Chicago Stadium

1800 West Madison Street
Built 1928, demolished 1995
Architect: Eric E. Hall

Opened in 1929, the Chicago Stadium was located at 1800 West Madison Street on the city’s near west side. For much of the twentieth century, the facility served as the city’s prime indoor sports arena, featuring a wide array of athletic events including championship boxing bouts, ice hockey matches, and basketball games. As the city’s largest indoor auditorium, the Stadium also doubled as an important public meeting space, hosting numerous political rallies, expositions, concerts, and other special events over the years.

The originator of the Stadium project was Paddy Harmon, one of Chicago’s best-known and most charismatic impresarios of the early twentieth century. Harmon was born near Division and Halsted Streets in 1878. His parents were relatively poor, having emigrated from County Kerry in southwest Ireland. To help his parents make ends meet, Harmon left school at an early age and pursued various odd jobs. At age seven, he began selling newspapers and, two years later, secured a contract with his brother Martin to snuff out nine hundred gaslights each morning in his neighborhood for sixty dollars a month. “We turned the money over to mother,” he recalled later in life, “and she kept the home going.” At age fourteen, he earned the right to sell newspapers at North and Milwaukee Avenues, one of the most lucrative spots in the city.

Harmon’s fortunes turned for the better when, at age sixteen, he entered the amusement business. “When I was sixteen,” he recalled, “one Sunday a crowd of us engaged Walsh’s hall at Noble and Milwaukee avenue, for a dance. The rent for the evening was $40. I was chairman of arrangements and when the time came to pay the rent I passed the hat joshing the young fellows and kidding their girls. I collected $83.” The smashing success of the event led Harmon to form his own dance club, the Victorias, which sponsored weekly dances at rented halls on the city’s northwest side. In time, he became one of the city’s most highly respected dance hall managers. By the early 1920s, he had acquired ownership of two of the city’s most popular ballrooms and was called upon by the city to manage the ballroom at the end of the newly constructed Municipal Pier (now known as Navy Pier). In 1922, he helped form and served as the first president of the National Association of Ballroom Proprietors.

Harmon’s career as sports and special events promoter expanded quickly during the early twentieth century. When roller skating became the rage around the turn of the century, he began holding skate parties, and eventually secured the concession to run the roller skating rink at the city’s largest amusement park, Riverview. In 1909, he played an instrumental role in the effort to build the Ice Palace at Van Buren and Paulina Streets for the purpose of hosting year-round ice skating parties and boosting the popularity of ice hockey in the city of Chicago. When the Palace’s refrigeration system proved faulty, Harmon dropped the ice rink angle, changed the building’s name to “Dreamland,” and turned it into the city’s largest and fanciest ballroom. In 1913, Harmon began staging bike races at the Dexter Park pavilion and later had a hand in the management of Riverview’s bicycle-motorcycle race course. At some point in the 1920s, he became interested in the promotion of boxing matches as well.

Prior to the construction of the Stadium, the Coliseum at 1513 South Wabash was the city’s main indoor sports arena and exhibition center. Harmon believed the city of Chicago had grown large enough to support a much larger arena, something on the scale of New York’s famous Madison Square Garden. In 1926, he began lining up investors for a new sports arena. His plans were ambitious. Harmon envisioned a 20,000-seat arena, the largest in the nation and expected to cost at least $6 million to build. As negotiations to finance the building languished, it appeared on several occasions that the project was a lost cause. “Twenty times I thought I had everything all set,” Harmon recalled shortly before the Stadium’s completion, “only to get knocked down.” But financing for the Stadium was eventually secured, and after about six months of furious construction activity, the building opened for business on 28 March 1929.

