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Star-Crossed: The Colorful History of the Chicago Coliseum

Architectural photo of the Chicago Coliseum, circa 1901.
Architectural photo of the Chicago Coliseum, circa 1901.

Chicago Coliseum

The Chicago Coliseum was the premier indoor arena and convention space in Chicago from 1900 until the Chicago Stadium opened in 1929, and continued to host important events through 1971. The impressive building—a marvel for its time and a model for future arena construction—hosted a record six national political conventions, some of the earliest and most influential auto shows, the notorious First Ward Ball (flaunting the corruption regime of crooked Aldermen), and Chicago’s NHL franchise.

Accommodating between 6,000 and 12,000 patrons depending on its configuration, the Coliseum stood for 83 years at 1513 S. Wabash Avenue, just a mile and a half south of the Chicago Loop, near many of the major train stations that converged in Chicago. President William McKinley was scheduled to open the Coliseum with brass bands, a parade, and much pomp and circumstance in late August 1900, but unrest in the Philippines prevented him from attending the Coliseum opening.

The Coliseum was a star-crossed venue from its beginning. The thick, stone outside walls of the Coliseum were constructed in the 1880s to surround a Civil War museum constructed by entrepreneur and candy magnate Charles Gunther. The centerpiece of the museum was the former Confederate Libby Prison, transported from Richmond, Virginia and re-assembled brick-by-brick on site. When Chicago’s premier arena at 63rd and Stony Island (also known as the Coliseum) burned to the ground killing three workers in 1897, Gunther—by then a Chicago Alderman-- demolished his fading Civil War museum to take advantage.

Interior of the Coliseum during the 1912 Republican National Convention.
Interior of the Coliseum during the 1912 Republican National Convention. | Source

During construction of Gunther’s Coliseum, 12 33-ton steel arches collapsed on each other like dominoes on August 28, 1899, resulting in the deaths of 11 workers and dozens of horrific injuries. A gruesome New York Times article described the accident and the resulting deaths and injuries, predicting doom for several of the injured workers.

President William McKinley, who had been scheduled to open the building but cancelled, was assassinated just a year later. After the Coliseum opened in 1908, a bombing in protest of the First Ward Ball killed one worker. Theodore Roosevelt spoke at the Coliseum in 1912 as the first major Presidential candidate to accept a nomination in person and survived an assassination attempt ten weeks later.

The term “smoke-filled room” was invented to describe political bosses making private decisions when Warren G. Harding was selected by Republican leaders as the last Presidential candidate nominated at the Coliseum in 1920. Harding won the election, but within three years his administration was tainted by scandal. Harding died in office in 1923 under mysterious circumstances. In 1929, a fight erupted after an exchange of racial slurs during an interracial boxing match; one person and 35 people were injured when a balcony railing gave way during the melee.

When the modern, much larger Chicago Stadium and International Amphitheater opened in 1929 and 1934 respectively, the Coliseum was reduced to a venue for lower-class spectacles and ethnic gatherings. The Chicago Blackhawks Hockey team moved to the Chicago Stadium in 1929, and the Chicago Auto Show moved to the International Amphitheater in 1935, leaving the Coliseum to struggle for tenants. The Coliseum held the first-ever roller derby event in 1935; professional wrestling; Depression-era dance marathons of the kind seen in the film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; lower-card boxing matches; the first interracial professional basketball tournament (as highlighted in Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s 2011 documentary On The Shoulders of Giants); and the 1940 American Negro Exposition, a sort of World’s Fair for African-Americans during the segregation era. During World War II, the languishing Coliseum became a training facility for American troops.

Poster advertising the American Negro Exposition of 1940.
Poster advertising the American Negro Exposition of 1940.

Following World War II, the Coliseum declined along with Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood. Periodic renovations kept the 19th Century venue viable and one step ahead of safety and fire code violations. By the time the first McCormick Place convention center opened in 1960, the Coliseum was mostly reduced to hosting traveling evangelicals with miracle healing revivals. In 1962-63, the NBA Chicago Zephyrs called the Coliseum home for one lackluster year before moving to Baltimore.

Malcolm X spoke at the Coliseum in February 1963 and was assassinated within two years. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the Coliseum in March 1967, and was assassinated within 13 months. Traveling healing evangelist A.A. Allen held numerous revivals at the Coliseum from 1959-69; he was discovered dead in a San Francisco hotel room less than six months after his last Coliseum appearance, surrounded by empty liquor and pill bottles. The Coliseum held a protest demonstration sponsored by the Yippies during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and hosted the 1969 national convention of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Postcard of the Chicago Coliseum from the late 1950s, showing remodeling of entryway.
Postcard of the Chicago Coliseum from the late 1950s, showing remodeling of entryway.
Newspaper ad for a concert by The Doors on May 10, 1968.
Newspaper ad for a concert by The Doors on May 10, 1968.

During its final four years, the Coliseum was mostly a rock music venue, re-branded for younger audiences as “The Syndrome.” From 1968 to 1971, major acts like The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, James Taylor, and Carole King performed in the aging, crumbling structure. Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison both played the Coliseum in 1968, and both were dead within three years.

The Coliseum was finally closed to the public due to multiple fire code violations on March 13, 1971, just five days after a Chicago Fire Department captain was injured during a skirmish between patrons resulting from failure of the closed circuit television broadcast of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier championship fight. From 1971 through its demolition in 1982, the historic building in the dilapidated neighborhood was used for automobile parking and boat storage.

For many years after its demolition, a small portion of the Coliseum’s ancient, heavy stone wall stood for about a decade on the northwest corner of the site facing Wabash Avenue. Almost immediately after the last remnants of the Coliseum were removed in the early 1990s, the neighborhood began a spectacular revitalization that continues today. The Soka Gakkai International Temple occupies the site today. Coliseum Park, a small dog-friendly city park across the street from the Coliseum’s former location, is the only acknowledgement of the Coliseum in the neighborhood’s history.

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