The South Loop Historical Society
at East-West University
819 S. Wabash Ave. 8th Floor
Chicago, IL 60605
A Virtual History Museum
The Chicago Coliseum, 1513 S. Wabash Ave. (1899-1982)
The Coliseum at 1513 S. Wabash was Chicago’s premier meeting hall from 1899 until the Chicago Stadium was opened in the late 1920s. The Coliseum hosted every Republican National Conventions 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 the 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 were held 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 1899, facing diminishing revenues from the 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 6,000 people. With seats on the floor of the hall and standing room, the arena could accommodate up to 15,000 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. 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 and debauchery.
From 1926 to until the opening of the Chicago Stadium in 1929, the National Hockey League Chicago Blackhawks called the Coliseum their home. After the opening of the 18,000-seat Stadium, the Coliseum continued to host medium-sized trade shows, smaller 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.
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 NBA expansion franchise, the Chicago Zephyrs. The Zephyrs lasted only one year in the Coliseum, 1962-63, before moving on to Baltimore (as the Bullets) and Washington, D.C. (as today’s Wizards). From the mid-1960s through the end of the arena’s life, the Coliseum was known mostly as a rock concert venue, hosting acts like The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, 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.
The Coliseum was demolished in 1983, but a few remnants of the Libby Prison façade wall were visible for several years afterward. The site is now a parking lot for the Soka Gakkai International temple.
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