During the four years that Dr. Clarence Beecher was mayor of Burlington, the city experienced a wave of redevelopment, and the decisions he made during his 1925–1929 term are still seen throughout downtown today.1 One building that can be attributed to Mayor Beecher’s term was Memorial Auditorium. However its construction began with a very dramatic start. Throughout 1925 to its completion in 1928, Memorial Auditorium was constantly making the headlines of the Burlington Free Press for its design, construction, and cost often citing public outcries or endorsements from residents of the area. Overall, the political involvement, the widespread circulation of the Burlington Free Press, and the outspokenness of the Burlington community all contributed to the eventual completion of the Memorial Auditorium that stands today.
The first mention of "Memorial Auditorium" in the Burlington Free Press was published in 1925 by the editor-in-chief, John L. Southwick. He was an important figure in regards to the redevelopment going on in Burlington at the time and he sat on the board of the Vermont School Fund and voiced his support for the changes going on in large articles he put in the Burlington Free Press. 2 His article published on September 19, 1925 explained how the community was greatly in favor of the idea to build a new "Memorial Hall" since "Burlington has sadly neglected the boys who gave their lives for flag and country in the World War”.3 His next article, published less than a month later, briefly explained all the changes that would be occurring in downtown Burlington within the next few years thanks to a large bond the city had been able to receive and how the peoples' votes would determine the outcome. 4 His opinion was deeply intertwined into this writing as he explained how residents should not support the idea of building a city hall and a "Memorial Hall" together. Instead, he suggested the two buildings should remain separate so that they could each be their own space. Southwick also discussed the significance behind calling it “Memorial Auditorium,” implying the building would be larger than a hall and how it would not just honor those who fought in the World War:
"In memory of our soldiers, it would be well to have tablets on the walls of the main lobby for General Stannard, General Wells and other famous officers from Burlington as well as the names of all our soldiers in the different wars, including the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and the Burlington boys in khaki in the World War.”5
Southwick also explained how the proposed Memorial Auditorium would generate income for the city and put Burlington on the map as a target to hold large conferences and make it travel destination. The reasoning behind Southwick’s input in the Burlington Free Press at this time was because five days later a public vote was taken on what the city should do with a newly awarded $750,000 bond and how it could possibly affect the schools in the area which he was on the board of. 6
It was not until January 4, 1926 that the Burlington Free Press mentioned Memorial Auditorium again. This time, the paper explained the issues going on between the citizens and the local government. According to the article, there were tensions between some Burlington residents and the local government. One issue was that the new City Hall and the Memorial Auditorium should not be in the same space and that a larger auditorium was needed in a different location. The second issue mentioned was the resistance from those in the local community who did not want to see Stannard Memorial Hall torn down. Stannard Memorial Hall was located where the new City Hall and Memorial Auditorium were be built. The Burlington Free Press stated that “an injunction to prohibit further tearing down of the Stannard Memorial building and the old City Hall building, pending agreement on plans for a new building” was made by some concerned citizens and that action needed to be taken.7
The future of Memorial Auditorium was only made bleaker when the following day the front page of the Burlington Free Press explained that a hearing was to be held regarding the injunction that coming Friday.8 However, Mayor Beecher did not hold the meeting and denied the opportunity for residents to voice their opinion and rescind their votes, therefore allowing the project to continue moving forward since no location, cost, design, or plan had even been decided on and resulting in Stannard Memorial Hall to be torn down.9 Disputes between citizens of Burlington and the local government continued throughout the month. By January 23, 1926 a plan was officially developed and fully supported by the Mayor. It would be to build a new city hall with an attached 1,000 person seating area at the same location. The plan was under budget, allowing $175,000 of the bond to go unused.10 Many citizens of Burlington did not like this plan, however, because it did not meet their desire for a larger auditorium and so a new solution was sought. On February 3rd, just two weeks after the first plan was explained, an alternative plan was announced since residents of Burlington were unhappy with the combined plan of City Hall with the auditorium and its limited amount of seating. This alternative plan called for the bond to cover the construction of a new city hall without added on seating and a new fire station. This would leave roughly $150,000 leftover to start building a separate Memorial Auditorium. If the residents wanted to have a larger auditorium they would need to be willing to accept what $150,000 could get them.11 If the community did not support this decision, the $150,000 remainder from the bond would not be awarded and taken back by the Trust Company of Boston that provided the loan.12
