The Coliseum at 1513 S. Wabash was Chicago’s premier meeting hall from 1900 until the Chicago Stadium was opened in the late 1920s. The Coliseum hosted every Republican National Convention from 1904 through 1920, the Bull Moose Party convention in 1912, and several years of the notorious First Ward Ball– in which the nefarious characters from the seedy Levee District paid tribute to crooked ward bosses.
Perhaps as interesting as the events that took place in the Coliseum was its origin. A stone façade facing Wabash Ave. was built to protect a brick-by-brick reconstruction of the Libby Prison, transported from Richmond, Virginia. The prison was the wartime home of thousands of captured Union soldiers held inside its walls during the Civil War. In 1889, candy magnate Charles Gunther shipped the prison from Richmond to Chicago, where it was re-assembled as a commercial Civil War museum.
In 1898, facing diminishing revenues from his Civil War museum, Gunther took advantage of a fire that destroyed Chicago’s previous Coliseum at 63rd and Stony Island to build a new arena for Chicago using the façade of his museum. The arena had an arched, sky-lit roof, and could seat approximately 8,000 people. With seats on the floor of the hall and standing room, the arena could accommodate up to 16,000 people.
As the only venue of its size in Chicago, the Coliseum hosted almost all the large gatherings and events in Chicago in the first quarter of the 20th Century. Every Republican National Convention from 1904 through 1920 was held at the Coliseum, as was the Bull Moose Party Convention in 1912 that nominated former President Theodore Roosevelt. No other building in the United States has ever hosted as many national political conventions. The notorious First Ward Ball– a gigantic gala gathering for the ward heelers, power brokers, pimps, prostitutes and pols of the First Ward– was held for several years running at the Coliseum, and on December 13, 1908 the building suffered a bomb blast thought to be the work of reformers trying to thwart the open celebration of First Ward power, corruption and debauchery.
From 1901 through 1934, the Coliseum was the continuous home to one of the nation’s earliest and most prestigious auto shows– pre-dating the founding of Ford and General Motors. As the industry grew, auto show exhibits spilled over into the nearby First Regiment Armory and other areas. As home of the auto show, the Coliseum was helpful in developing the automobile dealerships and parts businesses on Motor Row in the South Loop. Much of this trade survived to the end of the century.
From 1926 to until the opening of the Chicago Stadium in 1929, the National Hockey League’s Chicago Blackhawks called the Coliseum their home. After the opening of the 18,000-seat Chicago Stadium, the Coliseum continued to host medium-sized trade shows, sporting events, circuses, and conferences. The opening of the air conditioned, 9,000-seat International Amphitheater at 43rd and Halsted in the mid-1930s lured even more events away from the old-fashioned structure, most notably the Chicago Auto Show.
Desperate to draw crowds during the Great Depression, Chicago promoter Leo Seltzer invented Roller Derby in 1935 at the Coliseum. During World War II the Coliseum was used as a training facility for the military housed at the nearby Stevens Hotel (now the Chicago Hilton and Towers). But the advent of larger and more accommodating venues relegated the Coliseum to third-rate events. The opening of the first McCormick Place in the late 1950s further reduced the options for the historic building.
After a makeover in the early 1960s, the Coliseum struggled on as the home of Chicago’s first NBA franchise, the Chicago Zephyrs. After playing one year at the International Amphitheater as the Chicago Packers, the franchise changed their name to The Zephyrs when they relocated for one year in the Coliseum during the 1962-63 season. The Zephyrs featured Hall of Famers Walt Bellamy and Don Nelson, but finished near the bottom of the standings and league attendance before moving on to Baltimore (as the Bullets) and Washington, D.C. (as today’s Wizards). The Coliseum again hosted NBA basketball when the expansion Chicago Bulls unexpectedly made the playoffs in 1967. The Chicago Stadium was booked during the playoffs because no one thought an expansion team would qualify for postseason, so the first Bulls home playoff game was moved to the Coliseum.
From the mid-1960s through the end of the arena’s life, the Coliseum was known mostly as a rock concert venue (re-branded “The Syndrome” for concerts), hosting acts like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, The Grateful Dead, and Grand Funk Railroad. During the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the Coliseum was the site of a protest convention by the Yippies, and in 1969 it hosted the convention for Students for a Democratic Society.
The Chicago Coliseum was also one of the most historic public buildings in the United States when it comes to African-American history. In the 1920s, Louis Armstrong and his band performed there several times, along with many other artists that promoted jazz and early blues music. Joe Louis won his 11th professional fight at the Coliseum in 1934. The Coliseum played host to the first-ever professional basketball tournament between African-American and White teams in 1939, and featured a tournament final between the New York Rens and Chicago’s Harlem Globetrotters. The American Negro Exposition– a World’s Fair focused on the African-American experience– was held at the Coliseum in the Summer of 1940, and featured musical performances from Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, and some of the pioneers of Gospel music. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, and Louis Farikhan spoke there in the 1960s, along with prominent Baptist and Pentacostal evangelists.
On March 8, 1971, the Coliseum played host to a closed-circuit broadcast of the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. When the broadcast failed in the third round, a Chicago Fire Department Captain was injured in a melee that broke out between frustrated fans. The day after a Carole King and James Taylor concert three days later, the Coliseum was cited for multiple fire code violations and never again reopened to the public. For the next decade the historic building was reduced to auto and boat storage.
The Coliseum was demolished in 1982, but a few remnants of the original outside façade wall were still standing several years afterward. The site is now green space, a parking lot, and the Soka Gakkai International Temple. Coliseum Park, across the street, is named for the historic building that rivaled (and outlived) New York’s Madison Square Garden as one of America’s great indoor venues.
Above: Home movie of the Chicago Blackhawks in action in 1929 at the Chicago Coliseum.
Sources: Library of Congress, Chicago Tribune, Encyclopedia of Chicago, New York Times (Bomb Explodes, Aimed at Coliseum, December 14, 1908), Wikipedia.
Photos Courtesy Library of Congress, Air Force Historical Research Agency