Springfield’s Convention Hall, a sweet dream that turned sour

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Springfield’s Convention Hall was said to be the largest venue in the region. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)


When Springfield’s Convention Hall was proposed in 1910, city leaders were convinced it was going to make the city a much larger spot on the map. After all, they surmised, a center would bring conventions, exhibitions and events to town — and tourists, their open pocketbooks at the ready.

“The building of a convention hall for the city will be worth to Springfield many times what the building would cost,” predicted the Springfield Republican newspaper in April 1910. “It is in demand almost constantly by some big undertakings, and would be the means of drawing many great attractions to the city which otherwise will go to other cities fortunate enough to possess a convention hall.”

Eventually, the city got its wish: The massive structure, which sat between Campbell and Market avenues at McDaniel Street, was finished in 1913.

Three stories tall, its auditorium eventually had seats for around 4,000 people. Among other things, it also housed Springfield’s first farmer’s market, as well as the Hippodrome vaudeville theater.

Despite its promise and grandeur, the Convention Hall didn’t last long. What was to be one of the city’s most memorable buildings was repurposed after 20 years and demolished less than 50 years after it was built. Today it is nearly forgotten.

The back story

Earnest efforts to bring a convention hall to Springfield began in 1910, when Missouri’s first “Land Congress” drew crowds too big for the city’s existing spaces to handle. At the time, there was a threat that the event — which was held at the Landers Theatre and focused on agriculture and natural resources  — wouldn’t be organized in the city again unless changes were made.

Less than a month later, a committee was appointed to look into a convention hall’s construction. Word quickly spread: Within less than a week, at least five different sites had been offered as suggestions to the committee.

For some reason, however, it turned into a hurry-up-and-wait situation. It wasn’t until January 1912 when work seemingly began to pick up steam. That month, an article in the Republican noted that the committee was meeting to “consider” auditorium plans. They also decided to recommend that the building be along Campbell Avenue, on a lot that the city already owned.

An artist’s rendering of what the Convention Hall would look like. (Courtesy of the Springfield-Greene County Library District)


There were numerous reasons for that recommendation, beginning with money. Since the land was already owned by the city, leasing the location would be cheaper than buying a new space. Leaders also wanted to stay close to city center — and, in the early 1900s, the proximity to the passenger train depot was also likely a factor.

In February 1912, Springfield Mayor Robert E. Lee approved the recommendations and plans for the convention hall leapt forward. It was decided to primarily finance the project through shares of stock, which sold for $25 each.

“The proposition to secure the entire fund by subscription rather than by bonding the company has given it additional favor in the eyes of citizens who expected to own common stock in the enterprise,” noted the Republican in February 1912. “If carried out as planned, this will give an equal chance to every subscriber and all will share in the first profits of the undertaking.”

The campaign’s start saw extreme success: In less than a month, the committee had $31,000 committed toward stock sales. In today’s money, an online calculator estimates that figure equivalent to more than $774,000.

“So far, the greatest number of subscriptions has been secured for business men on South Campbell street in the vicinity of the proposed structure,” noted the Republican. “More than $20,000 was subscribed by property-owners in that section of the city, residents there realizing that the convention hall project means for the advancement of their locality.”

Overall, the proposition was promoted as a benefit for everyone — and it was a cause especially championed by the newspaper, which even bordered on guilt to gather donations:

“The Republican suggests, Mr. Springfieldian, that you hold a session with yourself, consider the convention hall undertaking as your undertaking, and then get behind it or under with all the energy, enthusiasm and money you can spare without injury to your more private affairs. Do this, do it now, and the fund necessary to the completion of one of the finest assembly halls in the country will be assured ere another ten days shall have come and gone.”

Within a few more weeks, it seems stock purchases nearly doubled. Work officially commenced in July 1912, marked by a flurry of activity from wagons carting in lumber.

“Rapidly unloading their burdens, the green wagons may be seen at all hours of the day increasing the variety and quantity of the building material that is to go into the construction of the first modern convention hall that has been erected in this part of the state,” noted the Republican.

That start, however, was a bit lumber-cart-before-horse.

