A 5,000-seat auditorium that, for a large swath of the early- and mid-20th century served as the civic heart of Gary, Indiana, is in the process of being razed to make way for a new downtown housing development. Plans to demolish the building were first announced in May 2019.
Erected in 1927 as a commission of the Gary Land Company (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel), the Gary Public Schools Memorial Auditorium—known to locals as just Memorial Auditorium—was designed by local architect Joseph Wildermuth in a stately mishmash of Italian Renaissance and Spanish Colonial Revival styles. Built with brick, limestone, and terra-cotta, the previously National Register of Historic Places-listed auditorium was shuttered in 1972 and, despite having good bones and being the backdrop for more than a few events of note, has sat empty ever since, trapped in what the Chicago Tribune has called a “slow death slog.” Due to its advanced decay, the auditorium was removed from the NRHP in 2013.
Per the Associated Press, Frank Sinatra, Harry Truman, and five obscure Gary natives named Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, and Michael were among the famous faces to grace the venue’s stage back in the day.
As reported by the Times of Northwest Indiana, a parade of reuse schemes, including using the building as a performing arts center or sports museum, have been hatched over the decades but none have ever materialized. A large-scale fire that swept across downtown Gary in 1997 destroyed a large part of abandoned auditorium but a section of the building, mainly the entryway, survived. In the years since the fire, the remaining fenced-off ruins have become even more popular than ever—grade-A ruin porn, apparently—among preservationist tour groups, urban explorers, historians, photographers, and local nostalgists.
Perhaps above all, Memorial Auditorium has managed to remain—even in its blighted state—beloved to so many because it serves as a vessel for the collective memories of countless Gary residents who grew up frequenting the venue during a more prosperous era for the former steel town on Lake Michigan.
“No building better spoke to the history and culture of Gary, Indiana than Memorial Auditorium,” community organizer Samuel Love explained to the Times. “The City Church ruins might attract all the gawkers, but until the end, it wasn’t uncommon to see people making pilgrimages to what little remained of Memorial Auditorium. I say pilgrimage because most of the people I’d encounter there had personal memories connected to the building, usually a concert or more likely a dramatic high school basketball game. It was more than a ruin. An opportunity to craft the city’s cultural past into the present has now been ruined.”
This isn’t to say that the old Memorial Auditorium is disappearing completely into the ether. After a push to save the building’s original facade, restore it, and incorporate it into the new $11 million affordable housing complex set to take its place (designed by Farr Associates, the net-zero energy Broadway Lofts development is aiming for Passive House certification) proved to be unfeasible, the demolition crew was tasked with salvaging various architectural elements from the building. These details, as Brad Miller, director of Indiana Landmarks’ Northwest Field Office, explained to the Times, will ideally be “incorporated into the new building” or be “displayed in a prominent location to honor the history of the auditorium.”
Noting its “great historical and nostalgic significance,” Gary Mayor Jerome Prince told the Tribune in a statement that: “I am saddened by the need to demolish the building […] It is important we balance an appreciation of our history with the need to move forward with developments that will make Gary a better place.”
Demolition kicked off at Memorial Auditorium at around the same time Indiana Landmarks released the 2020 edition of its annual 10 Most Endangered List. While the auditorium doesn’t appear on the list (its fate had already been sealed some time ago), Gary’s Roosevelt High School, one of three high schools built in Indiana exclusively for Black students during the segregation era, does.