A Personal History of Knoxville’s Civic Coliseum

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

The Knoxville Civic Auditorium and Coliseum dilemma illustrates a challenge to preservation practice and theory. The value of historic preservation is easier to prove with smaller buildings. In any building of less than 50,000 square feet, a building with so many historical associations would be a slam-dunk for preservation.

Mahalia Jackson performed there in 1961, the year it opened, in a dramatic era. Bob Dylan played there early in his concert career. Since then it’s seen Duke Ellington, Eric Clapton, Johnny Cash, the Jackson 5, Betty Grable, Gladys Knight, Willie Nelson, Myrna Loy, Cat Stevens, Michael Redgrave, Nelson Eddy, Isaac Hayes, Guy Lombardo, Bruce Springsteen, the Temptations, the Monkees. It’s a kaleidoscope of 20th-century culture.

Some shows weren’t just another stop on the tour. Country demigod George Jones’ final show, a couple of weeks before his death, was almost three years ago. Electric-guitar icon Randy Rhoads’ final show was in the same room, just before his fatal plane crash in early 1982. In his memoir, Keith Richards specifically mentioned the Rolling Stones’ second show in that same big room was one of the best shows of their legendary 1972 tour. Later the same year, soul/funk legend James Brown, who performed there several times, was arrested on the premises for disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer. During the World’s Fair, it saw Bob Hope, and became one of the very few venues in America ever to host the famous Kabuki Dancers. In 1983, it was on global TV when it hosted the Miss Universe pageant.

Richard Nixon spoke there when he was running for president in 1968. It was the birthplace of the Knoxville Opera Company. In 1999, the Auditorium was the setting for the national broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion.

The history’s there, but practical answers aren’t coming as quick as they would with a smaller building.

If I were on a jury to consider its fate, I would have to recuse myself. It’s a legend in my life, too. The first dozen circuses I ever saw were in that big room. The first hockey game; naturally, it was where Knoxville pro hockey was born, more than 50 years ago, when the Knoxville Knights played in an East Coast division. And my first big rock concert. If you’ve never heard of Uriah Heep, I’m here to tell you, for at least a couple of hours in 1974 that British heavy-metal band was monumentally important.

So many elementary-school field trips, plays like Dick Whittington and his Cat. So many Sunday afternoon travelogues, movies about Bali or Tunisia, presented by an adventurer in a pith helmet.

The only time I was ever center stage there was more than 40 years ago, when I donned a tuxedo to escort a young woman as she was “presented” there. It was a bit awkward. I hardly knew her, and she was dating another fellow at the time. I haven’t heard from her since the Ford administration. But for a few seconds, in the spotlight at the Civic Coliseum, we were a famous couple.

In 1974, my dad and I saw the closed-circuit transmission of the Evel Knievel fiasco at the Snake River Canyon. Rather than accomplishing the incredible with a rocket-powered motorcycle, he parachuted to safety. It was the first time I ever heard Dad cuss.

One of the most fun evenings of my life was working backstage with the Prairie Home show. The crew was enthralled with the bizarre décor of the backstage, adorned with hundreds of show posters and autographs.

Later, my daughter graduated from high school there.

I’ve been by less frequently in recent years. The last several times I attended shows of any length there, I squirmed in the uncomfortable seats. Were they always that hard?

And when I hear about tearing it down, I think, well, that’s a shame, I guess. Modern architecture just isn’t porous enough to absorb our affections.

It came about after more than 30 years of talking about it. A civic auditorium was proposed in 1929, then delayed by the Depression. A 1950 referendum narrowly defeated an elaborate plan to build a major civic center on the northwestern corner of downtown, between Union and Jackson. Then some wanted to put it near the river, where we eventually put the City-County Building. Then it was the urban-renewal era, with its federal mandate for slum clearance, that offered a new site, the predominantly black residential area on the east side of downtown. There were plans to put it on Central Street; then farther east, just this side of Mulvaney Street; then farther east still, the other side of Mulvaney.

It was very near downtown, but kept its distance, as if skeptical of the concept. It seems suburban, but back then that’s what people liked about it. “Unlike so much of today’s architecture, which screams economy and penny-pinching inside and out,” noted the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in early 1962, Knoxville’s Civic Coliseum “is beautiful. Outside, by day or night, the textured concrete walls have a golden glow. Inside the color scheme from the concert hall to the manager’s office is a gay and lighthearted yellow and orange. The building is surrounded on four sides by grass, trees, shrubbery and terraces, and is topped with a barrel-shaped roof someone compared to a giant caterpillar.” The feature article proceeded to speculate how Atlanta could learn from Knoxville’s obvious success.

Five or six years ago I talked to its architect, Bruce McCarty, about the Civic Coliseum. He introduced modernism to mainstream Knoxville with graceful and functional buildings. He was proud of much of his work, but he seemed a little sheepish about that particular one, for which he presented plans in 1958, to evoke images of a circus tent. He told me he didn’t think his design had aged well.

Few walk there after dinner or drinks. And after a show, people walk mainly to their cars. As, in 1961, was the ideal.

It’s all history. The Civic Coliseum is old enough now to qualify for the National Register of Historic Places. And it does tell an interesting story.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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