Coliseum General Manager Randy Brown cleaned out his closet recently, what he found stumped – and intrigued – some of the city’s foremost professional historians.

Detailed 1917 bid documents and blueprints by one of Fort Wayne’s premier architects for something called “The City Coliseum”? A 1919 letter from prominent local businessman Charles R. Lane to a state politician urging construction of something called “Victory Hall” to “commemorate the valor and sacrifices of Allen County soldiers and sailors” in what was then called “The Great War”?

History records very little about either, it seems – but History Center Executive Director Todd Maxwell Pelfrey and Curator Walter Font hope to change that, now that Brown’s recent donations have provided the clues.

“The general narrative is that the effort (to memorialize county veterans) began after World War II,” said Pelfrey, whose historian’s curiosity was roused when he learned a similar effort had begun – and failed – 30 years earlier. “(These items) have put this on our radar. They represent a time where big community projects were done on a scale than is usually done today.”

But how did it all begin? And why was nothing built until decades later?

“My assumption is the war killed (The City Coliseum) project,” Font said as he poured over the blueprints prepared by Charles Weatherhogg, who also designed Central and North Side high schools, the long-gone Keenan and Anthony hotels and the Masonic Temple, among other local landmarks.

The blueprints for the ornately gilded City Coliseum offer few clues, except for its intended location was downtown at Clinton and Lewis streets. But Lane’s Feb. 13, 1919, letter to Rep. Dick Vesey seeking state help for Victory Hall offer some fascinating details – and an unusually candid assessment of opponents.

“It was the tightwad property owner who made up the opposition vote in 1915, and they were relatively few,” Lane wrote, noting that “The fact is that the county needs such a hall beyond any other one thing at this time . . . The soldiers will feel that the people have done their part when they see the great Victory Hall dedicated in their honor, immortalizing their fame.”

Lane chaired the Chamber of Commerce’s Auditorium Committee and for a time was editor of the Fort Wayne Daily News, a forerunner of The News-Sentinel.

Font and Pelfrey said they will be scouring museum records and old newspaper databases in an effort to learn more about this little-known chapter in the city’s history. But, as it turns out, I had done some of that research long ago – and forgotten all about it.

Way back in 1982, just as plans for the Grand Wayne Center were being approved, I wrote about how a downtown civic center had first been proposed in 1910 in a comprehensive plan by Charles Mulford Robinson: “By 1916, public support was widespread. In November, a referendum was conducted which by a 10,227 to 90 vote gave the city authority to issue a $225,000 fund for the erection of the center. A site at the southeast corner of Lewis and Clinton streets was purchased for $35,000. But then World War I intervened. With a surge of patriotism, City Council agreed to spend $185,000 of the fund on “Liberty”’ war bonds, putting an end to the civic center movement for the war’s duration.”

So it seems Font was right about how The City Coliseum was just another casualty of war. But what about “Victory Hall”? Here’s what I wrote 31 years ago:

“Backers of the original center plans took the mayor, City Council and Victory Hall board of managers to court to stop the project . . . (contending) the city had no right to sell its original civic center site without consulting the voters. (They were) also upset the original $250,000 bond was supposed to be turned over to Victory Hall managers – none of whom was ever elected by the public. The issue went all the way to the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled the state law allowing the change of plan and issuance of a new bond had been unconstitutional.”

And that, apparently, was that – although it’s fascinating to ponder how Fort Wayne might have evolved differently had such a facility been built downtown 100 years ago.

“I’d like to know what happened, too,” said Brown, noting that he often accepts coliseum-related documents such as the blueprints so they don’t end up in landfills and are lost forever. “We need to preserve our history. If anybody has something and they don’t want it, let us know.”