When work began, the committee heading the project hadn’t even officially leased the land from the city. That came on Aug. 24, 1912, when a 50-year lease was signed on the property. In an article, the Republican reported that the committee would pay the city $1,000 annually, and conveyed the optimistic spirit flavoring the deal:

“In signing the lease yesterday Mayor Culler and City Clerk Langston remarked that they probably would never see the instrument again. Unless complications arise on account of which it will be necessary to dig up the document, the lease will be stored away for half a century. By that time, both the mayor and city clerk will be past the age usually allowed to mankind.

“The lease closed yesterday will run for a longer period of time than any legal document ever authorized by the city of Springfield, it is believed.”

More money was infused into the hall a few months later, when a committee approved the purchase of $35,000 in bonds to finance the rest of the project. Work progressed rapidly on the structure — the newspaper reported that construction would not stop for the winter — and it was ready for its grand opening on May 15, 1913.

And, as the Republican proclaimed through its pages, the event was grand:

“With bands playing inspiring airs, speakers giving messages of enthusiasm for a bigger Springfield, and a vast concourse of ten thousand appreciative people from every part of the city and from adjoining towns, the splendid Convention Hall on Campbell Street was formally opened last night. The affair was the most magnificent gala event in which the citizens of Springfield have ever participated, and words of appreciation for the enterprise of the builders of the big structure were heard on every hand. Nothing was left undone by the management in completing arrangements for the most brilliant public event which the city has ever seen.

“Surging through the great building, every nook and cranny of which was ablaze with light, the thousands of delighted visitors made careful inspection of the magnificent building which for a year has been arising out of shapeless piles of brick, stone and mortar. It was the most modern, most complete, most practical achievement of the architectural skill and construction ability which could be offered anywhere, and as the visitors came to realize more and more what Springfield had been given through the courage and enterprise and liberality of the men responsible for the creation of the hall, they saw also that Springfield had never known a more auspices occasion nor one which meant more to the future of the city.”

The main people who were displeased with the building, it seems, were folks from Joplin (or “Zincites, as the newspaper referred to residents of Joplin, in an apparent reference to zinc mining in Jasper County). The age-old rivalry between the Queen City and its neighbor to the southwest was once again brought to light in a newspaper article a few weeks after the hall’s opening:

“Contrary to statements made to Springfield people, members of the Joplin council junketing committee who visited Springfield Thursday and Friday to inspect the new Convention Hall were thoroughly displeased with Springfield’s latest improvement. They are quoted in Joplin paper as follows:

“‘Joplin does not desire a building like the one there. There is a glass dome on the structure that would radiate sufficient heat in the winter if shone upon by the sun to warm the interior.’ They also remarked that the Springfield building was ‘poorly ventilated.'”

But Springfield’s newspaper had its own city’s back:

“With all due respect to the Joplin councilmen, it is felt here that they need not have feared mob violence had they made these statements while in Springfield. Springfield has never intimated that it was all favorable to Joplin’s copying any improvement conceived for the Queen City.”

Open for business

Springfield Republican, Feb. 24, 1918

In its early days, it would seem that the Convention Hall operated just as its dreamers had hoped.

An industrial exposition was held, featuring Rose O’Neill and her Kewpie dolls and drawing governors from three states. The Flying Squadron, a national campaign promoting prohibition, came to town. Thousands of locals attended Fourth of July festivities. School events and graduations were held in the auditorium.

Hordes of people attended Ozarks Trails “good roads” conventions. (Random fact: During the conference, locals were asked to fill their cars with gasoline early in the day. That way, filling stations would be free to serve visitors with next-to-empty gas tanks. After all, there weren’t service stations along the road like there are today!)

When World War I began, the hall served as a gathering place and where hundreds of men of draft-age were drilled. Automobiles were featured there in shows, as well as the 1917 Springfield Fair and Exposition.

In addition to the visiting attractions, the Convention Hall was also home to a permanent “farmer’s market” on its main level. A variety of local businesses set up shop: Fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, coffee, fresh-baked bread and pies and more were up for sale. Shortly after opening, a drug store was to be added.

Ads from some of Convention Hall’s businesses.


