Then and Now: The Forum

THEN: Postcard view of the the Wichita Forum, located on the west side of the 200 block of South Wichita. The complex developed in stages over a period of two decades.  

With all the excitement surrounding the building of a downtown arena in Wichita, it seems like a proper time to look back at the cityís first arena Ė the Forum. From 1912 to 1965, it served as the cityís arena, main auditorium, convention center and exposition hall.

The city commission let a contract in November 1909 for a new auditorium, not yet named, to be constructed on Haymarket Square in the 200 block of South Water.

Haymarket Square was the site of William Greiffensteinís first home. The old frame historical house was moved to Third and Wichita and the lumber from the barn was hauled to Riverside Park to make sheds for the animals.

The architectural firm of Richards, McCarthy and Bulford from Columbus, Ohio, who had designed the Beacon Building, were selected to draw up plans.

But, just as there is controversy over selling naming rights to our new arena, naming of the original building caused quite a stir. The Chamber of Commerce recommended that it be called the Coliseum. Other suggested names were the Hippodrome, Wigwam, Auditorium, Convention Hall and most creatively the Wichitorium. In the end the city commissioners selected the name "Forum."

The cornerstone was laid May 19, 1910, and the Forum was dedicated in January 1911. As is still the trend, the building was to cast $140,000, but the actual cost was $150,000 plus around $20,000 for furnishings.

The Forum was 260 feet long by 160 wide, with a height from stage to dome of 80 feet and a capacity of about 5,000. No one worried about the health hazzards of the large asbestos curtain installed on the stage depicting a reproduction of a well-known painting of Ben Hurís chariot race.

The first performance in the facility was an oratorio, "The Childrenís Crusade," performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra along with a 400 voice local chorus, Jan. 25, 1911.

However the curtainís subject matter was prophetic as the "largest production the Forum had ever seen," according to Peerless Princess of the Plains, was the national touring show, "Ben Hur." The postcard book adds that, for the 1914 production, "An enormous amount of special scenery was needed, including a treadmill large enough to accommodate a twelve horse chariot race, and moving background to give the impression the horses were going somewhere."

Many celebrities made appearances at the Forum, including Theodore Roosevelt, Anna Pavlova, Ignace Paderewski, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Elvis Presley.

As its uses grew, an Exposition Hall and Arcadia Theater structure was built on the north end of the block by 1918. By 1921, the two buildings were connected by a one story, 150 by 300 foot annex. A second story was added to the annex in 1928.

The complex was used for circuses, graduations, commercial shows, and athletic games, including visits by the Harlem Globe Trotters. The Wichita Public Museum was housed on the second floor of the Arcadia until 1956 when it was moved to a residential structure at 3751 East Douglas.

By 1965, the Forum was no longer adequate for a growing population, and the structure was demolished to make way for a new central library and a civic center, Century II. The Forumís last show was the Grand Ole Opry the night of April 4 to a sell-out audience of over 4,000.

(Notes for the above article were gathered, in part, from the Tihen Notes, Special Collections, WSU.)

NOW: The Forum was razed in 1965 to make room for Century II Convention Center.

(Photo credit: D & V Churchman)