SURVEY AND RESEARCH
OVENS AUDITORIUM AND THE
CHARLOTTE COLISEUM (Original)
1. Name and
location of the property. The property known as Ovens Auditorium
and the Charlotte Coliseum (original) is located on the southeastern
corner of the intersection of Independence Boulevard East and Coliseum
Drive in the Chantilly neighborhood of Charlotte, North Carolina.
2. Name, address
and telephone number of the present owner of property.
The owner of the
City of Charlotte
0. Wendell White, City Manager
CMGC, 600 East Fourth Street
Charlotte, North Carolina 28202
Tax Parcel Number:
Representative photographs of the property. This report contains
representative photographs of the property.
4. A map
depicting the location of the property. This report contains maps
which depict the location of the property.
5. Current Deed
Book Reference to the Property. The most recent deed to this
property is listed in Mecklenburg County Deed Book 1469 at page 62. The
Tax Parcel Number of the property is 159-028-01.
6. A brief
historical sketch of the Property. This report contains a brief
historical sketch of the property prepared by Ms. Paula M. Stathakis.
7. A brief
architectural description of the property. This report contains a
brief architectural description of the property prepared by Mr. Davis H.
of why and in what ways the property meets the criteria for designation
set forth In N.C.G.S. 160A-400.5.
special significance In
terms of its history, architecture, and cultural importance.
The Commission judges that the property known as
the Ovens Auditorium and the Charlotte Coliseum (original) does possess
special significance in terms of Charlotte-Mecklenburg. The Commission
bases its judgment on the following consideration: 1) the construction
of the Charlotte Coliseum (original) was completed in 1955 to provide
the first single-purpose sports facility in the area; 2) the
construction of the Charlotte Coliseum (original) was the culmination of
an intense fifteen year promotional effort by civic and political
leaders; 3) the Charlotte Coliseum (original), designed by Odell &
Associates, was the largest free-span dome in the world at the time it
was built; 4) the Charlotte Coliseum (original) was important for its
pioneering architectural design; 5) the Charlotte Coliseum (original)
fostered major economic growth for the city at large and Independence
Boulevard in particular; 6) the Charlotte Coliseum (original) housed a
large variety of events that entertained and enriched the citizens of
the City of Charlotte, Mecklenburg County and the region, and 7) Ovens
Auditorium provided Charlotte with a major civic auditorium for the
first time in its history.
b. integrity of design, setting,
workmanship. materials, feeling and or association. The Commission
contends that the architectural description by Mr. Davis H. Liles which
is included in this report demonstrates that the Ovens Auditorium and
the Charlotte Coliseum (original) meet this criterion.
9. Ad Valorem
Tax Appraisal. The Commission is aware that designation would allow
the owner to apply for an automatic deferral of 50 % of the Ad Valorem
taxes on all or any portion of the property which becomes a designated
"historic landmark." The current appraised value of the improvements is
$7,124,180. The current appraised value of the 17.67 acres is
$2,078,200. The total appraised value of the property is $9,202,380. The
property is zoned B-2.
Preparation of this Report.
30 July 1990
The American Institute of Architects,
Charlotte Chapter in conjunction with
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission
1225 South Caldwell Street, Box
Charlotte, North Carolina 28203
The Ovens Auditorium and
By Paula M. Stathakis
July 27 1990
Charlotte did not have a coliseum or
municipal auditorium until 1955, although the need for such facilities
was apparently recognized in the early 1930’s. Charlottean and civic
booster Clarence Kuester was a vocal early advocate for a coliseum, but
World War II prevented consideration of any such plan.1 The idea of a
city coliseum and auditorium was revived in the late 1940s and was well
received. Two mayors, Herbert Baxter and his successor Victor Shaw,
devoted much of their energies and influence to these civic
In 1947, while Baxter was Mayor, a
proposal to build a municipal auditorium and coliseum was introduced to
the City Council. A bond referendum was scheduled for October 28. The
request was for $2.5 million, but there was no plan or even a specific
site. Mayor Baxter wrote a series of six articles for the Charlotte
Observer in which he presented six different arguments to the effect
that the project was essential for the city’s growth. Maintaining that
prompt action was essential for the city’s future, he urged a positive
vote. This, he promised, would be followed by quick action to create a
commission to assess such questions as location, design, costs,
and method of financing. The Mayor also recommended that the existing
armory-auditorium (the present Grady Cole Center) be converted into a
coliseum at a cost of $250,000, thus saving the city the expense of two
major new buildings. Baxter insisted that two separate structures were
necessary because sports events and cultural programs had very different
needs. A single multi-purpose building would not suffice; a basketball
game in an adjacent room would ruin the evening for theatergoers.2
The special election of
October 28, 1947 presented voters with a proposal to build a municipal
auditorium and civic center at a cost not to exceed $2.5 million. Mayor
Baxter, who could not share with the voters any details about the
buildings because there were none to share, did promise that bonds would
not be issued nor would construction begin until there were favorable
circumstances in the construction market and on the bond markets.3
The eligible electors totaled 4831.
