The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

November 17, 2012

Enid’s ‘grand old lady’

By Robert Barron, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle

ENID, Okla. — Enid’s historic Convention Hall has seen the greats of its day, fallen into disrepair and faced the prospect of demolition, before being given a rebirth through Enid Renaissance Project.

In 1918, America was enmeshed in World War I, and residents of Enid and Garfield County sought a way to honor those who gave their lives for their country. Mayor M.C. Garber and two city commissioners, G.W. Pancoast and James W. Butts, proposed a bond issue to erect a building as a memorial. The following year, bonds were issued to construct a convention hall.

The city subsequently constructed a four-story structure that cost about $465,000, according to a story in the Enid News & Eagle by the late Bill Edson. It took two bond issues to build it, but near the end of Garber’s administration, the convention center was built. It had a seating capacity of 5,000, locally said to be the largest in Oklahoma.

The building featured spacious meeting rooms on all floors, but the main attraction was the main auditorium, with a seating capacity of 2,800. The cornerstone was laid by the Enid Masonic Lodge and bore the inscription “Dedicated to the memory of those who offered their services in the defense of our country.”

Edmund Frantz spoke at the dedication, saying in 1921: “We are at last to have a Convention Hall, a great auditorium, a place of assembly, a memorial building, if you please, reared on the foundation and dedicated to the memory of all the soldiers dead, and to the uses of all the soldiers and living of all the wars in which our nation has been engaged, since its stormy and glorious beginning.”

In 1924, the Frisco Employees Magazine wrote that after Convention Hall was constructed, other buildings followed in Enid, including a new Masonic Hall costing nearly $1 million, a fortune in those days.

“In fact, since the decision to build the hall, building took on an unprecedented impetus. Fine residences and business buildings are constantly going up in keeping with the business growth,” the magazine said.

Copies of the Frisco Employees Magazine story and Edson’s “Window on the Past” were provided by Cherokee Strip Regional Heritage Center in Enid.

Host to the stars

Frantz predicted the nation’s greatest stars would come to Enid to perform in Convention Hall. He was proven right. Ballerina Anna Pavlova, Madam Ernestine Schumann-Heink, diva of the operatic and concert stage, performed. Schumann-Heink also was the symbolic mother of all soldiers from both sides who fought in World War I. March King John Philip Sousa performed between three and five times at Convention Hall. Harpist Bernice Byrd, of Enid, performed, as did symphonies from Dallas and St. Louis.

Convention Hall was a place where children performed during Christmas, Paul Harvey spoke and hundreds of graduating seniors received diplomas, the Edson story said.

Convention Hall was used for city of Enid offices and by the Chamber of Commerce for many years. A radio station once broadcast from the first floor, the American Legion headquartered in Convention Hall for more than 20 years and the Tri-State Music Festival also headquartered there until the building was closed after 2009.

Edson’s story discussed the movie “Dillinger,” which used Convention Hall as background, the livestock shows were held there when dirt was spread over the floor, and how it was used as shelter for victims of natural disasters.

Leon Jewell, former Tri-State Music Festival director, remembers Convention Hall  both as a place for performing and as the office of Tri-State, when he was in charge of the event.

Jewell recalls big band concerts in Convention Hall, with 200-250 students in the band, 75-100 students in the orchestra and 200-300 in the choirs. Famous conductors came to direct the bands, and well-known musicians came to perform with them.

“I remember Doc Severinsen came twice,” he said of the trumpet player who led the “Tonight Show” band for many years.

When Jewell was teaching, he took the Emerson Junior High School band into Convention Hall to perform for Tri-State.

“Convention Hall was the center of it all back then, with the grand concert on Saturday afternoon. That’s where the awards were given out and the honor groups performed. It was a lively place back then,” Jewell said.

Hard times and rebirth

Enid City Manager Eric Benson said the building was closed in 2009, over noncompliance with Americans with Disabilities Act issues and the cost of operation, which was about $200,000 a year. At that time, there was discussion about demolishing the building. After the failure of the Gateway Enid bond issue in 2010, Mayor John Criner, became a supporter of its demolition, making an oft-repeated comment, “I want to know which way the key turns on that bulldozer.”

Convention Hall was saved, though, and its renovation became part of the Enid Renaissance Project, along with construction of Enid Event Center. Convention Hall features a 10,000-square-foot ballroom, a 3,000-square-foot ballroom and flexible space for either trade shows or stage presentations. It also will feature meeting rooms.

Criner said this week he is pleased no one told him how to turn on the bulldozer key.

“I’m really pleased. It’s a very upgraded facility and it looks better inside, than outside,” Criner said.

He recalled watching his son play an EJRT basketball game in Convention Hall, and making the winning goal in the last second of play.

“My wife was there and her father was there, and he was telling everyone, ‘That’s my grandson,’” Criner said.

Criner is confident about the project and the things it will do for the community.

“Enid has made so much progress. People ask me every week if the Renaissance is a good deal and will it work. I tell them, ‘Yes it is, it will bring business to downtown,’” Criner said.

Ward 1 Commissioner Ron Janzen, a member of Friends of Convention Hall, said he has been in the building frequently since construction started. He was in it Tuesday night for the city of Enid Christmas party.

“I think it will really turn out well. It’s not finished, they still have a lot of work to do, but I think everyone will love it,” Janzen said.

Janzen recalled attending an event at Convention Hall many years ago, when he saw the “Chicago Knockers,” a professional women’s mud-wrestling team. The group traveled through Enid and wrestled several local men.

He believes the hall will be used more than Enid Event Center because it is more versatile, featuring a number of meeting rooms.

“Basically, I’m pretty happy,” he said.

Janzen, who has been in AMBUCS for many years, remembers having donkey basketball games in Convention Hall. As a youth, he was a member of a car club that held a number of car shows in Convention Hall.

“Everyone who went to school here at that time remembers Christmas Vespers. All of the school children got together there and sang Christmas songs,” Janzen said.

Looking to the future

Today, everyone is welcome to tour the “new” Convention Hall. Following a 1:30 p.m. veterans parade, the community open house will be 2-5 p.m. It will include tours of the building, food and drinks, family activities and performances on the Grand Ballroom stage.

“The facility will be set up in various configurations to show the flexibility of the rooms and their ability to host everything from holiday parties to birthday parties and retirement gatherings,” said Keller Taylor, general manager of the facilities.

“The original integrity of many of the rooms was saved by the hard work of the general contractor of the project W.L. McNatt, and a commitment from the city to preserve the beauty of this historic structure,” Taylor said.

Former City Manager Tom Sailors recalls the building that formerly housed his office. Sailors has been through the building a number of times since construction started and said he is thrilled.

“It’s really gorgeous. It’s functional for the community. I’m very happy with it,” Sailors said.

Sailors moved to Enid when he was 11 or 12 years old, and walked across the Convention Hall stage to receive his high school diploma. He went to work there for the city of Enid in 1962, and worked there until Enid built the current city offices in 1970.

Sailors agrees with Janzen Convention Hall will be used more frequently than Enid Event Center, because of its versatility. While there will be no athletic uses, all of the community functions that normally are held in Cherokee Strip Conference Center will move to Convention Hall. In addition, it will be used in conjunction with events held at Enid Event Center, for trade shows and other uses.

“It’s a multi-use facility in many respects,” he said. “People will be really surprised at what has been done. We’re thankful so many people made the effort, and we are thrilled we are able to keep it. It’s a grand old lady.”