For most of the first half of the 20th century, the Des Moines Coliseum occupied the downtown site where a federal courthouse is now being built.  

Although the Coliseum burned down in 1949, it remains a fascinating piece of local history. 

It wasn’t the city’s first community center. The Des Moines Auditorium was built in 1899 at 516 Fourth St., in a structure that still stands today. It was enlarged in 1905 when a display hall was added and seating capacity was doubled to 3,000. 

But the Auditorium still wasn’t big enough to handle the rapidly expanding convention industry, and pressure for a bigger building increased when a Des Moines Convention Bureau was created in 1908.

Late that year, 200 local leaders gathered at the clubhouse of the Golf and Country Club as  experts from Missouri and Minnesota told how they had financed similar projects. 

Within weeks, a stock subscription effort was launched to raise money for a Des Moines Coliseum. 

“Professional solicitors were employed” to sell shares of Coliseum stock, the Des Moines Register reported, but they raised “only about $40,000” of the $160,000 needed, prompting volunteers, including “well known businessmen,” to step in and complete the sale. 

The shares paid a small dividend and eventually were redeemed in full from Coliseum profits.

The location of the Coliseum made it part of an early 20th century effort to beautify the downtown riverfront. 

It was built north of the new library, which had opened in 1903, and directly across the river from where a new City Hall would be built in 1910. Eventually seven public buildings would line the riverfront. 

The construction schedule was frantic. Ground was broken in June 1909, with the first event scheduled for the following December. 

In early November, the final nail was driven into the roof of a building the size of a football field. 

The construction manager “drove his men hard and he paid them well, and they worked with incredible speed,” the Register reported.

Near the end, a steel girder fell 70 feet to the Coliseum floor, placing the project behind schedule and prompting the manager to borrow weekend workers from projects as far away as Chicago and St. Joseph, Mo., to finish on time.

The building that was dedicated in January 1910 lacked much of the architectural ornamentation visible in early sketches. Decorative cornices and capitals were eliminated; windows were smaller and without trim. The economizing helped explain why the cost was less than half that of similar facilities in other Midwestern cities. 

For four decades, the Coliseum hosted the nation’s best-known politicians and performers. Herbert Hoover campaigned there in 1932, making him the fifth president to speak from the Coliseum stage. Aviator Charles Lindbergh appeared in 1941 in a performance that branded him as a Nazi sympathizer. 

Actor Rudolph Valentino and dancer Anne Pavlova performed at the Coliseum; Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney boxed there; bicycle races were held, along with wrestling matches and basketball tournaments.

When the Coliseum opened, it was promoted as fireproof because of its concrete and steel structure, prompting unanswered questions when fire destroyed it on Saturday, Aug. 13, 1949. 

Officials said the 11 a.m. blaze spread quickly through three levels of wooden floors, collapsing the roof at the north end 15 minutes after the fire was reported. 

The fire was controlled in less than three hours. When it was over, Fire Capt. Edward Fisher told reporters: “The building was too far gone when the fire was discovered to tell what caused it.”

By then, plans were already underway to replace the 10,000-seat Coliseum with an 18,000-seat Veterans Memorial Auditorium, which opened three blocks north of the 1899 Des Moines Auditorium on Feb. 1, 1955.