According to the vote-against registration law, the votes of those who
were eligible but did not cast their ballots were counted as votes
against the measure. The bond issue was defeated by the slim margin of
83 votes. Some supporters blamed their defeat on rainy election day
weather, while other observers blamed the vote-against law itself.4
The auditorium issue virtually
disappeared for nearly two years. Perhaps the voters had failed to
support the bond issue because there were too many unanswered questions
about the proposal. Mayor Baxter was never able to tell Charlotteans
what the $2,500,000 would buy or even the approximate location of the
new facilities. His third article acknowledged that site selection was
critical; easy access and ample parking were essential. It was, however,
impossible to select a location before the election because there were
no funds to acquire options on potential sites. The Mayor was not unduly
concerned about this, arguing that there would be "plenty of time to
determine the proper location after the vote is recorded."5 On the issue
of the lack of plans, Baxter maintained that it would be "illegal for
the city government to spend one cent on the project until the people
approve." Since architects could not be hired, the buildings would have
to remain mysteries until after the bonds were approved.6
In fact, the only thing that many
Charlotte voters were sure about on October 28 was that they had to
decide whether or not to spend $2.5 million. Given the many
uncertainties, it is surprising that the proposal lost by only 83 votes.
The next mayor, Victor Shaw, argued that the failure of the bond
election was not due to "public indifference," but was because the
people would not "buy a pig in a poke."7
Prior to the construction of the
coliseum and adjacent auditorium, the only comparable facility was the
Armory-Auditorium on Cecil Street (now on Kings Drive). This structure
was generally considered barely adequate at best. Charlotte was not able
to attract high-quality entertainment because the hall was so inferior.
During the next bond campaign, a newspaper article flatly stated that
such celebrities as Sonja Henie, Jimmy Durante, Ray Bolger, and Danny
Kay refused to book Charlotte because they would not work in the
In 1949 Mayor Shaw received an
unsolicited letter from self-described showman, Ned Alvord of Chicago,
who had recently passed through Charlotte. Alvord told Mayor Shaw that
the ArmoryAuditorium needed to be replaced, but that great care was
essential in the design of auditoriums and theaters. Not just any
architect would do, he warned. When Charlotte was ready to build, Alvord
urged the city to study the "excellent municipal houses planned by those
who knew their trade" in Charleston, W. Va., Louisville, Fort Worth, and
San Antonio. The ending of his letter pungently describes the status of
a city without an adequate public auditorium:
"....For a horrible example, you only
have to look at your Armory-Auditorium
or recall the one uptown that preceded it.
have an axe to grind. For some 45 years I have been a showman frequently
exposed to the necessity of playing attractions in houses shunned by the
solvent public because of inadequate facilities. If you have a suitable
theater, it means just that more favorable reception of traveling
Mayor Victor Shaw
Shaw campaigned for mayor as the man who
would bring progress and development to Charlotte. His interests ranged
from traffic problems and rent control to what he considered essential
improvements, a civic center and a municipal auditorium. Shortly after
his election in April 1949, Mayor Shaw begin behind-thescenes
negotiations to secure an auditorium. The Mayor 's extensive
correspondence with A. J. Gocking indicates that a group of local
businessmen and the Mayor were interested in adding a city auditorium to
the Oasis Temple of the Shrine on South Tryon Street. A letter from
Gocking to Shaw, dated June 18, 1949 contains cryptic references to this
plan, in which Frank Sherrill (co-owner of the S & W Cafeteria), Caspar
Chandler, George Ivey (of Ivey's Department Store) Norman Pease
(architect), and Lee Folger were also involved. Gocking, the
intermediary between this group and the Mayor, sent regular reports to
Shaw from his summer home in Highlands, NC, where most of these early
meetings took place. In mid-June the group unanimously agreed to locate
the city auditorium at the rear of the Shrine building. The Potentate of
the Shrine, however, had not yet been approached. This task was
delegated to Frank Sherrill, who developed second thoughts and had to be
pushed back into line by the Mayor.10
Gocking reported to the Mayor that the
Potentate favored the idea, and Gocking was certain that the public
would receive the plan well. “I am positive that the citizens will vote
for it, if presented in the proper manner with all the cards face up.''11
By July Gocking was so confident of the plan that he wrote to Caspar
Chandler that he hoped that it could be brought out in the open “for
discussion by all." Blueprints for the proposed layout were already
Even though plans were not yet made
public, the movers and shakers of Charlotte were aware that something
was up. Mayor Shaw complained to Gocking that he was besieged daily by
people wanting information and a chance to become involved. Murray
Atkins made a special visit to the Mayor's office to discuss the
sale of revenue bonds. 13
The plan to build next to the Oasis Shrine
Temple was fraught with problems, although these difficulties are
perhaps more apparent with the advantage of hindsight than they were to
contemporaries. Gocking feared that it might be difficult to sell the
plan to the general membership of the Shriners.14 A portion of the
proposed site behind the Temple was owned by the Bruns family, which did
not wish to sell; Gocking admitted that getting an option on this lot
would be a “master stroke."15 Furthermore, when Gocking talked
personally with the Potentate, it was apparent that the Shrine leader
was not as enthusiastic as Gocking had been led to believe.
The most important obstacle was that the
auditorium and also the Charlotte Shrine headquarters would occupy the
same building, with the top two floors committed to the Shrine.16 In
September, the newspaper broke the story, describing a five story
structure with a 3500 seat auditorium and the two top stories allocated
to the Shriners. The City would provide elevators, heat, water, and
janitorial service for the whole building. If the City abandoned the
property at any time or failed to provide facilities for the Oasis
Temple, the title would revert to the Temple. 17
Mayor Shaw responded to this publicity by
stating that the final decision on a site would by made by the people.