On February 16th, the Burlington Free Press announced that if the vote in March went as planned, a new Memorial Auditorium would hold more than 3,000 people, would cost no more than $150,000, would be located on the corner of Main Street and South Union Street (as noted in Figure 2), and would be designed by architect Frank L. Austin. 13To date, this was the most information the paper had released to the public since the separate plan was first mentioned. On the day before the vote, the Burlington Free Press provided a sample ballot for readers to see and encouraged everyone to “VOTE YES”.14 The ad seemed to work because by March 10th the votes had been counted and what was described as the “most largely attended special meeting in history” found that the residents of Burlington did vote for a separate Memorial Auditorium.15
At this point the issues regarding the construction of Memorial Auditorium had been going on for almost half a year. Realizing this, the Mayor and his Board of Alderman attempted to not waste any time in moving forwards with the project. Waiting would have caused the city to lose the bonds and therefore not have the proper funding for the project and be unable to begin its first steps. The project ultimately began with breaking ground in late April with some brush and debris removal on the Main Street and South Union Street plot that contained the old Burlington Junior High School Annex, a shed, and a house which the city purchased for $14,000.16
Unfortunately and unexpectedly, the project came to a halt and remained at a standstill until December 14th. The only money spent from the bond was the $14,000 to purchase the house on the plot. The proposed Memorial building had not been worked on because of its cost and questions about its overall plan. The city had originally wanted to do a basement floor to honor those who had fought in wars that the United States was involved in, but that plan would prove to be too expensive. Consultation between the architect, Frank L. Austin, and the contractor, James E. Cashman, ended in a whole re-write for the project to cut costs and ultimately determining that more funds would be necessary no matter what.1 It was determined that those funds, an estimated $30,000, would need to come from the bond that was intended for the construction of the new city hall. What was going to be a grand, semi-ornate Memorial Auditorium was now going to be a much more basic Memorial Auditorium. Every piece of the plan was trimmed from the “exterior curtain walls now 16 inches to 12 inches” to “the depth from the front wall to the lobby wall to be reduced by 2 feet”.18 By cutting down on the details, height, and width of the building, and potentially receiving additional funds from the bond geared for City Hall, the construction of Memorial Auditorium would be possible. However, the funding for the project would need to have a special vote as to whether or not the residents of Burlington supported this decision. Mayor Beecher requested another special meeting to be held on December 22nd and called on local citizens to have their opinions heard.19
Once again, ads were placed into the Burlington Free Press urging people to come out and listen to Mayor Beecher and his Board of Alderman explain how Memorial Auditorium could not be as large as the people would like it without additional funding from the bond geared towards the reconstruction of City Hall. On the night of December 22, a large meeting was held which attracted over 700 voters who their opinions. By the morning of December 23rd the votes were in and it was decided that $30,000 of the bond would support the construction of Memorial Auditorium.20
By January 4th, however, the city council learned from Frank L. Austin that the additional $30,000 they had just received would not cover the cost of the building and that $50,000 would be needed in order to get the auditorium they wanted.21 The price tag of Memorial Auditorium was continuing to rise and further investigation was necessary. This investigation concluded that Memorial Auditorium would cost $171,426 with additional features of the building added on later when more funding was available.22These additional features included the balcony, the balcony lobby and stairs, the staining of the ceiling, a change in the quality of the exterior stone to be used.23 However, less than a week later on January 11th, the Burlington Free Press released the newly composed final cost to build Memorial Auditorium which was to be a whopping $233,185 with the inclusion of heating, lighting, and all its fixtures included.24Originally it was planned that Memorial Auditorium would cost not more than $150,000 and would receive all its funding from the remaining balance of a $750,000 bond. Memorial Auditorium’s price tag was quickly growing to be that of the cost of the new city hall. Although the Burlington Free Press was keeping residents informed on the cost and what exactly the bond was going to be used for, there was definitely some rising tension as the taxpayers of Burlington would have to front the bill and raise an additional $60,000 to have Memorial Auditorium built.25
