Historic Structures

Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium, Gary Indiana

Date added: May 4, 2022 Categories: Indiana Stadium

The Carnegie-Illinois Steel Corporation began producing steel on the shores of Lake Michigan's southernmost tip on 1905; by 1906 Gary was incorporated into a city. During the 1920s, the city experienced a significant growth in population and in the number of buildings. City officials began promoting Gary as a convention center with hopes of attracting the large crowds earlier turned away because of the lack of proper facilities.

City officials decided in 1919 that a memorial was needed to commemorate former Gary Students who had loss their lives fighting in World War I. The project was completed despite little city planning or finaces for support of a cultural program. Over the years, Gary never created a class of wealth that would or could reinvest into the community; steel executives moved to company headquarters in Pittsburgh to advance their careers, hence there was no "old money" in Gary. The Gary Land Company had donated the seven lots to the Gary School Corporation for the community center, but offered no financial assistance in the building of the structure. The people of Gary were able to raise enough monies to complete the building through a public campaign just two years after receiving the land grant.

Joseph H. Wildermuth was chosen as the architect for the Memorial Auditorium. Son of Elias and Olive Wildermuth, he was born near Star City, Pulaski County, Indiana, July 6, 1897. He attended the University of Illinois where he received a bachelors of science in architecture in 1920. He taught school in Gary, Indiana for six months at which time he was employed by the Gary School Board to draw up plans for new school buildings. Wildermuth was an architect in Gary for the remainder of his life; he designed and supervised the erection of many prominent buildings throughout the state including Memorial Auditorium (1927), the Indiana State Board of Health (1923), US Post Office, Plymouth, Indiana (1931), and the State Hospital and Dormitory, Knightstown, Indiana (1952). Memorial Auditorium is an important example of his work.

Two diverse time periods are reflected in the architecture of the commercial district which surrounds Memorial Auditorium. The first, 1906-1914, was the time of original settlement. The second, 1924-1929, the time in which Memorial Auditorium was built, was a time of new development of more ostentatious and larger scale structures. Stone and architectural terra cotta were more common materials. Period revivals, especially variants of Tudor Revival, became dominant over the simple Neo-Classical Revival buildings of the earlier phase. Memorial Auditorium is a prominent and important example of the style of buildings built during this second phase.

In 1927 Memorial Auditorium was completed and began a tradition of school graduations, basketball games, boxing events, and city music festivals. While each school had its own auditoriums and performing arts programs, city-wide events and competitions were held at Memorial Auditorium. Events held in Memorial Auditorium included high school basketball games, the annual Golden Gloves Boxing Tournaments (1939-1959), the annual city-wide Music Festival (1943-1952), and a series of city-wide talent contents held in the late 1960s, which included the Jackson Five and its lead singer Michael Jackson. By the 1930s and 1940s the function of the auditorium took a turn towards more civic events, parallel to the city's plan of expanding the convention theme. Events such as conventions, rallies, trade shows, and concerts drew in personalities such as President Harry S. Truman, opera star Marian Anderson, pianist Van Cliburn, Martin Luther King Jr., and Frank Sinatra.

The social structure of Gary increased in its fragmentation as the population grew. Railroad tracks, main arteries to the mill, and the lake shore across the northern boundary physically divided the city. The community was also divided culturally by the 36 different ethnic heritages which flourished into subcommunities across the city. Memorial Auditorium brought diverse groups together. The city-wide competitions forced interaction amongst groups. It was the only place, besides the mill, where people of different backgrounds came together.

In the 1960s the city's loss of population, loss of steel mill jobs, and other social events all directly affected the decline of Memorial Auditorium as well as the decline of the city.

Of special relevance and significance to Memorial Auditorium is the unique educational plan initiated by Gary's first school superintendent, William Wirt. The William Wirt Work/Study/Play system drew national and international acclaim. Wirt was superintendent of schools when the auditorium was built. A cornice; which bands the building, features the elements of Wirt's educational concepts with the words: Drama, Art, Music, and Athletics.

A rehabilitaion plan that included a Sports Hall of Fame, a museum exhibit for local history, and a performing arts center unfortuanatly failed and the building was demolished in 2020.