He publicly bristled at allegations that he had "engineered" agreements
that would bind the city to the Shrine plan. Shaw announced that he and
City Manager Henry Yancey would sample public opinion, perhaps by
mailing questionnaires. The Observer countered by urging the City
to consider a site on the Thompson Orphanage property or an area on East
The plan to combine the Auditorium with
the Shrine building met an unfavorable response from the public and from
the members of the Shrine Club. At a meeting in Asheville, Shriners
voted against the proposal. Mayor Shaw then decided to ask the City
Council to name a citizens committee to select a site. "It is
important," he stated, "that we go ahead with this venture and build
Charlotte the kind of auditorium we need so urgently." Residents were
asked to suggest possible sites. The key issue was whether to locate the
new facility downtown, or in a more remote place with better parking. 19
Mayor Shaw, estimating construction costs
of about $1.5 million, presented two financial options. A referendum
could be held to authorize a bond issue and low-interest long-term
loans, or the city could use a new law authorizing local governments to
issue revenue bonds that would not be a debt against the city,
but would be repaid from operational revenues of the Auditorium. 20
On October 27 a planning committee was
created under the leadership of David Ovens, Vice-President and General
manager of J. B. Ivey and President of the Charlotte Community Concert
Association. The Mayor described Ovens as "the most public-spirited
citizen that Charlotte ever had.'' 21 Ovens's appointment had been in
the wings since mid-summer. The other members were Henry Allison,
President of Allison-Erwin; Claude S. Cochran, Attorney; Frank 0. Dowd,
President of Charlotte Pipe and Foundry; James P. McMillan, President of
Southern Radio Corp.; Ivey W. Stewart, President of Commercial National
Bank; and Frank 0. Sherrill, President of S & W Cafeteria. The
Committee’s tasks were to determine the size and type of building, its
general location, the method of finance, and the selection of an
In addition to its local work, the
committee traveled to other cities to learn from their experiences. Few
cities had been able to build new auditoriums in the post-war years, but
the committee profited from its visits to Chicago, Cincinnati, and
Milwaukee. The Chicago Coliseum, which seated over 20,000, was the most
impressive, and the members became even more convinced of the value of a
quality facility to a city. James McMillan captured this feeling well,
lamenting that "When I saw the Sonja Henie Show in the Chicago Coliseum,
I realized all over again just what Charlotte is missing by not having a
coliseum completed and in operation " 23
The Ovens Committee selected architects A.
G. Odell and Associates to design two structures, a coliseum and an
auditorium. The Odell firm, after working informally with the committee
for months, was formally appointed by the City Council in May, 1950. The
contract retained A. G. Odell and Associates to design and supervise the
construction of the buildings, if and when work was authorized. Initial
projections were for a 2000-3000 seat auditorium and a 10,000 seat
City Council delayed approval of the contract for a week. At the
insistence of Councilman Basil M. Boyd the contract was amended to
include a clause providing that no fees be paid to the architects in the
event that the necessary bonds were not approved by the voters. 25
Although selection of an architect was an
important step, the City still had not found a site nor developed a plan
to finance construction. The site problem was especially difficult. The
Ovens Committee could not find a large enough tract of land to
accommodate the buildings and adequate parking, and was unable to decide
between a downtown or more suburban location. The Thompson Orphanage
site and a four-block area between East Fourth Street and Independence
Boulevard remained under consideration, but neither seemed ideal. 26 By
May, Ovens thought that he might have to settle for two separate sites,
as it seemed impossible to assemble a 12 acre tract adequate for both
buildings. The 7 months of fruitless searching frustrated him as much as
it did other Charlotteans. "If there is anyone who knows of an ideal
site for the auditorium, we would appreciate a card telling us where it
In order to give impetus to a project
which had been limping along since October, in late May the Council
planned to rush a $3 million bond election for water, sewer, and street
improvements and to reserve $2.5 million of the allowable debt limit for
the auditorium-coliseum. Mayor Shaw hoped for a late summer or early
fall vote. 28
A bond issue of at least $3 million to
build on a site on Independence Boulevard was recommended to the Council
on August 16. The breakthrough on the site came with the committee’s
announcement that it had obtained a 90 day option on land 1/4 mile south
of the Chantilly School. The property, owned by Dwight Phillips, had
1000 feet of road frontage and was 1000 feet deep. It was large enough
for a 2000-3000 seat auditorium and a 10,000 seat coliseum with adequate
parking, and was far enough out of town to prevent traffic congestion.29
The Council, relieved by the discovery of
this apparently ideal site, set the bond referendum for October 14. The
Council also approved the Ovens Committee’s recommendation that a
separate Auditorium-Coliseum authority be created to manage the
A. G. Odell, Jr.
Although Odell and Associates had not
begun to prepare detailed blueprints, the firm provided drawings of the
proposed buildings to help generate public enthusiasm. One architect
recalled that he and others worked extra hours at night to complete this
work. These preliminary drawings were for a rectangular coliseum which
bore no resemblance to the circular plan that was actually adopted. The
auditorium did look like the structure which was later built. 31
Voters were bombarded with literature
extolling the advantages of the bond. The Charlotte Chamber of Commerce
issued a brochure to urge Charlotteans to support the $3 million bond
issue on the 14th of October. The brochure gave citizens a much more
detailed explanation of what they were voting on than they had in 1947.
With a population of 200,000 in the metropolitan area and approximately
1 million within a fifty mile radius, it was inexcusable, the Chamber
argued, that Charlotte did not already have a modern auditorium and
coliseum. Rejection of the bond issue would stunt the city’s growth and
keep major entertainers away. "The impresarios of the amusement world
are giving us the cold shoulder. We are shunned, ignored, and even
scorned.... Nobody likes to sit in our Armory-Auditorium warehouse, let
alone try to put on a show there."32
The brochure explained the purpose of each
building and why the city needed both, why they could not be located
downtown, and land and construction costs. An architect's drawing showed
the rectangular coliseum, described above, on the left side of the plot
and the auditorium on the right, the reverse of what was actually done.
