The history of the Civic Auditorium, Part 1

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The Civic Auditorium, circa 1960. - Photo submitted

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series of eight stories on the history of the Civic Auditorium, more specifically the last 10 years when lively conversations have generated curiosity, controversy and conviction around the fate of this building now 100 years old.  

Danette Olson | Special to the Leader
ST. CROIX FALLS – On Sept. 15, 10 years will have passed since a community charette served as the culminating public activity of a master planning process for the future of the Civic Auditorium.   Earlier that year, the city of St. Croix Falls acted upon a motion by then city council President Darrell Anderson to expend a fee “not to exceed $55,000” to study the structural integrity of the historic building and to learn about community priorities for the future of the building.   
A competitive process led to a contract with Claybaugh Preservation Architecture, followed by a thorough process of examining the building from top to bottom.   Bob Claybaugh and Peter Musty provided the professional leadership needed by the city of St. Croix Falls to have a clear understanding about the future of the Civic Auditorium once the municipal library moved out and Festival Theatre was left as the anchor tenant in the building that had served as their home since 1990.   From May through December, the work of Claybaugh and Musty would draw in well over 300 community members and included review of earlier studies of the building, such as the 1994 Historic Structures report and 2005 HVAC study which had already deemed the building’s mechanical equipment as obsolete.

Less than a year before the September 2007 community charette, the Falls Cinema 5 had vacated their lease along with the cinder-block building next door to the Civic Auditorium, leaving absentee building owners with a white elephant on their hands, initially believing the value of that structure at $850,000.   The entire northeast corner of Washington and Louisiana was being looked at creatively as a “cultural campus” just across the street from Overlook Park with the newly installed River Spirit sculpture and beautiful Gaylord Nelson River Walk that provided the best walking path within the city limits to experience the St. Croix River.
It was a time of great optimism.  Plans were moving ahead nicely for the renovation of the long-vacant Holiday Village grocery store on South Washington and construction would begin there for the new library in March of 2009.    
The St. Croix Falls Chamber of Commerce was moving ever more closely to a strategic merger with the Taylors Falls Chamber and the SCF Room Tax (tourism) Committee was investing in destination marketing efforts to highlight the diversity of outdoor recreation, dining, lodging and entertainment options in the area.   
The Wert Family Nature Preserve was being launched and the St. Croix Falls Park and Recreation Committee had hit full stride with myriad accomplishments, including several key pocket parks such as the one downtown that would enhance the redevelopment of an adjacent restaurant.   
Many factors synergistically working together for the greater good and activities like the City of Trails run, the newly constructed National Park Service building, the reimagining of Music on the Overlook, the Polk County Fair, Festival Theatre, Wannigan Days, Franconia Sculpture Park and even the St. Croix Regional Medical Center’s 2008 expansion would have a positive impact on private sector investment in the area.   
With wineries, CSAs, artists and craftsmen adding to the profile of the region, long-standing tourism giants like Wild Mountain, Trollhaugen and Interstate Park continued to capitalize on their year-round business enterprises.  
That Saturday in September 2007, three days of meetings for all stakeholders in the project came to conclusion and community members filled the seats of the Civic Auditorium to hear a preliminary report by Claybaugh Preservation Architecture.   The building was found to be structurally sound and the community had responded with enthusiasm for seeing the building renovated, making it fully accessible and comfortable for 21st century audiences, pressing it into full service as a year-round cultural center for residents and visitors.  
Yes, it was a time of optimism, yet nobody knew that a massive economic crisis was just around the corner, one that would contribute to delays in taking action to save the Civic Auditorium.   
Next week:  the early history of an iconic building.

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