Along with the political tension between the mayor and the alderman and the residents of Burlington, there was also some tension between the Mayor Beecher and the ex-Mayor, James E. Burke, and the Burlington Free Press. The ex-Mayor openly objected the construction of Memorial Auditorium and asserted that the cost of the building would be much higher than Frank L. Austin said it would be. On January 20th, Burke wrote a letter addressed to the editor of the Free Press, John L. Southwick, arguing that the building would not be inhabitable without a $20,000 increase to the plan and that the residents of Burlington would have to have increased taxes in order to pay it.26He argued that such an increase in price and taxes would require yet another special meeting or else it would be considered an abuse of power to build without their consideration of how the funding should be handled.27A little less than a month later on February 15th, ex-mayor James E. Burke made Page 6 of the Burlington Free Press where he was named the candidate for mayor by the Burlington Democrats with the promises to release “some astounding exposures before Election Day” regarding the construction of Memorial Hall. The article stated that Burke would be airing out to the public the overdrafts the current council had done in order to afford the construction being done on Memorial Hall.28 Less than two weeks later Burke issued his official address to the residents of Burlington. He purchased an entire page in the Burlington Free Press titled “A Final Statement” to the local voters where he explained that if he was to be elected mayor all the current construction would be completed and if the citizens voted in favor for the necessary additional money, “a suitable Memorial Auditorium” would be built.29
To quickly follow Burke’s statement, the Burlington Free Press issued the first published sketches of Memorial Auditorium done by Frank L. Austin.30 The building entrance would face South Union with an additional five entrances and seat up to 4,000 people and it would be 109 feet wide on South Union Street and 172 feet along Main Street.31 The building would be built with reinforced concrete, brick, and steel and have a wooden auditorium floor which would have the dimensions of 102 feet by 112 feet and a stage that would be 29 feet wide by 86 feet long which is pictured in Figure 2.32 The article also made some promises that Burlington will “have the largest and best equipped auditorium…and should make Burlington the most popular convention city in New England”.33 The public support for the auditorium was tremendous. The Burlington Free Press published an article just six days later explaining the hardships the World War had put on its residents, but it went on to explain how it created a closer community. The increased friendliness of residents who were overcoming the tough times created by the war generated a great need for a shared community space and an overall excitement for the construction of Memorial Auditorium. 34
However, despite how much the community supported the need for Memorial Auditorium, the price tag continued to grow. By April of 1927 the budget had increased by an additional $100,000. The extra funds would be needed to complete the proposed plan the Burlington Free Press had published in March and the completion of Memorial Auditorium began to become uncertain.35 Citizens started to grow concerned. Mayor Beecher assured them the city would proceed with the building. However, the city would have to hold another special meeting to take a vote and see whether the voters would authorize an additional bond to pay for a less extravagant Memorial Auditorium.36
On April 15th, a special vote was once again held to determine the building’s future. It was decided in “less than ten minutes from the big crowd” to support the authorization of an extra $100,000 bond to build the proposed Memorial Auditorium that Frank L. Austin had designed and had been displayed in the Burlington Free Press.37 The public support for the building was so strong that it was said only one person out of the crowd did not support the idea.38 The final total of the building was determined on April 19th at $204,629 and James E. Cashman was officially signed as the contractor to build it.39 The remaining money from the $100,000 bond would be kept by the city and used if necessary. The bonds had a low interest rate of 4.5% and were broken down to be repaid over the next three years.40
When these major issues regarding funding settled, the construction of Memorial Auditorium quickly took off. With all the obstacles the building had overcome to get to this point it was not surprising to the community to see it catching up to the construction that was happening on City Hall. The excitement from the community as its reveal date drew closer could be felt throughout the town. The construction for the building continued smoothly throughout the summer, fall, and winter without any complications.41