The local papers were not able to resist
this opportunity to engage in some civic boosterism. For several days
prior to the election, the Charlotte Observer ran a series of articles
promoting the Auditorium bonds. One article reminded the electorate:
"There are few who will not admit the inadequacy of the
Armory-Auditorium, jerry-built in the '20s in 90 days to take care of a
reunion of Confederate war veterans." 34
The full-scale promotional onslaught
worked on this second attempt to obtain an auditorium and coliseum. The
dominant front page headline on October 15, 1950 screamed "City
Auditorium Bond Voted." Out of forty-one precincts, thirty-nine approved
the bond. Of the 7000 eligible voters, 5915 cast their vote: 3763 in
favor, 2152 against. With the bond secured, the next step was to create
a coliseum-auditorium authority to supervise the affairs of the
Odell and Associates then began to work in
earnest. In order to keep costs down and to reduce the number of
undesirable seats, they decided on a circular design for the coliseum.
Such a circular structure was reminiscent of classical designs. A major
feature of the Charlotte building, in contrast to ancient Roman designs,
was that the actual arena surface was rectangular rather than round. By
placing a rectangle inside a circle, rather than a circle within a
circle or a rectangle within a rectangle, Odell created an excellent
seating arrangement. This design also allowed the use of a bold but
economical dome roof. The use of pre-cast straight seats rather than
curved seats cast in place also helped to minimize costs.
The Council authorized the purchase of the
Phillips tract for $2500 an acre, as stipulated in the option agreement.
Mayor Shaw confidently planned to break the ground for the long-awaited
project before his term expired in May, 1951.36 By early November a
topographical survey of the site had been completed and transmitted to
the architect.37 Planning construction of the coliseum was more
difficult than for the auditorium. A major issue was whether to use
steel or reinforced concrete for the roof beams. The New York based
structural engineering firm of Severud-Elstad-Kruger had been hired to
assist Odell.38 Together, the two firms were able to design and build
what was at the time the largest free‑span dome in the world An
important innovation provided by Severud-Elstad-Kruger was the use of a
computer to carry out the complex mathematical calculations necessary
for this difficult structural problem.39 The building is supported by
concrete columns which lean inward, not outward.40 To compensate for
this, a tension ring carries the thrust of the roof. The dome spans 332
feet, 4 inches. 41
Preliminary plans for the entire project
were presented to the public in October, 1951. The Charlotte News
published photographs of the models, which gave the first indication
that the coliseum would seat more than 10,000 people. Capacity was
12,500 for basketball and could reach 14,000 for boxing. The coliseum
was big enough to fit the old Armory-Auditorium on the arena floor.42 In
addition to this large, flexible seating capacity, there was also a
mechanism to make ice on the floor for skating shows or hockey.43
Unfortunately, construction was
substantially delayed, as federal government controls on steel
consumption and a general rise in construction costs soon brought the
project to a halt. Of the $3 million approved for the project, $225,000
had already been spent on site preparation, architects' fees and other
costs by October, 1951. A. G. Odell Jr. was already concerned about cost
increases. A federal ban on the construction of amusement buildings was
enacted in response to the nation-wide steel shortage caused by the
Korean War and the effects of the steelworkers strike of 1949, and the
Charlotte facility fell into the category of "amusement buildings ." 44
These problems delayed construction until
1953. By that time, the City discovered that it was $500,000 short for
the new estimates. Bids were received on March 13, 1953, and even the
lowest exceeded the funds voted.45 The Council was forced to propose an
additional $1 million bond issue to the voters. Supporters took out a
full page advertisement in the Observer on June 5, explaining
that material shortages had prevented construction in 1951 and 1952, and
that costs had risen in the meantime. 46 The bond issue passed.
Construction was scheduled to begin on July 1 and to be completed in
1955. Contracts were awarded to the following firms: Thompson and
Street, construction; P. G. Godfrey, plumbing; Hopkins, Hicks, Ingle,
heating; F. E. Robinson, electrical; and Amreco of New York, the ice
A strike by sheetmetal workers interrupted
construction in November, 1954. The strike, which involved 200 workers
in Charlotte, combined with winter winds and low temperatures to delay
completion from May, 1955 to late summer.48
In May, 1955, however, the Coliseum was
opened to public view. On the first weekend of the month about 12,000
people toured the complex. The open house was sponsored by the Chamber
of Commerce, and members of the United States Marines acted as tour
guides. 9 The official opening of both buildings was held as scheduled
on September 11, despite some last minute delays.50
The dedication ceremonies of Sunday,
September 11 attracted l3,000 people to the coliseum. Activities began
at 2:30. Highlights of the program included music by the 101st Airborne
Band, remarks by A. Grant Whitney, Mayor Philip L. Van Every, James P.
McMillan, architect A. G. Odell, Jr., and Governor Luther H. Hodges.