“The Convention Hall market is going to be the biggest thing in Springfield,” boasted the market master to the Republican in August 1913. “The central location of the building, the general knowledge of its whereabouts and the fact that it is possible to get most anything in the congested quarters will bring about this state of affairs.”

Issues arise

Downtown Springfield circa 1920s. Note the Convention Hall, marked on the photo, near the upper left corner. Other landmarks include “the pie,” Heer’s and the Landers Building. (Courtesy of the Piland Collection)


Despite the glowing start, the hall was faced with fluctuating priorities and high debt from the beginning.

Just four months after it opened, the newspaper also announced that part of the hall would be remodeled to house the new Hippodrome theater. “Illuminations of the new house, according to Manager Wilhoit, will be quite superb,” the newspaper noted in September 1913. “Every arch in the dome of the theater will carry numerous electric bulbs, while the brilliant globes will cast their mellow rays throughout a playhouse that will give joy to the lovers of all that is high class in theatrical productions.”

Springfield Republican, Oct. 29, 1914

The theater opened in October 1913. A blow came a year later, however, when President Wilson’s “war” tax came to town. The Republican newspaper noted that folks should “blame Democrats,” explaining that under the new tax, theaters would have to pay tax based on their seating capacity. While the Hippodrome’s large size seemed like a novelty the year before, it was suddenly a liability.

“The Hippodrome specialized on a ten-cent show,” noted the newspaper. “It is believed by many that with the additional money that must be spent for taxes the prices will have to be raised or the program cut down.”

More debt was quickly amassed by the Convention Hall’s board. In June 1913, an additional $45,000 in bonds were purchased to help defray costs, or perhaps help remodel space for the Hippodrome.

It would also seem that perhaps the market area didn’t evolve as well as planners had hoped. Less than a year after it opened, a newspaper advertised the closing of Convention Hall Grocery, one of the vendors.

The real nail in the coffin, however, came in 1920. That year, the area’s growing number of Shriners helped decide a nearly 5,000-seat arena would be built just a few blocks away.

Today, that landmark is known as the Shrine Mosque. After it was completed in 1923, it quickly put the older venue in trouble.

The next year, the grand Convention Hall was sold under a deed of trust.

“While the Hall as an investment has never paid, the construction of the Shrine Mosque which was dedicated and open recently and which is of capacity to accommodate all large gatherings, took the patronage from the Hall and made it impossible to longer operate it as an auditorium, it was stated today by one of the men closely connected with the venture,” noted the Springfield Democrat on Jan. 30, 1924.

Later life

Despite its sale, it seems the Convention Hall continued operating similarly for several years longer. But it wasn’t enough: Around 1930, the building’s guardians approached the city officials about buying the building for $45,000 plus $15,000 of debt. The city wasn’t interested.

However, in 1934, the hall took on a new life as Springfield’s Sears & Roebuck store. It would appear Sears stayed until 1955, when a new store was built on St. Louis Street just east of the Shrine Mosque.

The next year, Heer’s Department Store took over the building for both sales and storage. “Heer’s, Inc., has signed a six-year lease on the old Sears building at 311 South Campbell and will open a ‘budget house,’ President F.W. McClerkin announced today,” reported the Springfield Leader & Press on Feb. 24, 1956. “About 10,000 square feet of floor space along the Campbell Street side will be used for sale of lower priced new and used furniture and appliances, he explained.”

The six-year term was intentional. Six years from when it was signed would be 1962, when the original 50-year lease was set to expire. However, it appears that Heer’s didn’t keep its lease that long.

In 1958, the city decided to tear down the building and use the space as a parking lot.

An auction was scheduled for March 20, 1958 to try and sell salvageable materials out of the building, as well as a nearby fire station which was also to be demolished. Things, however, didn’t go quite as planned.

“Some 30 people gathered around the rear of the old Convention Hall structure, on the Market Street side, to hear Auctioneer M.R. Dugan plead for an offer of cash to the city for the salvageable materials in the two buildings,” noted the Leader & Press. “Shivering in a cold wind, they waited silent until he changed his request — ‘What’ll you take to tear them down? This is an auction in reverse!'”

