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Pershing construction
This photo shows the early construction of Pershing Municipal Auditorium. (Courtesy photo )

Lincoln's first municipal -- though not city-owned -- auditorium opened Feb. 12, 1900, on the southeast corner of 13th and M streets with a sold-out concert by Ignace Jan Paderewski. The building had been designed to be "as flexible as possible (allowing) even roller skating."

Only hours after the University's Kosmet Club Review on April 15, 1928, the auditorium burned virtually to the ground. Although the city announced it would be rebuilt, it was soon discovered that the $11,000 insurance policy, owned by the American Legion Club, was payable only to Lancaster County, which owned the land it sat on. The lots ultimately were purchased by E.M. O'Shea, who built the extant Union Bus Terminal and parking garage in 1930.

As early as 1931, Lincoln announced plans to build a new high school, consolidating those in the previously independent cities of Havelock, University Place and Bethany. Using rules set by the Board of Education, the prospective students voted the name of the new school should be Pershing. The city overrode the election, however, saying it was planning to name the new city auditorium in honor of Gen. John J. Pershing - and the school was named Northeast High School instead.

In 1939, 11 years after the old auditorium burned, the American Legion spearheaded a drive for a new building, which resulted in approval of a $750,000 bond issue. The city purchased the old brick high school and its site in the block bounded by M, N, 15th and 16th streets in 1941 for $46,750 to build on, but World War II halted construction plans.

1950 saw consideration of three sites -- 33rd and O, 23rd and O and 15th and N streets -- and a new $1.5 million bond issue, adding another $750,000 to the original. Voters also approved the Rogers Tract site at 33rd and O, but a lawsuit questioned the potential site change, and the State Supreme Court ruled out 33rd and O because the bond approval was tied to the 15th and N site.

With ever increasing cost estimates, voters said no to a 1952 request for an additional $75,000 bond proposal.

Finally, in 1955, plans for a new auditorium were approved, though there were already rumblings about the lack of parking around the 15th and N location.

An important feature of the new proposed structure was that it, like its predecessor, would be "an all-purpose building."

"After 29 years, four building bond elections, two state Supreme Court decisions, and a couple of wars," the new Pershing Municipal Auditorium was built and dedicated on March 10, 1957. Interestingly, one of the auditorium's first shows was the Kosmet Club's production of "South Pacific," bookending the club's appearance as the last show in the old building.

One of the striking features of the building was the 38-by-140-foot, 763,000-piece mural on the west elevation picturing Lincoln at leisure or some of the activities that would be held in the auditorium. Critics were divided on the art work, noted as the "largest ceramic tile mural in the United States," but virtually all agreed that Lincoln now had one of the "most versatile municipal auditoriums in the nation."

The 7,500-seat auditorium's 16,000 square-foot arena saw rodeos, indoor football, concerts, graduations and ice skating on the 80-by-165-foot rink formed by eight miles of pipe emanating from an ice plant on the lower level.

In 1975, the Capitol Environs Plan suggested closing 15th Street, building an outdoor amphitheater, with excavations on the west corners allowing access to the lower exhibition level and a building extension south over M Street connecting to the existing parking garage.

The ice plant stopped functioning decades ago and lack of parking continued to plague the site as the building aged. With the turn of the century, discussion turned to a new, now voter-approved, arena building and location.

Now the question of what to do with Pershing is being discussed. Apart from razing it, dozens of ideas have surfaced, ranging from a church, ballroom, library, hotel, Imax theater and corporate headquarters to an aquarium.

Will Lincoln Northeast High School now claim the original name choice of Pershing, with the new auditorium's name sold to the highest bidder, or will the old name simply move to the new arena?

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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