Chicago Stadium, ca. 1935

Chicago Stadium, ca. 1935

The Stadium stood on a large plot of land at 1800 West Madison Street, with entrances fronting both Madison Street, on the south side, and Warren Boulevard, on the north side. By all measures, it was a massive structure for its time. The Stadium’s seating capacity was approximately 19,500, a total that could be increased by as much as 6,800 during boxing matches and other events when large portions of the arena floor were used for temporary seating. “The main hall,” the Tribune reported, “is a vast circle of seats, wooden chairs painted red. There are no posts to obstruct vision. Twelve great steel girders support the roof. There are three balconies, the second half as wide as the first and the thrid a narrow ribbon with less than twenty rows.” Each level of seating was accessed by separate entrances meant to maintain crowd control by preventing those who purchased lower-priced tickets from moving to higher-priced seats. Just as massive as the building itself was the Stadium’s giant, custom-built pipe organ that was said to have the volume of a 2,500-piece military band and literally shook the building when all of its 3,675 pipes were put into service.

Chicago Stadium, ca. 1935

Chicago Stadium, ca. 1935

The exterior of the building was equally impressive. “Great electric signs,” one report noted, “blazing ‘Chicago Stadium,’ lighted Madison street and Warren boulevard. Like magnets they drew thousands.” Near the roofline of the Stadium’s north and south facades were large limestone bas-relief sculptures depicting athletes in classical poses.

Opening night featured a ten-round boxing match in which light heavyweight champion Tommy Loughran successfully defended his title against challenger Mickey Walker. More than twenty-two thousand were expected for the bout, but the actual attendance was only 14,554. The evening came close to disaster when a barrel of tar, left over from construction, caught fire on the Stadium’s roof, but quick work by the fire department enabled the evening’s entertainment to go on uninterrupted. The Loughran-Walker fight was the first of many held at the Stadium. The 1936 United States Olympic Boxing Trials were held at the Stadium. In later years, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Muhammad Ali also boxed there. Boxing drew some of the most diverse crowds to the Stadium, including many African Americans who embraced black boxers as both sports heroes and champions of racial equality.

Ice hockey was also an important part of the Stadium’s history. The Chicago Blackhawks professional ice hockey club, which had played its home games at the Coliseum since forming in 1926, played its first game at the Stadium on 16 December 1929, scoring a 3-1 victory over Pittsburgh in front of more than fourteen thousand fans. The Blackhawks struggled to attract fans during the 1930s and 1940s, but interest in the club increased in the 1950s with the addition of teenage stars Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita.

During the Stadium’s early years, it was the annual ice show and the circus, not basketball or ice hockey, that drew the biggest crowds and earned the largest profits. The first ice show was held in 1936, when the Stadium’s owners coaxed three-time Olympic champion Sonia Henie to appear in a special figure-skating exhibition. Henie captured the hearts of the audience and the ice show became an annual event. The circus also attracted large numbers of Chicagoans to the Stadium from an early date. At least once each year, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circuses played there, offering two shows a day for at least a week. Entire families would make the trip to the Stadium when the circus came to town.

During the 1940s, college basketball became a big Stadium draw, particularly games involving local universities. Professional basketball did not become a regular event at the Stadium until 1967, when the Chicago Bulls made it their home court. Bulls games took a while to catch on with Chicago sports fans. Many of the games during the 1970s drew only a few thousand fans. Among the other sports events held at the Stadium over the years were wrestling matches, roller derbies, rodeos, track meets, and indoor soccer games.

Funeral Service for Mayor Cermak, 1933

Funeral Service for Mayor Cermak, 1933

As one of the city’s largest indoor meeting spaces, the Stadium also hosted numerous political rallies, exhibitions, concerts, and other important civic events. Among the first of many political events held at the Stadium was the 1932 Democratic National Convention, during which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was selected as the party’s candidate for president. During his acceptance speech, Roosevelt promised to work hard to help the nation recover from the Depression, proclaiming: “I pledge you, I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.” In celebration, the Stadium’s organist played “Happy Days Are Here Again” and the tune quickly became Roosevelt’s campaign song. Roosevelt was nominated for president at the Stadium twice more in 1940 and 1944. On 10 March 1933, thousands of Chicagoans packed the Stadium for Mayor Anton Cermak’s funeral service. The popular mayor had been killed during an assassination attempt against President Roosevelt in Miami, Florida. During the Second World War, Chicago Jews rallied at the Stadium against Adolph Hitler and the spread of anti-Semitism in Europe. Labor unions frequently held mass meetings at the Stadium, and a number of mayoral candidates held campaign rallies there. In 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy held his final campaign stop at the Stadium, urging a capacity crowd and a national television audience to support him on Election Day.

