Today, anyone who grew up in Omaha has memories of the big tan building at 18th and Capitol Street. Though it was a little outdated at the end of its life, it was one of the nation’s premier arena facilities for much of the second half of the 20th century.

The auditorium’s grand opening, which took place on January 2, 1955, generated all kinds of excitement. A six-page spread ran in the Omaha World-Herald on January 1, celebrating the great achievement and advertising all its amenities and the attractions the new auditorium would bring to the city. The Civic Auditorium’s conglomerate design, combining a large arena space for big conventions and sporting events, a smaller exhibition hall for more intimate events, and traditional stage facilities for ballet, opera, and concerts made it a versatile performance space suited to any kind of act. Before the auditorium was officially opened, it was announced that such engagements as the Boston Pops Orchestra, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Grand Ole Opry, and the Shrine Circus had already been booked for the first part of the year.[1] But from the beginning, the auditorium was also meant to house local events – in its first year, the different facilities housed UNMC and Creighton University graduation ceremonies, the All-City High School Music Festival, events hosted by various local church groups, high school basketball tournaments, political meetings, and labor union sessions.

Even though the success of the completed auditorium seemed a given, the project was not without battles and complications. In 1945, the price of construction was originally estimated at $3 million, and the site at $540,000. Omaha voters approved the plans and passed a bond issue for $3,540,000. By 1947, the cost estimate had jumped to $6,698,831 but voters continued to support the project, striking down a 1948 proposal to abolish the Auditorium Commission and approving an additional $2,794,000 bond in 1950. The ongoing Korean War was also cause for some delay – the National Production Authority vetoed Omaha’s requests for steel twice in 1951.[2]

Omaha’s Civic Auditorium Arena Entrance, ca. 1960. Image courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

Over the next 60 years, the building, designed and built by local architecture firm Leo A. Daly and contractor Peter Kiewit, would serve the city well. Historical events of local and national significance took place on the stages of the Civic Auditorium – the Rolling Stones played a 1964 concert to a small crowd of 650 screaming teenagers when they were still largely unknown in the United States; a 1968 speech by polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace drew large protests and led to three days of unrest in the city; Omaha’s short-lived NBA team, the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, called the auditorium home from 1972-1975; Elvis Presley played his second-to-last concert there in June 1977.[3]

The auditorium at 18th and Capitol was not the city’s first – its original all-purpose auditorium was designed by John Latenser and constructed in 1901 at 15th and Howard Street. Though beautiful, “the old Auditorium…was never considered adequate. People were asking for a new one before 1920.”[4] Indeed, the new auditorium more than tripled the capacity of the original facility. One 1950 newspaper plug for the upcoming bond issue read: “NO MORE ‘OLD BARN’ – The old auditorium is not a decent place to ask any actors, sports players, or speakers to perform. It is a blight to Omaha. Most of us choose to avoid the old barn rather than go to an event there—attendance records show this…”[5] The so-called “Old Barn” was sold in the early 1950s for $211,000 with profits put to offset the cost of the new structure.[6] It was razed in 1954.

The “Old Barn” at 15th and Howard Street, 1932. Image Courtesy of the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, Durham Museum Photo Archive.

Cars on display at an auto show in the original Omaha Auditorium, 15th and Howard Street, 1920. Image Courtesy of the Bostwick-Frohardt Collection, Durham Museum Photo Archive.

The Civic Auditorium was razed as well – the building closed in 2014 and was demolished in 2016. The development company that was chosen to redevelop the site, Tetrad Property Group, pulled out of the project in March 2018, and no current plans appear to be public.

[1] Burbach, Chris. “Timeline: Civic Auditorium and Music Hall.” Omaha World-Herald. March 20, 2018.

[2] “Omaha Set for New Entertainment Era.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 23.

[3] “Vote ‘YES’ Nov. 7!” Omaha World-Herald. November 6, 1950. p. 9.

[4] “Auditorium Commission Had Many Fights Even Though Project Supported by Voters.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 26.

[5] “Music Hall Gets 2 Big Attractions.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 23.

[6] “Auditorium Commission Had Many Fights Even Though Project Supported by Voters.” Omaha World-Herald. January 1, 1955. p. 26.

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