Billy Graham, whose crusades would fill the building in later years,
gave the dedication address. After the formal part of the service, the
audience was treated to an entertainment program with selections from
fine arts as well as from popular culture. Presentations were given by
the Charlotte Opera Association, the Ballet Society, the Symphony
Society, the Little Theater, the Myers Park and Second Ward High School
Bands, the Arthur Murray Dancers, a YMCA trampoline duo, and Arthur
Smith and the Crackerjacks. Charlotteans were not only entertained, but
they were given an important demonstration of the many possible uses of
the building. The fitting finale for the afternoon was "Bless This
In its first year of operation the
Coliseum hosted events such as the Ice Capades and the DeSoto Dealers
Dinner. 52 During its first full year, the 1956-57 season, the Coliseum
was booked from September through April. A partial list of events
presented to Charlotteans that year includes the NC Motor Carriers
Association Truck Rodeo, the Ice Capades, the Italian Carabinieri
(Police Marching Band), the Dixie Fashion Show, thirty ice hockey games,
the Esther Williams Water Show (with Esther Williams in person), college
basketball, professional basketball (the Fort Wayne Zollners versus the
Saint Louis Hawks), and the Carolina Lumber Dealers Annual Show. The
manager, Paul Buck, seemed to have something for every taste. 53
The newspapers regularly advised its
readers that the Coliseum was operating in the black. On June 30, 1965,
at the end of the first decade of operations, the Coliseum
Authority reported that it had experienced only one losing year. Manager
Paul Buck attributed the Coliseum's success to big attractions like the
Ice Capades, basketball, and country and western concerts.54 In 1982 the
Coliseum Authority had a record‑breaking year with a profit $595,880.
The biggest single money maker was $21,356 on a Kenny Rogers concert.
Total profit on concessions was $30,000. Rock concerts and Amway
conventions were also significant sources of revenue that year. 55
The Coliseum building has historical
significance for Charlotte on several different levels. It is important
for its pioneering architectural design; it has had both direct and
indirect influence on the city’s growth, and the huge variety of
activities that took place in the facility were, in one way or another,
important events in the lives of the people of the city and region.
From the moment that Odell & Associates
unveiled the first model, the Coliseum was featured in professional
architecture journals and trade publications. The buildings legendary
claim to fame is that it was the largest free-span dome in the world at
the time it was built.56 Another unique design feature was that the
building could be completely evacuated in four minutes.57
Architecture and Building featured the Coliseum as an example of a
welded radial structure, and it received international notice in an
article in a Madrid journal.58 Look published a three-quarter
page color photograph of the "world's biggest dome."59
The Baltimore American
carried a full page story entitled
"Charlotte, N.C. How City Built a Civic Center." The Baltimore paper
picked up the story because their local hockey team, the Baltimore
Clippers, had been burned out of their arena in 1956, and, having no
other facility in the Baltimore area, decided to play the rest of their
"home" games at the new Charlotte Coliseum. The article lauded the city
for its foresight in building the Coliseum-Auditorium complex. The paper
praised the warm welcome given the Clippers, the Coliseum dome, its
flexible seating arrangements, the "perfect" acoustics of the Ovens
auditorium, and the parking lot for 2000 cars which "can be emptied in
The Coliseum's aluminum dome also
attracted much notice and the building was liberally used in Alcoa’s
advertisements. In 1956 it was featured on the Alcoa Hour, a TV program
aired on NBC TV on July 8, but not shown in Charlotte until July 15. The
promotional pamphlet for the program proclaimed: "See what Charlotte has
done with aluminum on the Alcoa Hour. Presenting views of the new
modern aluminum domed civic center."61 Alcoa also featured the dome in
its 1955 and 1956 newsletters, describing the Coliseum as "futuristic,"
"graceful," and "spectacular."62 The Bethlehem Steel Company used a
photograph of the steel ribs of the building, taken during an early
phase of construction. According to this advertisement, 1000 tons of
steel were used in the building.63 The Coliseum also appeared in
Popular Mechanics and on the covers of Construction and
The National Insurance Buyer. 64 All of these notices brought
Charlotte to the attention of a wider audience, and it seems clear that
the Coliseum helped to put Charlotte on the map.
The growth of the city, especially
business growth along Independence Boulevard, also owes something
to the Coliseum and the activity it created. In 1966, ten years after
the Coliseum had become fully operational, growth in its vicinity was
estimated to be worth 20 million dollars. When the complex opened in
1955, the only neighboring businesses were the Coliseum Motor Courts, a
service station, a hamburger stand, and a Howard Johnson’s restaurant.
These structures were built in anticipation of the Coliseum and
Auditorium crowds. By 1966, commercial development was even more
impressive. Three new shopping centers were built, each of Charlotte’s
four major banks had branches in the area; North Carolina Savings and
Loan had constructed a seven story headquarters building nearby; and car
dealerships and several restaurants stretched the business strip along
Independence Boulevard half way to Matthews. The Charlotte Merchandise
Mart, a major national marketplace for men’s and women’s clothes, was
built across a side street from the Coliseum. 65
The Charlotte Coliseum has been a
significant part of the lives of at least two generations of
Charlotteans. The building was the site of the circus, the Ice Capades,
and music events from Elvis and Kenny Rogers to Lawrence Welk. In
September 1965 12,300 fans went to see the Welk show at the Coliseum. A
highlight of the evening was the Lennon Sisters dressed in "form fitting
sleeveless black tops, bright figured skirts, and new upsweep
The Coliseum was the focus for regional
sports. Basketball, the most popular sport in the Carolinas, was a
staple of the featured athletic fare. Professional wrestling also
flourished. The 1956 season gave Charlotte its first taste of the alien
sport of ice hockey when the Baltimore Clippers temporarily adopted the
Coliseum for its home ice. The Clippers played five games in Charlotte
to finish their year; they attracted 41,200 fans for an average of 8400
per game. Two games were sellouts. A team represented Charlotte in the
Eastern Hockey League the next year. 67 The Coliseum Authority purchased
its own hockey team in 1960. Charlotteans were also introduced to ice
skating in the Coliseum, because the building was open for public
skating from 1956.
Skate rental in 1960 was 50 cents.
