It’s been almost 10 years since the Memorial Coliseum on Shoreline Boulevard was demolished, but the passions of this iconic structure are still ingrained.
Not really a Quonset hut
The Memorial Coliseum was designed by architect Richard Colley, who was hired by the city in 1952. Colley designed an entire complex of the civic center with the Colosseum, a town hall and an exhibition center. The original building cost $ 957,931.75 and was 71,779 square feet.
Colley took his designs from the area’s natural surroundings, a technique known as organic architecture and developed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Colley told Progressive Architecture in June 1954 that he chose an undulating barrel shape for the building because “a box-like, conventional-type building would look like hell here.”
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The shape reminded local veterans and service members of quonset huts, a common Navy design that could be built quickly and withstand harsh conditions. In 1953, the Corpus Christi Chamber of Commerce even submitted the proposed name for the building: the Quonsatorium.
“At first glance, it seems like we’re joking when I assure you that this is not the case,” Chamber of Commerce President Dan Chamberlain said at the time.
Opening and commitment to veterans
The first event at the Colosseum was Holiday on Ice, hosted by Corpus Christi Jaycees in the summer of 1954. The building had no air conditioning and it was so hot that the ice didn’t stay frozen for the skaters. Some spectators even passed out from the heat.
On September 26, 1954, the Gold Star Mothers dedicated the Memorial Coliseum to the memory of World War II veterans in Nueces County. For years there was a large bronze plaque on the front of the building. The plaque was removed from the Colosseum in 2008 when the city council noticed loose screws and put them in storage. Complaints from veterans prompted the city to clean and display the plaque in the town hall in 2009.
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In 2011, the plaque was rededicated during a Memorial Day ceremony and unveiled in its new location in Sherrill Park on Shoreline Boulevard. The base on which the plaque is mounted is made of bricks that were recovered from the Memorial Coliseum during the demolition.
If you lived in South Texas from 1954 to 2005, chances are you attended some life events at the Memorial Coliseum. There were school and university degrees, circuses, boxing events, trade fairs and congresses. This is where the Corpus Christi IceRays and the islanders’ basketball began.
But the greatest souvenirs were the concerts. Elvis performed on April 16, 1956, and his performance sparked rumor that rock and roll was banned by the city council. Colosseum manager Tom Davis told the Caller-Times in May 1956 that he had banned “vulgar shows”, not rock and roll. The bands were welcome again as long as they left out the vulgarity.
On February 7, 1993, about 3,000 fans were delighted to see Selena recording her album “Selena Live” as she performed her hits – for free. This album earned her a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album.
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Rock bands performed regularly for a while in the late 1970s and early 80s. Alice Cooper, KISS, Ted Nugent, Heart, Black Sabbath, Rush, Santana, AC / DC – big names popped up and led to long lines as teenagers and young adults camped in front of the box office. They also prompted police and city council to complain about drugs, smoking and general debauchery.
Closing and reusing efforts
In the 1980s, city officials realized that the city had outgrown space. A larger event center was needed and unfortunately the design of the Colosseum prevented expansion. Voters approved funding for a new event center with bonds in 2000. This new event center – the American Bank Center – opened in November 2004. The Memorial Coliseum held its final public event on September 12, 2004, the Al-Amin Shrine Circus.
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Little maintenance was done to keep the building functional for reuse. Recovery plans were sought, but none ever made it past the pitch stage. Ideas included an entertainment complex with theaters and a boardwalk, bass pro shop, swimming center, mixed-use marketplace, and even the roof to create an open-air arena.
Several groups, many of whom were linked to veterans, attempted to save the building. Petitions have been signed. The Friends of the Colosseum and the Johnny Canales chapter of the American GI Forum both filed lawsuits in an attempt to save the structure. In the end, the 13th appellate court overturned an injunction that prevented the building from being demolished. The Memorial Coliseum opened on May 7, 2010. Until March 2011 only the memories and the fresh topsoil remained.
Allison Ehrlich is the Caller-Times Archives Coordinator. She didn’t demolish the Colosseum in person so please don’t yell at her. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @CallerArchives.