The grandfather of today’s Fresno Convention Center and Exhibit Hall was the Fresno Auditorium.
Mayor Chester Rowell had dreamed of an auditorium for the fast-growing city. It would be an arena for youth sports and, with seating for 6,000, one of the biggest convention halls in the state.
Rowell’s plans were ambitious.
Prominent architect Charles K. Kirby Jr., whose work included the Barton Opera House and the Fresno First National Bank building, designed the massive hall, which took up almost a quarter of a block.
Bonds were issued to cover the cost, estimated at $35,000 — not nearly enough, as it turned out.
Work began in the third week of October 1911, with an optimistic projection that it would be done in 90 days. The project ended up taking almost two and a half years, beset with construction defects and long work stoppages when money ran out.
Ultimately it cost $105,000, with Rowell himself contributing $12,000.
The mayor would never see the project completed. He died May 23, 1912, at age 68 during a trip to Los Angeles. After his death, the hall was renamed Rowell Auditorium in his honor.
The auditorium was finally dedicated March 12, 1914, with an estimated 5,000 in attendance. Many stood in line hours before the 7:30 p.m. opening.
Brilliantly lit, the hall was purposely devoid of decorations to give everyone a full view of the finished auditorium.
Mayor Alva Snow spoke and the Male Chorus performed. For the finale, the crowd stood and joined in on the song “I Love California.” Afterwards, nearly 1,000 couples crowded the huge maple floor for the city’s first municipal ball, dancing until midnight.
In time the building was renamed the Fresno Auditorium. Its star began to wane with the building of the Fresno Memorial Auditorium, dedicated in 1936, although events were still held there nightly for many more years.
Over nearly 50 years, the auditorium hosted conventions, basketball games, boxing and wrestling matches, a professional tennis match, graduation exercises, political rallies, National Guard drills, dances, and even sleeping servicemen in wartime. Finally it became a makeshift office building housing welfare and service agencies.
In a 1950 city project called “Paint Up, Fix Up, Clean Up Week,” the auditorium was dubbed “Operation Sore Arm.”
Two hundred painters slapped on more than 200 gallons of white paint on the building’s aging woodwork in less than 12 minutes. Even Governor Earl Warren took part.
In 1954, there was talk of using the building as a police station, but that ended when it turned out it would cost less to build a new station than remodel the old hall.
Five months before it was razed in late January 1960, a picture of the building was published in The Bee with the heading “No Longer Needed.”
The caption read, “The civic auditorium could never be called a beautiful building, even in its palmy days. Its exterior has the usual furbelows and gimcracks that used to mar most public buildings.”
The site is now home to the Fresno County Elections Office.