In the end, a $15,000 bid was accepted for the demolition of the two structures. Even though most, it seems, thought the building needed to go — including a number of Campbell Avenue merchants, who supported the idea like their predecessors propelled the idea of building it in the first place — the day’s flavor was bittersweet.

“Several Campbell Avenue merchants, boosters for the municipal parking lot which will replace the two old buildings, mingled with builders and wrecking contractors, reminisced about the city’s pride in Convention Hall when it was new, and of the auto shows and similar events held there,” printed the newspaper. “Observed one in the crowd, as he surveyed the Convention Hall which sprawls all the way from Campbell to Market on McDaniel — ‘That’s a lot of building to tear down!'”

Springfield Leader & Press, Dec. 2, 1958


The Convention Hall’s approximate location in 2017.

A few months later, Convention Hall was merely a memory. Today, the area around where it stood is filled with parking spaces, office buildings and loft apartments. Its presence, however, still proves a point as mentioned in the Republican back in 1912:

“The decision of the doers in this town to build a great convention hall is still another instance of how Springfield has resolutely set her face toward the accomplishing of every undertaking that means better times, better everything for Springfield.”

Resources

“431 draft men drilled at Convention Hall,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 1, 1918

“50-year lease is signed on property by mayor,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 25, 1912

“$31,000 given in convention hall canvass,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 29, 1912

“A people’s project,” Springfield Republican, Mar. 19, 1912

“All southwest wants convention hall here,” Springfield Republican, March 6, 1910

“Arrangements for roads convention nearly completed,” Springfield Republican, June 24, 1916

“Auditorium plans will be considered,” Springfield Republican, Jan. 14, 1912

“Big grocery in Convention Hall,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 14, 1913

“City Convention Hall thronged by 10,000 delighted visitors,” Springfield Republican, May 16, 1913

“City hall in sight if Cullun bill is adapted,” Springfield Republican, April 10, 1910

“City to pay $15,000 to raze fire station,” Springfield Leader & Press, March 20, 1958

“Convention hall is obtained for flying squadron,” Springfield Republican, March 31, 1915

“Convention Hall is to be sold under deed of trust,” Springfield Leader, Jan. 30, 1924

“Convention hall support by everyone,” Springfield Republican, Feb.  27, 1912

“Different talk when they get to Joplin town,” Springfield Republican, June 29, 1913

“Drawings of buildings made for council,” Jan. 16, 1912

“Greater Sears Store opens here Thursday,” Springfield Leader & Press, March 2, 1955

“Green wagons and phone ‘300’ make city lot lively,” Springfield Republican, Aug. 9, 1912

“Heer’s leases old building,” Springfield Leader & Press, Feb. 24, 1956

No headline, new bonds, Springfield Republican, June 6, 1913

“Should be approved,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 29, 1912

“Shriners sign year’s lease on Convention Hall, Springfield Republican, Dec. 19, 1919

“Springfield club for assembly hall,” Springfield Republican, Feb. 10, 1910

“Springfield’s Convention Hall,” Springfield Republican, March 17, 1912

“Springfield will have industrial exposition,” Springfield Republican, June 17, 1914

“Wilhoit, back from Chicago, has fine offerings,” Springfield Republican, Sept. 17, 1913

“Wilson ‘war’ tax hits Hippodrome,” Springfield Republican, Oct. 29, 1914

2 thoughts on “Springfield’s Convention Hall, a sweet dream that turned sour

  1. Good article. Frank Woodhead Hunt was awarded the construction contract on this building (Springfield Republican, June 18, 1912, p. 2). He also designed and built many other buildings, including the Woodruff Building and the Jewell Theater, before he was killed in 1922 at age 50 when an elevator car in the Woodruff Building hit his head as he leaned into the shaft to examine the thickness of the floor.

  2. Thanks for the article. I was always told there was rivalry between Joplin and Springfield. I guess this was part of that. I have a bracelet engraved to my grandmother that includes the year 1917. I wish she and my grandfather were here to tell the stories. I bet there are many stories not contained in these articles that led to the demise of the convention center,

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