More solemn events also took place at the
Coliseum. Many Charlotte residents sat through their high school or
college graduation ceremonies there, or attended one of several Billy
The Coliseum may be unique because, more
than any other building in the region, it has played some part in the
life of nearly every Charlotte area resident. Even in the shadow of its
larger successor, the old Charlotte Coliseum might still prove useful as
a place to play college basketball, house a new hockey team, or
accommodate concerts whose audiences would be swallowed up in the new
24,000 seat structure.
This example of Kuester’s civic activity was noted in a typescript in
the Herbert Baxter Papers, with no author and no date indicated. Herbert
H. Baxter Papers, Special Collections, UNCC, series 4, folder 4.
articles appeared in the Charlotte Observer, October 5-October
3. Charlotte Observer, Oct. 28,
1947 "Voters Settle Auditorium Bond Issue Today," by Hal Tribble, p. 1B.
4. Charlotte Observer, October 29,
1947, "Auditorium Bond Issue Beaten by 83 Votes," p. 1A.
5. Charlotte Observer, October 7
1947, by H. H. Baxter. Clipping file, reel 5, UNCC Library, no
Observer, October 9, 1947, by H. H. Baxter, ibid.
7. Victor Shaw,
radio campaign speech, April 19, 1949, Victor Shaw Papers, Special
collections, UNCC, Box 3, Series 2: Speeches, Folder 1.
8. Charlotte Observer, June 5,
1953, "Large Turnout is Called for in Bond Vote," p. 1B.
Alvord to Victor Shaw, August 6, 1949,Victor Shaw Papers, Box 1, Series
1: Correspondence, 1949, Folder 3.
10. A.J. Gocking to Victor Shaw, June 18,
1949, Shaw Parers, Box 1, Series 1: Correspondence, Folder 2. According
to Shaw, Sherrill had to be prodded to approach Oasis Potentate J. Y.
Jordan with the proposition. Shaw to Gocking, July 5, 1949, Ibid.
11. Gocking to
Shaw, July 7, 1949, Ibid.
12. Gocking to Chandler, July 7, 1949,
Shaw Papers, Box 1, Series 1: Correspondence, Folder 2.
13. Shaw to
Gocking, July 12, 1949, ibid.
14. Gocking to
Shaw, July 7, 1949, ibid.
15. Shaw to Gocking, July 22, 1949,
ibid ; Gocking to Shaw July 24, 1949, ibid.
17. Charlotte Observer, September
26, 1949, "Oasis Potentate J. Y. Jordan, Mayor Shaw, Discuss Proposition
in Letters," by Hal Tribble, Clipping file, UNCC Library, no page;
Charlotte Observer, October 19, 1949, "Oppose Shrine Site for City
Auditorium," by Hazel M. Trotter, p. 1B.
18. Charlotte Observer, October 29,
1949, "Shaw Explains Shrine Deal," p. 1B.
19. Charlotte Observer, October 28
1949, "New Auditorium Plans are Shaped," by Hal Tribble, p. 1B.
21. Shaw to
Gocking, July 9, 1949, Shaw Papers, ibid.
22. Charlotte Observer, October 27,
1949, "City Council Takes Steps for New Auditorium," by Hal
Tribble, Clipping file, UNCC Library, reel 5, no page; Ibid, November 3,
1949, "Ovens Selects Aides in Study," by Hal Tribble, p. IB.
23. Charlotte Observer, January
10, 1950, "Group Studying Coliseum Plans in Other Cities," Hazel M.
Trotter, Clipping file, no p. 6.
24. Charlotte Observer, May 12,
1950, "Contract will be Submitted to Governing Heads Today," by Hal
Tribble, Clipping file, no p.
25. Charlotte Observer, May
18,1950, "Approval of Architect's Contract is Held Up for One Week by
City Council," Clipping file, no p.
Observer, December 18, 1949, photo diagram, p. 1B.
27. Charlotte Observer, May 20,
1950, "Two Sites Proposed for Auditorium, Coliseum," by Hazel Trotter,
Clipping file, no p.
28 Charlotte Observer, May 25,
l95O, "City to Rush $3 Million Bond Election Plans," by Hal Tribble, p.
29. Charlotte News, August 16,
1950, "Committee Urges Site on Cities East Edge for Facility," by Tom
Fesperman, Clipping file, no p.
30. Charlotte Observer, August 17,
1950, "Committee recommends Special Election to Finance Project,"
Clipping file, no p.
31. Interview with Scott Ferebee, Jr.,
project architect for Odell during the planning phases of the
coliseum-auditorium project, July 25, 1990.
Chamber of Commerce Brochure, 1950, Property of A. G. Odell and
Associates. Access generously provided by Mr. Davis H. Liles.
34. Charlotte Observer,
October 10, 1950, "A Building For Every Purpose, " p. 1B.
35. Charlotte Observer, October 15,
1950, "City Auditorium Bond Voted," p. 1A.
36 Charlotte Observer, October 16,
1950, "Speedy Action Seen on Auditorium Site," Clipping file, no p.
37. Charlotte Observer, November 8,
1950, "First Step Completed on Auditorium Project," p. 1B.
38. Charlotte Observer, February
23, 1951, "Few details Unsettled on Auditorium Project," Clipping file,
interview, July 25, 1990.
40. Odell remarked that he preferred this
design "...to keep the Coliseum from looking like a gasoline storage
tank." The Chattanooga Times, November 20, 1955, "New Auditorium,
Coliseum Give Charlotte Sharp Focus On Entertainment," p. 17.
41. Ferebee interview, July 25, 1990;
Architectural Record, "Structural Forms Keynote Civic Center,"
December, 1952, p. 122.
