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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Civic Duty

On May 23, 1969, civic and government leaders gathered to dedicate the new Civic Center complex. More than 50 years since that date, the importance and promise of the event has faded. In May 1969, the new Civic Center was seen as an integral part of the city’s revival and future. Since then, the closure of Main Street, the building’s brutalist style of architecture, and the loss of iconic buildings such as Assumption Cathedral, C. & E. I. Depot, and Cook’s Brewery have been reasons to criticize the Civic Center.

In the late 1950s, Evansville was facing an uncertain future with the loss of major industries and an aging infrastructure. Federal, county, and city offices all were housed in buildings more than 41 years old. It was in this atmosphere that civic and government leaders began to look to the future. In 1958, the Fantus Company released a report that was to serve as a master plan for the city’s future. Two years later, community leaders gathered at Miami University to view a model of the way city planner Rudolph Frankel thought Downtown Evansville should look. The Frankel plan served as the basis for the early plans of what would become the Civic Center.

The first designs called for a 10-story office complex across from the existing courthouse and a new auditorium attached to the back of the Coliseum. The formation of the Evansville Vanderburgh Building Authority to fund the complex led to the project’s relocation. Through the efforts of Evansville’s Future and the Central Evansville Improvement Corporation, a new site was chosen in the run-down industrial area centered at Eighth and Main streets. Federal, city, and county governments and the newly created Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation all agreed to build new buildings in the 20-square-block renewal area.

In November 1963, a plan looking similar to the present-day Civic Center replaced an earlier Civic Circle idea, which would have allowed Main Street to pass through the site. On June 20, 1966, Mayor Frank McDonald used a bulldozer for the ceremonial ground breaking on the project. Over a period of six years, existing buildings in the 30-acre area were razed and new buildings costing nearly $27 million were erected. In the aftermath of the dedication, nearly 30,000 people attended an open house to view the new buildings.

Since its completion, a number of changes have occurred at the Civic Center complex. The original county auditorium was replaced by the Old National Events Plaza, and both the jail and EVSC have left for new offsite locations. At age 50, there are no indications the Civic Center’s days are numbered.

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