Editor’s note: This piece was written in January, 2013, by the late Gene Fischer, who was a York High School teacher and a weekly columnist in the York News-Times.
This is being published again, per requests from the public, as readers have asked us to revisit his well-researched story about the history of the York City Auditorium and its creation.
Early in 1943 the York County Assistance Director told the Board of Supervisors that WPA (Works Progress Administration) programs in the county would be closed down by Jan. 19.
This paper covered that announcement about a program of which it said “York County workers have received so much benefit during the past several years.”
Now 70 years later the major WPA project in this county, City Auditorium, still benefits the citizens of York and the surrounding area.
On Jan. 19 of this year the Crossroads Conference Basketball Tournament will open at City Auditorium. The tournament will be part of a long tradition of small schools in the area coming to York in hopes of winning a championship.
The first large sporting event in the auditorium was the York County Basketball Tournament which was held starting Feb. 11, 1943. However, before that tournament could be held; over four years of planning, bureaucratic delay and construction would occur.
During a June 28, 1938 “mass meeting” called by the York Progress Committee the idea of building an auditorium was discussed. Among those supporting the project was E.A. “Lige” Levitt.
He spoke of the work earlier residents of the community had done to make community improvements, and he urged that that “pioneer spirit be cultivated.”
At the meeting it was decided that the mayor and city council would be asked to set a bond election to raise the money needed to match federal funds that were available.
Within three weeks, a bond election had been set and an application for funds had been made to the Public Works Administration office in Lincoln. During the approval process that followed, the project was transferred to the WPA.
In August of 1938 a $90,000 bond issue was approved by more than 60 percent of voters. As those votes were being canvassed, the rumblings of war could be heard coming from Europe. Germany was being warned by Great Britain, France and Russia about the consequences of entering Czechoslovakia.
Before the construction of City Auditorium could be completed, the initial goal of providing work for the unemployed would be supplanted by labor shortages due to the war.
But, in July of 1940 there were 227 York County workers enrolled with the WPA. That month, after a long delay, federal funding was finally approved and WPA workers began demolition work in preparation for construction of the auditorium. The WPA crews were initially tasked with razing two houses and a church that occupied the site.
In an ironic juxtaposition of circumstances, the day WPA workers started to demolish the two unoccupied houses, German bombers were attacking positions in Britain. The collateral damage of that raid was the destruction of two row houses with the death of a woman and her grandchild.
The workers also demolished a former Baptist Church which had been condemned several years earlier. The congregation had since merged with the Congregational Church. Rather than demolishing the church parsonage, it was sold and moved to an acreage on Blackburn Ave.
The York newspaper The New Teller made a point of saying this about spectators at the construction site; “The interested men who are leaning on the fence watching others work are not on the payroll.” That may have been a nod to criticism of the WPA as a make work program of little consequence. According to some, WPA was said to stand for “we piddle around.”
Actual construction on City Auditorium began on Aug. 21, 1940; two days short of two years after the citizens of York voted the matching funds for the project. Local companies that still exist won contracts to provide material and equipment.
Mead Lumber contracted to sell concrete at 72 cents per sack. William F. McCormick received a $7,378 contract for warm air heating and ventilation.
Within three weeks of the start on construction, it was reported that work on the Auditorium was being delayed due to the shortage of re-enforcement steel. Defense contracts were given preference in the delivery of available steel as the country geared up to meet the threat of conflicts in Europe and the Pacific. Those conflicts would pull us into World War II a little over a year later.
When the United States entered the war, construction on City Auditorium was not yet complete. Construction would continue through most of 1942, plagued by labor and material shortages.
After an extended planning and approval process, construction on York’s City Auditorium got under way in August of 1940.
Almost immediately construction was held up by a shortage of reinforcement steel due to the priority given to building that was related to war preparation.
But, by December contracts for critical building supplies were being fulfilled and construction was moving forward. Following the arrival of those building materials the City Auditorium project was providing work for “about 50 men and one lady clerk in the office.”
When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed public works funding legislation in 1938 he predicted that “for every day of work provided in a community…two and one half days will be created behind the scenes.”
Throughout its existence the WPA employed more than 8,500,000 individuals on 1,410,000 projects with an average salary of $41.57 a month, and had spent about $11 billion.
Roosevelt’s prediction of private sector economic stimulus was based in part on the purchase of building materials by local governments. The York community committed to spending up to $90,000 of its own money for building materials.
That new demand for building supplies was met by private companies that employed still more workers in producing and distributing those materials.
The stimulus provided by the almost 1.5 million WPA projects was further bolstered by purchases made by workers who were now earning wages.
Fearing “rapid increases in prices for many building materials caused by the national defense program” the City of York made early purchases of material and equipment.
By the middle of November, with construction still slow, they had contracted with a local vendor, E.S. Clarke Lumber Co., to provide maple flooring at a cost of $1,261. One might not agree with the fiscal theory employed by Roosevelt, but the there is no argument that the maple basketball court would become the centerpiece of the new auditorium.
It was late in November of 1941 before the Auditorium building was enclosed. That allowed for finish work to continue through the winter. But now the Auditorium project was facing competition for workers.
The York County Assistance Director announced in December of 1941 that a representative of the state employment service would be in town looking “for all available carpenters”.
Laborers were needed to work on a new army camp being built in southwest Missouri at wages as high as $85 a month.
In April of 1942 the “parting-strips” were being laid down on the concrete subfloor in preparation for the installation of the maple flooring. Other indoor finish work was being done and the grounds around the building were being cleaned up in preparation for landscaping.
It was reported that the finish work was “progressing steadily” and would be finished within a few weeks.
However, it wasn’t until July that the installation of the maple flooring was completed. That month the number of WPA cases in York County was reported to be just 58, down from 227 in the same month two years earlier.
With labor shortages, particularly the shortage of skilled labor, engineers in charge of the project were declining to set an exact date for completion of the building.
Late in August those same engineers worried “that the sand paper for sanding and finishing the floor might not arrive on schedule.” Apparently the sandpaper arrived, because within two weeks the City of York was outlining plans for the dedication ceremony.
On the evening of September 18th the $212,500 building was dedicated. Nebraska Gov. Griswold used his speech to promote “the hope that all classes will have a mutual understanding of the problems which each class must face.”
He compared “the co-ordination of all groups working on the building to the co-ordination necessary for the success of a state or nation.”
The Governor’s words seventy years ago still have value. They speak to the need for a more cooperative spirit in this nation today.
And like the Governor’s words, City Auditorium which was built to meet the need for employment during the long ago Depression still serves the recreational needs of York and the surrounding area today.
In February of 1943 the first basketball tournament was held at City Auditorium. McCool Junction defeated Bradshaw 34-19 to win the York County Tournament.
In 1950 the York County Athletic Association was reorganized as the Crossroad Conference.
This Friday two Crossroads Conference championships will be determined at City Auditorium when still to be determined girls and boys teams meet.
Come see America at its best.