42. Charlotte News, October 11,
1951, “Planning on Auditorium-Coliseum Gets Go Ahead from City
Council,” by Tom Fesperman, p. 1B.
interview, July 25, 1990
44. Charlotte Observer, October 12,
1951, "Coliseum Still Facing Major Hurdles," by Hal Tribble, p. 1B;
ibid., October 27, 1951, "NPA Ban Won't Halt Auditorium Planning,"
Clipping file, no p.; ibid., October 22, 1951, "Coal Crisis
Causes Rail Restriction," p. 1A.
45. Charlotte Observer, March 13,
1953, "Coliseum-Auditorium Bids Will be Received Today," Clipping file,
46. Charlotte Observer, June
5, 1953, "Vote Yes. We've Waited Long Enough," p. l0A.
47. Charlotte Observer, June 9,
1953, "Auditorium‑Coliseum to be Ready in 1955," p. 1B.
48. Charlotte Observer, November 4,
1954, "Coliseum Job Halted by Strike," Ibid , December 18, 1953,
"Coliseum-Auditorium Project Progressing Despite Cold," both Clipping
files, reel 5, no p.
49. Charlotte Observer, May 2,
1955, "12,000 Persons Tour Auditorium-Coliseum," Clipping file, no p.
50. Charlotte Observer, June 4,
1955, "Coliseum Opening May be Postponed," Clipping file, no p.
51. Program, Charlotte Coliseum-Ovens
Auditorium Dedication Service, Sunday, September 11, 1955. Property of
A. G. Odell Jr. and Associates; access kindly provided by Davis H.
52. William H. Sumner Photographic
Collection, Special Collections, UNCC.
53. Charlotte Observer, August
15, 1956, "Buck Gives Schedule," by Dick Banks, Charlotte Public
Library Clipping Folder, Charlotte Public Buildings, Charlotte Coliseum,
54. Charlotte News, September 15,
1965, "Coliseum, Ovens Auditorium End Tenth Year With $38,751 Profit,"
by Emery Wister, p. 1B.
55. Charlotte News, September 3,
1982, "Coliseum Shows Record Profit," by John Wildman, p. 1B.
56. Architectural Forum, "World’s
Largest Dome," November, 1954, p. 159.
57. Progressive Architecture,
September 1956, p. 120. The ribs of the Coliseum Dome were featured on
58. Architecture and Building,
"Exhibition Hall," October 1956, pp. 388-392; Revista Informes de la
Construccion, "El palacio de los deportes y auditorio de Charlotte,"
November 1955, no. 75, pp. 72-75.
"World's Biggest Dome,” January 20. 1956, p. 37
60. Baltimore American, April 6,
1956, "Charlotte, N.C. How a City Built a Civic Center," by James C.
Mullikin, no p. Copy in possession of Odell and Associates, generously
provided by Davis H. Liles.
61. Pamphlet for the Alcoa Hour, 1956.
Property of A. G. Odell and Associates, generously provided by Davis H.
62. The Alcoa News, February 14,
1955, p. 3; Alcoa Aluminum News Letter, February 1956, pp.3‑4. A
stylized color drawing of the Coliseum is on p.1 of the latter issue.
63. Architectural Record, "On the
News Front With Structural Steel," April 1955, p. 108.
64. Popular Mechanics, "Two Acre
Dome," February 1957, p. 71; Construction in North Carolina Virginia.
and West Virginian , June 7 1954; and The National Insurance
Buyer, Vol. 11, no.3, May 1964.
65. Charlotte News, September 7,
1966, "On Independence Boulevard a $4.7 Million Magnet for City," by
Emery Wister, Charlotte Public Library, Clipping Folder, Charlotte
Public Buildings, Charlotte Coliseum, Folder 1.
66. Charlotte News, September 27,
1965, “12,300 Hear Lawrence Welk," p. 6A.
67. Newsletter from Robert P. Elmer, Jr.,
Director of Public Relations, Charlotte Clippers, September 1956. Copy
in the possession of A. G. Odell and Associates.
68. Charlotte Observer, July 23,
1960, "City Youths Can Skate for Less,” Charlotte Public Library,
Clipping Folder, no p.
Architectural Description of the Charlotte
Coliseum 2700 East Independence
Boulevard Charlotte, NC 28205
Davis H. Liles, AIA
President, Charlotte Section
American Institute of Architects
The original Charlotte Coliseum is located
on a 17.67-acre site between Independence Boulevard East and Coliseum
Drive. The 208,400 square-foot arena shares the site with the 68,452
square-foot Ovens Auditorium. The two separate buildings were both
constructed in 1954‑55. The Coliseum's location, three miles from the
center of town, was considered on the outskirts of the city of 135,000
residents at that time. The building was designed by A.G. Odell, Jr. and
Associates, and received international publicity during and after its
construction. The original design of the Coliseum was modified in 1970
with the construction of a new entrance on the north side leading to the
parking lots, closing off the existing east side lobby for coliseum
offices and erection of a building on the west side to enclose air
conditioning and mechanical equipment which were added at the time. The
circular drive around the building was closed and the new entrance
entered at the upper concourse level of the building.
At the time of its construction, the
building was noted by Look Magazine (January 24, 1956) as the
"world's largest dome". St. Sophia's great Byzantine dome is 107 feet in
diameter and the dome at St. Peter's in Rome is just under 138 feet.
Charlotte Coliseum's circular dome spans 332 feet and is 112 feet above
the floor at its peak. Throughout history significant religious and
civic buildings have been a source for major advances in architecture
and engineering. The combined requirements for economy of construction
and maintenance, safety, flexibility, ease of circulation and need for
an exciting but simple shape determined a circular domed design.
Architecturally, this type of dome is a space frame‑-no piece of steel
in it is more than 18 inches deep.
