I'm standing in the lobby of the renovated Fairgrounds Coliseum, on a patch of new terrazzo floor with a strange inlaid design. The patterns that cross the floor trace the footprint of the old original box office ticket windows — the brassy, art-deco windows themselves have been preserved as wall decorations. The exterior hasn't really changed much at all, but the interior — that's another story.
The Coliseum I remember is gone; the old, dank, echo-y barn that always seemed to reek of diesel fuel and greasy hotdogs has been made over to the tune of $63 million, according to the state fair media guide. (That number includes the new youth hockey arena, all paid for with bonds that'll be covered by Fair revenue, according to Fair officials.) This building, this old haunted cavern that saw appearances from The Beatles and JFK, countless hockey games and Pacer ABA buckets, gleams in the afternoon light that's streaming in through glass blocks. It's kinda ... sparkly, truth be told.
Sure, there's a little pang of nostalgia for the ol' hockey dad in me: The aging dump we simply called "Pepsi" was the place my kid learned to skate and shoot and check and where he received his diploma from North Central. The old open ends loaded with rotting picnic tables where thousands of kids had laced up their Bauer blades, eaten pizza and taken a splinter in the thigh are gone. The fixed seating still starts above the arena, behind a nine-foot-high wall that traces the old loop that helped enclose a rink that was roughly 15 feet longer than a standard NHL surface.
The new-look Coliseum looks little like the building that housed the Indiana appearance of the Lads from Liverpool nearly 50 years ago, at the Indiana State Fair in September of 1964. This is not a bad thing — this old hall, in its past incarnation, seemed to carry a memory of the worst night in Indy's history.
On Halloween night, 1963, during a show called "Holiday on Ice," a leaking propane tank used to pop corn had triggered a pair of explosions beneath the grandstands that shattered concrete and sent bodies flying 60 feet into the air. The blasts killed 74 Hoosiers and injured nearly 400.
The look of the coliseum had changed little between its 1939 inception and the structure that was finally pulled apart beginning in October 2012. Even the occasional facelift only seemed to make the place more outdated, as if modern upgrades had simply been tacked on to an aging foundation. This building now looks nothing like that space, although many original elements remain.
- Indiana State Fair
My tour guide is Andy Klotz, the State Fair's PR Director. He runs his hand along the beige tiles that surround us. "We worked with the DNR historical preservation folks," he says, "the tile is just like what was originally there." Andy leads me past the new box office windows in the now-spacious lobby and through a door to the "backstage" area — you've now got to hike a few stairs or catch an elevator to hit the main concourse. The narrow hallways of the old concourse that were crossed by horse teams or zambonis have now been wrapped into the guts of the building, and the Skate Shop (and the home of many a black lab all named "Puck") has been moved away from the concourse to a proper location by the newly-erected youth rink.
Klotz leads me to an open end of the arena. A piece of heavy equipment is grooming the tons of dirt that have been trucked into the Coliseum as the building's being readied for the Fair's animal shows. Klotz directs my attention upward: the Coliseum now has ribbon display boards that run the perimeter and a hanging video scoreboard in the center of the ceiling. Klotz is a little miffed this day, though — seems the board has been taken down temporarily for a bit of maintenance.
No matter. The overall effect still seems to nicely marry new seating and technology while preserving the best parts of the old building. The corners of the main concourse are open and airy, affording views into the arena. There's ample flooring sans chairs to accommodate those with disabilities, and most importantly, there's LOTS of concession stands and easily accessible bathrooms. This thing feels more like a multi-use arena and less like a barn that just happened to double as a rink or a hoops court.
That's something of an odd statement, especially considering that when the Coliseum opened during FDR's administration, its first event was a sold-out hockey tilt between the Syracuse Stars and the Indianapolis Capitals. (The Caps would win two AHL titles in their tenure at the Coliseum.) After years of momentous events beyond the arrival of the Fab Four — speeches from Presidents and Veeps from Nixon to Kennedy to Bush, heavyweight bouts and radio festival shows — the Coliseum is ready to host the Indy Fuel hockey team and IUPUI's men's hoops Jaguars.
The Coliseum's not just easy on the eyes, it's easy on the ears, too — this thing doesn't swallow sound anymore. Part of the refurbishing job ensured that the PA systems carrying the sounds of sports announcers or rock stars weren't being rendered next to pointless in the ringing muddy mess of audio that the old building created. This structural reboot channels sound properly, and fans will be able to understand speeches, lyrics and player introductions — even for a Finnish goalie whose jersey seems to have an impossible combination of letters.
Although the chipped and badly-painted glass blocks have all been replaced, the Coliseum managed to recycle 80% of what came out of the building. Some of the items were simply reused: 96 of the original wooden seats remain in a special section; they've been restored to their original look.
- Indiana State Fair
The part of the structure that really harkens back to the past lies in the upper concourse, though. The steel roof girders that buttress the ceiling, once all but invisible, have now become a rhythmic focal point as one walks along the top row. This part of the structure, all gracefully curving metal and rivets, is practically a steampunk fantasy. And even at this level, it's clear that all the seats will afford a pretty terrific view of every lasso, bucket and one-timer.
It's going to be a damn fine place to watch a hockey game. And I didn't even mention the bar. n
- Indiana State Fair