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Will Burlington's Next Mayor Spare Memorial Auditorium?

Local Matters


Memorial Auditorium
  • Memorial Auditorium

Urinal connoisseurs will tell you that two of Burlington’s best are to be found in the downstairs men’s room of Memorial Auditorium. The imposing porcelain beauties date from MemAud’s opening 85 years ago.

It may take a gimlet eye to appreciate some of the louche features of a building that its former overseer, Burlington City Arts director Doreen Kraft, describes as “an old, gray battleship.” In fact, some observers view Memorial Auditorium as decrepit, depressing and dangerous. And, regardless of how it’s appraised aesthetically, the new mayor is going to have to decide whether to tear it down and build a new civic arena in its place — a relatively hassle-free option since MemAud isn’t on the historic register — or spend at least $4 million just to maintain the building at its current “funky but functional” level.

That’s how Andy Snyder, assistant manager of the street-level clay studio in that building, views the three-story structure, which he considers “a great gift.” Snyder is one of half a dozen fans of MemAud who were spinning and shaping pots in the sunlit studio last Saturday. “This is an excellent space for us,” Snyder declares.

Upstairs, hundreds of shoppers seemed happy to be there, as well. They were browsing and buying root vegetables, preserves, cheese, pasta, meat and craft items from 58 vendors who had set up stands for the semimonthly winter farmers market. “It’s perfect for us,” market manager Chris Wagner says of the gym, where an average of 1500 locals come to shop and socialize on 13 Saturdays between early November and late April. “We’re happy here.”

Burlington teens like MemAud, too. They come to shows as well as to after school programs and music and dance camps that take place in 242 Main, the downstairs performance space that director Richard Bailey describes as “the longest-running all-ages club in the United States.” Bailey, 43, says he first came to 242 Main as a student in 1985, the year that then-Mayor Bernie Sanders inaugurated it as a much-needed teen center.

In MemAud’s third-floor loft, the Jeh Kulu dance and drum troupe gives lessons in the arts and culture of West Africa. A downstairs annex adjacent to the BCA-run pottery and printing studios is also available for smaller-scale performances.

As a member of MemAud’s broad constituency, Bailey wants to see the building upgraded, not gutted. “It’d be nice to have some ventilation in the summer,” he says. “But please don’t strip away the personality and the memories. Memorial’s an incredible backdrop to Burlington’s history.”

Built in 1927 by local architect Frank Austin, the nondescript brick hulk at the corner of Main and South Union streets is dedicated to the memory of Burlington’s war dead. Writing in the Burlington Free Press in 1928, Mayor C.H. Beecher extolled the new 20,000-square-foot civic space, which accommodates 2500 spectators. “Burlington now claims the largest and best equipped auditorium in New England north of Springfield, Mass., and is making a successful bid as the leading convention city of northern New England,” Beecher declared.

That was then. Thousands of Burlingtonians fondly recall seeing stars such as Bob Marley, B.B King, Bob Dylan and Leontyne Price perform at MemAud in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. Some of them have gone on to have kids who have more recently attended dubstep raves featuring Nero and Skrillex.

Today, the auditorium books about 30 large-scale events per year, says Alan Campbell, who has managed the facility since 1995. That includes “ring sports” such as wrestling and mixed martial arts. Some concert acts that would once have played MemAud now prefer the hipper venue of Higher Ground or, if their names are big enough, the spruced-up Flynn Center for the Performing Arts two blocks west.

“A lot of shows did very poorly at Memorial in the past 10 years,” says Kraft, whose arts organization managed the auditorium until 2005. “That’s partly because people imagine it being a bad venue for certain performances. There hasn’t been significant investment made in it for a long time.” In terms of energy waste alone, MemAud functions as “a tremendous leech,” Kraft says. The annual natural-gas bill — for heat — is $40,000. Electricity runs $30,000 a year.

Campbell, who now runs MemAud under the auspices of Burlington’s Parks and Recreation Department, agrees that the city is only “pecking away” at the cosmetic flaws and structural problems that cause MemAud to be seen by some as a third-rate space. “Over time,” Campbell concedes, “deferred maintenance does affect the experience of people who go to Memorial.”

Soon, notes Community and Economic Development Office director Larry Kupferman, workers will resume repairs on exterior bricks that have been “loosening.” The city is also completing construction of a ramp that will give wheelchair users smooth access to the auditorium’s main entrance.

But the roughly $200,000-a-year operations budget for MemAud doesn’t allow for the repairs needed to bring the building “up to code,” Campbell says. “That’s got to be done, no matter what.” Long-deferred maintenance work has pushed the costs of “just a basic fix-up” to an estimated $4 million, by Campbell’s calculation.

Kraft puts the price tag for thorough modernization of the building or construction of a new facility at $10-15 million. She acknowledges that the city doesn’t have anything approaching that sum, so the most practical way forward, she suggests, is through a public-private partnership that acts on decisions that emanate from community-wide deliberations.

Eventually, Burlingtonians will also have to decide how a new or renovated auditorium would relate to whatever else might be built on the so-called “Super Block” that now houses the main fire station and the municipal library as well as a seedy former motel and, perhaps most inefficiently, a 42-space parking lot. The recent planBTV urban design charrette suggested general citizen approval for a sizable mixed-use building on the corner of Main Street and South Winooski Avenue. Such a structure would have to include a parking garage, in part to accommodate drivers who come to shows at MemAud or its replacement.

MemAud enjoys an advantage over the Flynn in having a flat floor with no permanent seats, Campbell points out. That enables the auditorium to host not only boxing and wrestling matches but also circus acts on First Night. On those occasions, Campbell says, “There’s not a bad seat in the house.”

Noting that Memorial occupies a niche between the Flynn, which seats 1400, and the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym, which holds 3335, Campbell asserts, “It’d be crazy to tear it down.” And even if UVM or another entity eventually builds a long-contemplated 8000-seat arena somewhere in Chittenden County, MemAud’s existence will still be easy to justify, Campbell suggests. “Markets need a variety of performance spaces,” he says. And he flicks aside the issue of parking by pointing out that the Flynn thrives even though it, too, lacks a reserved set of spaces for private vehicles.

Memorial’s acoustics are not as bad as some suppose, adds Snyder, the clay studio assistant manager who remembers taking in a double bill of Graham Nash and Joan Armatrading sometime in the ’80s. “Nash’s sound was horrible because he didn’t know how to work the space acoustically,” Snyder says. “Armatrading sounded great because she knew what to do with the sound board in a space like this one.”

Surveying the bustling scene at the farmers market, Celeste Gouala, an immigrant from the Republic of the Congo working at the Samosaman stall, seemed to sum up the considerations that will determine MemAud’s fate. “It’s not so beautiful as it should be,” Gouala observed. “But there’s a cost to make something attractive. Are we willing to pay that cost?”