Using a design technique invented in 1863
for considerably smaller domes by German steel expert J.W. Schwedler,
the weight of the domed structure was reduced such that it could be held
by 48 cast‑in‑place columns sloped outwards 7 feet from bottom to top to
keep rain off the exterior windows and add visual interest. The aluminum
sheathed dome covers a two acre area. It consists of a lightweight
aluminum roof laid on a precast concrete and wood fiber deck resting on
a metal-ribbed, convex latticework. A 172 ton tension ring, sitting atop
the 48 columns, resists the outward thrust of the dome's 970 tons of
steel. Severud-Elstad-Krueger of New York were the consulting structural
engineers and the steel erector was Southern Engineering of Charlotte.
Precast concrete bleachers serve as a base
on all four sides for 10,000 permanent seats. While the building is
circular, the straight seating on the four sides of the 99 foot x 212
foot arena floor eliminate any undesirable corner seating and maximize
seating on the side. Aisles and exits were designed to empty the
building in four minutes. The upper level concourse completely circles
the building and large glass openings on the exterior bring in natural
light to the circulation areas and provide a strong visual connection
with the outside plaza. The glass expanses also reinforce the drama and
spectacle associated with large assembly buildings of this type. On the
exterior undulating precast concrete panels appear to float on top of
the glass and provide a strong contrast to the shining aluminum panels
on the roof. On the lower level the exterior is finished with blue
glazed ceramic tile underneath a continuous overhang.
Space underneath the seating areas is used
for support functions including offices, ticket offices, locker rooms,
dressing rooms, concessions, vending areas and service areas. All of the
glass areas are below the line of seating levels. Most of the exposed
surfaces are structural concrete, steel, and terra cotta block
partitions. Intense primary colors are used as accents to brighten the
interior. On each side a large open area with a 35 foot high wall of
glass provides an open intermission area. The floor of the arena was
designed with ice-making capacity for local hockey events and touring
ice shows. Public restrooms are provided on both levels. Storage areas
are provided for temporary seating, portable staging and a portable
basketball floor. A central scoreboard provided game information and a
catwalk system hung from the roof provided access to the lighting and
sound systems, also hung from the dome. Press boxes and special
spotlighting are located between the top of the seating and the dome's
Up to 3,500 temporary seats can be added
to the special arena events, depending on the type the years events have
been featured such as circuses, rodeos, horse shows, trade shows, rock
and country music concerts and conventions. The facility's bold design,
engineering feats and overall impact served as a significant milestone
in Charlotte's growth as a regional center both in economic terms and as
a symbol of the City's vision for the future. With the opening of the
new 23,000 seat Charlotte Coliseum in 1988, its operation was halted.
Recent interest has been expressed in its renovation to serve smaller
scale events and to continue to provide economic support for
Independence Boulevard business. The basic building remains sound and
continues to serve as an engineering, design marvel that was a precursor
of the enormous stadia/arenas that are being built today and also stand
as visible symbols of civic pride. The magic of an unsupported 332 foot
dome remains a powerful visual image today for all those who attended
Architectural Description of Ovens
Auditorium 2700 East
Independence Boulevard Charlotte, NC 28205
Ovens Auditorium is located on a
17.67-acre site which it shares with the Charlotte Coliseum. The 68,452
square-foot Auditorium was constructed in 1954-55 at the same time as
the Charlotte Coliseum. Designed by A.G. Odell, Jr. and Associates, the
final design was the product of numerous detailed studies to determine
the optimum seating facilities for 2500 persons and to meet the varied
requirements of theatrical productions.
Behind a 60 foot proscenium the stage is
100 feet wide and 50 feet deep. A six story high flyway allows for
elaborate staging of scenery and props. Back stage, there are dressing
rooms for stars, performers, and choruses; large areas are set aside for
equipment and scenery. On the bottom level there are additional toilets,
showers, lounge rooms, orchestra rooms and storage rooms.
Entering the Auditorium a patron goes
through a bright lobby with monumental stairs which lead to a second
floor lounge. The lounge has complete concession facilities and a large
glassed front that provides a panorama of the fountains outside and an
inviting, exciting preview in the evening by exposing the activities to
those passing by or approaching the Auditorium.
All 2500 seats in the Auditorium have an
excellent view of the stage. The excellent acoustics allow even those in
the extreme rear of the building to hear without difficulty. A hydraulic
lift, installed in the orchestra pit, enables the orchestra to set‑up on
a floor level below the stage. A truck can be driven back stage on
ground level for depositing stage props, sets and costumes. The building
Framing for the Auditorium is steel which
is covered with precast concrete panels similar to those on the
Coliseum. The three main areas of the building ‑ entrance lobby/lounge,
seating and stage are distinct elements on the exterior and are designed
to provide clear definition of their separate functions. The covered
walkway along the drive on the side and the overhang of the second floor
lounge provide protection during inclement weather.
In the lobby, the light-terrazzo floors,
colored walls, and glass walls are combined with a high lighting
intensity from recessed incandescent‑lamp fixtures to achieve a
sparkling effect. Special incandescent-lamp fixtures were placed in the
lounge ceiling. They have a gold color plated on the lower portion of
their reflectors and star cutouts in the ceiling plates. Placed against
a deep-blue ceiling in random pattern, these units provide star-like
effect. The main auditorium is lighted with a series of coves for soft,
general lighting and with recessed, high-intensity, incandescent
downlights for seeing.
The auditorium lighting, HVAC systems,
sound systems and furnishings have all been updated over the years but
most of the original design remains largely intact. The building still
provides a spectacle inside and out during plays, concerts and many
other theatrical performances.