The late 1950s were a rough time in Evansville as the city saw several major blue collar employers leave the area. In 1958, Fantus, a factory locating service, rated the city low on its list of recommended areas due to a negative feeling that permeated the community and political polarization that had frozen progress in place.
Civic leaders (a term we don’t use much today) marshaled their collective will and formed a corporation called Evansville’s Future Inc., dedicated to making the community prosperous and attracting new business.
As part of that spirit, a move to clear blighted buildings in the Downtown core took on a sense of urgency that led to federal funds being sought for what was then called “urban renewal.” Many buildings began to come down south of Fourth Street toward the riverfront and in that process, then-mayor Frank McDonald Sr. and his fellow public servants realized a new governmental complex was needed. A second corporation was formed in 1961 called CEI: Central Evansville Improvement Corp. which began the process of acquiring land between what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Ninth, Locust, and Court streets.
CEI purchased many parcels there including the old Cooks Brewery and the Assumption Cathedral (which required permission from the Vatican to be sold). The original concept of this new governmental complex would have been an amazing addition to the Downtown landscape, and would have prevented the eventual cutoff of Main Street to Garvin Park.
Evansville’s Future commissioned the architectural firm Heronimus, Knapp, Given, and Associates to design a modern cluster of buildings inside and out of a European roundabout which would keep traffic moving north and south from the river to Garvin Park, yet permit development of both a new Federal Building and post office, a county auditorium and a city/county high rise office building with parking garage. The design was unveiled at a star-studded luncheon at the Vendome Hotel on March 12, 1963, and received rave reviews from the public and the business community.
The plans were drawn up and funds applied for from the federal government with the aid of both Indiana senators at the time R. Vance Hartke (a former Evansville Mayor) and Birch Bayh. During the spring and early summer of 1963 the Fantus company returned to Evansville and prepared a new report with glowing results: Fantus now rated the city “superior” as a location for new industry.
Sadly, as estimated construction costs mounted for the beautiful Civic Circle, a new Chicago firm was hired in 1964 to prepare a different design which was more cost efficient. The firm, Holabird and Root, produced a campus style proposal for the local government complex, which is what we have today. But the Civic Circle designs that remain still are a haunting reminder of what might have been a dynamic addition to the Downtown, and maintained the traffic connection with North Main Street.