A Civic Centennial
Story and photos by Rodger Nichols
The new year is sure to have its highs and lows, but one of the high points will be a centennial celebration for The Dalles Civic Auditorium.
On April 8, 1920, The Dalles Chamber of Commerce asked The Dalles City Council to consider putting development of a civic theater and community center on the ballot for a special election. The council voted its support, and the people of The Dalles agreed to a $125,000 bond issue on May 20, 1920.
The following year, the city bought what had been the site of a livery stable since the 1870s and began work. The inscription on the building reads “Auditorium AD 1921,” which is when construction began. The building was completed in 1922.
The neo-classical revival-style building was designed by Portland firm Houghtaling and Dougan, also known for the Benton Hotel in Corvallis, the Elks Temple and Medical Arts Building in Portland, and the Old First National Bank Building in Salem.
The Civic, as it’s nicknamed locally, takes up a quarter-block on the northwest corner of Fourth and Federal streets.
The building was dedicated to the veterans of the World War I and later to all veterans.
In The Oregon Encyclopedia, former Oregonian reporter Joe Fitzgibbon describes the dedication ceremonies.
“On April 7, 1922, four years after the armistice ended World War I, an emotional crowd packed into The Dalles Civic Auditorium and Veterans Memorial to dedicate the new three-story building. They were gathered to honor Wasco County’s nearly three thousand veterans, including members of the highly decorated 41st Infantry Division, known as the Sunset Division.
“Surrounded by flowers and floodlights, a forty-eight-piece military band played, politicians spoke, and the crowd joined in a round of patriotic songs. The celebration lasted late into the evening, with couples dancing across the maple-floor ballroom to popular songs played by a ten-piece orchestra.”
Originally, the building contained a swimming pool in the partial basement, but that feature was short-lived. The ground floor contained a gymnasium, an 800-seat theater, kitchen, restrooms, and a comfortable room with a fireplace, known as the Fireside Room.
On the second floor was a large spring-loaded floating dance floor, one of only three in Oregon. The others are in National Neon Sign Museum in The Dalles—formerly the Elks Lodge— and McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom in Portland.
The Civic quickly became the venue for local cultural, entertainment, ceremonial, social, and recreational events, including concerts, dances, theater productions, movies, community meetings, weddings, and graduation ceremonies.
As movies grew in popularity, the theater space saw more use. By the 1940s, a box office had been installed in the foyer, and a marquee carrying the neon title “Civic” had been added to the facade.
Use evolved with the times. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Civic was operated by the city’s Parks & Recreation Department, which held recreational activities and sock hops in the gymnasium.
In the late 1960s, the auditorium was turned into a professional wrestling arena. It was ultimately condemned for safety reasons.
The Civic was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, part of a downtown historic district.
By the early 1990s, the building had fallen into such disrepair that in 1992, the city sold it for $1 to the Civic Auditorium Historic Preservation Committee. That committee persevered, funding early stages of the work through flea markets, special events, small donations, grants, and thousands of volunteer hours.
The Dalles former Mayor Steve Lawrence has been heavily involved on the committee for years.
“We did it in bits and pieces at first,” he says, noting that strong local support led to bigger projects. “Over the years, Urban Renewal has given us almost $1 million. They provided the engineering, for instance, to start the redo of the theater, and then they gave us $300,000 to get the renovation started.
“Two years ago, we got a grant from the Oregon Lottery for $745,000. When that happened, we got anonymous donations of another $250,000.”
The repairs range from fixing holes in the floor to replacing the roof and installing new heating and cooling systems. An elevator has been installed.
The theater has been fully restored, with a newly created ADA-accessible area capable of seating 100 people. The floor of the theater stage and the ballroom have been refinished. The kitchen adjacent to the dance floor has been upgraded, as have the electrical and plumbing systems.
Steve points out the revival of this civic treasure has been successful due to the work of local businesses and individuals.
“The late Gerald Richmond lived here most of the time,” he says. “He knew where everything was and he did repairs, and he was a longtime friend.
“Former Mayor Milt Skov and John Will were very instrumental. Bob and Barbara Bailey have donated money over the years. The current exterior renovation is the result of a matching grant from the late Jerry McKay and Nancy Fath.
“I also have to say large kudos to John Huffman, who led the way for us to get money from the state Legislature. It’s been a community effort.”
Steve says managers of The Granada and National Neon Sign Museum have agreed to work cooperatively rather than competitively to provide event spaces.
“We also have additional hotel and motel beds to offer,” he says. “Add the beautiful drive in the gorge, and we may be attracting more conventions locally. I think we’re poised to really do a lot in the next five to 10 years.”
Centennial celebration details are yet to be determined. Watch local media for announcements.