By January of 1928 residents were growing restless as the scaffolds were removed from the building.42 The next issue for the Mayor and residents to address was how the city would celebrate the opening night of the auditorium. Mayor Beecher was given the task of finding “a speaker for the occasion and to extend invitation to patriotic societies, mayors of other Vermont cities and other distinguished guests” to help celebrate the new auditorium.43 The auditorium was already filling up an event itinerary as the Burlington Symphony Orchestra and Ethan Allen Club had already asked to use the space before it was finished.44 The increased excitement for Memorial Auditorium extended throughout the state with Governor John E. Weeks accepting the invitation to deliver the dedication speech on March 28th. Consistent praise and excitement flowed through the Burlington Free Press as the mayors of other Vermont cities and respected generals and colonels from Vermont accepted their invitations as well.45
On the night of Memorial Auditorium’s grand opening 3,000 people attended to hear the dedication speech by the governor. Respected members of Burlington’s’ community came out to hear the address and pay their respects to those it honored. Mayor Beecher proudly stated that Memorial Auditorium was:
“For its citizens who were in the military or naval service... This will continue to be a memorial just so long as it is maintained properly…It will be useful just so long as the people of Burlington unitedly lend their efforts to making it useful…If the people will insist that the Memorial Auditorium be kept always at its best it will ever be a real tribute to those living and dead who served their country well. If our citizens will use the building as their own and make it serve the needs of community, the State and even the Nation, it will be a blessing to Burlington.”46
For those who could not attend the Wednesday night celebration, the Burlington Free Press dedicated an entire two pages to the event and even attached a schedule of events that had booked the building until October of that year.
Although the road to the completion of Memorial Auditorium was dramatic, it did prove to be a successful building that added much to Burlington by gathering broad support from the community. For years it hosted sporting events, concerts, farmers markets, and office space.
Unfortunately, the fate of Memorial Auditorium remains unknown as of this writing in November 2016. The instructions on the maintenance of the building described by Mayor Beecher on its grand opening were not followed as the building has been so neglected that the city of Burlington has just announced it will be closed it down. The current occupants of Memorial Auditorium have been instructed to leave by December of 2016 and no future plans for the structure have been announced. Hopefully, in the near future members of the Burlington community and local government will hopefully devise a plan to preserve Memorial Auditorium.
1. "Centennial Field," Wikipedia, accessed October 30, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centennial_Field.
2. Fredrick J. Seaver Malone, Historical Sketches of Franklin County and Its Several Towns (New York: J. B. Lyon Company, 1918).
3. John L. Southwick, "19 Sep 1925, Page 4 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com," Newspapers.com, accessed October 30, 2016, http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197401235/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium
4. John L. Southwick, "9 Oct 1925, Page 4 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com," Newspapers.com, accessed October 30, 2016, http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197310631/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium.
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14. "8 Mar 1926, Page 6 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com," Nepapers.com, City News, accessed October 31, 2016, http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197358835/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium.
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19. "15 Dec 1926, Page 5 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com," Newspapers.com, City Meeting December 22, accessed November 01, 2016, http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197371139/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium.
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26. "20 Jan 1927, Page 5 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com," Newspapers.com, To The Editor of the Free Press, accessed November 01, 2016, http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197284014/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium.
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34. "8 Mar 1927, Page 4 - The Burlington Free Press at Newspapers.com." Newspapers.com. Accessed November 01, 2016. http://burlingtonfreepress.newspapers.com/image/197116577/?terms=memorial%2Bauditorium.
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