Concerts also drew large, enthusiastic crowds to the Stadium. Among the many famous entertainers who performed there were Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Led Zepplin.

Although the Stadium was Paddy Harmon’s crowning achievement, he served as its manager for less than a year. In early 1930, the Stadium’s owners forced Harmon to resign when first-year revenues, hurt by the onset of the Great Depression, failed to live up to expectations. Soon thereafter, the fifty-two-year-old impresario was killed in an auto accident near Des Plaines, Illinois. Harmon’s wake was held at the Stadium. In 1934, control of the arena fell businessman Arthur Wirtz, father of later Blackhawks owner, Bill Wirtz.

Despite having served the interests of the city’s leading sports promoters well for many years, some began to view the Stadium as an obsolete sports facility by the 1980s. In May 1991, the owners of the Blackhawks and Bulls signed an agreement to replace the Stadium with a new, $160-million, state-of-the-art arena, one that would include a large number of highly profitable luxury suites that would help cover the costs associated with rising player salaries. Shortly thereafter, the Chicago City Council approved plans for the arena and, in April 1992, construction began on the Stadium’s replacement, later named United Center. The final Blackhawks and Bulls games at the Stadium took place in the spring of 1994. Efforts to have the sixty-five-year-old arena declared an historic landmark and preserved for use as a secondary sports arena failed. Demolition of the Stadium began in February 1995.

Internet Resources
Photograph: Chicago Stadium construction, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Chicago Stadium construction, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Steel beams and planks of wood in and on the ground at the construction site of the Chicago Stadium, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Chicago Stadium construction, American flag sticking out of the ground near steel beams, 1928 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Steel frame of the Chicago Stadium, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Exterior of Chicago Stadium and nearby automobile, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Interior of Chicago Stadium soon after opening, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Organ and interior of Chicago Stadium, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Pugilist, Andre Routis hitting a speedbag, standing with Paddy Harmon, builder of the Chicago Stadium, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Pugilist, Tommy Loughran, light heavyweight boxing champion, holding up his left arm, standing in a boxing ring before a bout against Mickey Walker in Chicago Stadium, 1929 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Exterior of the Chicago Stadium, with people walking nearby, 1930 [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Chicago Stadium decorated for the 1932 Republican National Convention [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Chicago Stadium floor filled with delegates at the 1932 Republican National Convention [Library of Congress]
Photograph: Flowers marking a large cross shape on the floor of the Chicago Stadium during Mayor Anton J. Cermak’s funeral, 10 March 1932 [Library of Congress]

Sources: Chicago Tribune, 23 March 1929, 25; 24 March 1929, pt. 3, p. 3; 28 March 1929, 21; 29 March 1929, 1; 30 March 1929, 23; 21 May 1936, 29; 29 May 1992, sec. 1, p. 1; 19 December 1993, sec. 2, p. 1; 10 April 1994, sec. 3, p. 1; 30 June 1994, sec. 5, p. 9C; Chicago Defender, 23 March 1929, pt. 2, p. 4.

Image sources: “The Stadium, 1800 W. Madison St.,” photograph, Street Guide of Chicago (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1936), 81; “Chicago Stadium,” postcard, Curt Teich: #232 (n.d.), cropped; “Mayor Anton J. Cermak’s Public Funeral Service,” postcard, n.p. (n.d.), cropped.