Civic center first sought 72 years ago

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

The more things change in Fort Wayne, the more they stay the same.

Take the proposed Fort Wayne civic center, for instance.

Last week, the convention and tourism authority approved plans for an $8 million, 85,000-square-foot center that would occupy the vacant lot across from the Embassy Theater by mid-1984. (Editor's note, January 1997: The convention center was constsructed as scheduled.)

But, the idea of a Fort Wayne civic center is nothing new. Such a proposal goes back at least as far as 1910, when a comprehensive city plan by Charles Mulford Robinson proposed a center be built on one of two sites - either along Main Street between Clinton and Barr or at the northwest corner of Harrison and Lewis.

By 1916, public support was widespread. In November, a referendum was conducted which by a 10,227 to 90 vote gave the city authority to issue a $225,000 fund for the erection of the center. A site at the southeast corner of Lewis and Clinton streets was purchased for $35,000, and Fort Wayne's foremost architect - John Wing - was paid $5,000 to draw up plans for a 5,000-seat auditorium.

But then World War I intervened. With a surge of patriotism, the city council agreed to spend $185,000 of the fund on ``Liberty'' war bonds, putting an end to the civic center movement for the war's duration.

But the story doesn't end there. In 1918, a group of local movers and shakers began an effort to get the city to erect a larger (10,000-seat) auditorium north of the Nickel Plate Railroad tracks. The civic center - by this time renamed ``Victory Hall'' in honor of the county's war veterans - was to be funded by a new $1.5 million bond.

But backers of the original center plans took the mayor, city council and Victory Hall board of managers to court to stop the project. A 20-member group led by Chauncy Heffelfinger contended the city had no right to sell its original civic center site without consulting the voters. Heffelfinger was also upset the original $250,000 bond was supposed to be turned over to the Victory Hall managers - none of whom were ever elected by the public.

The issue went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled the state law allowing the change of plan and issuance of a new bond had been unconstitutional. The Wing-designed civic center, though, was never built.

There's a footnote to the story. That 1910 Fort Wayne plan also called for construction of a parks system along the city's three rivers. Work is just now starting such a system - 72 years after it was first proposed. (Editor's note, January 1997: And that park is now Headwaters park.)

Aug. 7, 1982

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