Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum: Honoring History

April 28, 2014

It’s a venue that’s hosted the likes of the Beatles, John F. Kennedy and the Indiana Pacers. A historic, landmark building in Indianapolis with more than 75 years of history, the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum underwent a $63 million renovation that aimed to preserve the architectural details and integrity of the building while providing, for the first time, a truly modern fan experience through the addition of elevated public concourses, amenities and technology.

The facility, which opened in 1939, has always served as a multi-use space for the city and county, hosting sports, concerts and events. Because of the tremendous history and the scope of the project, the renovation is largely considered the most important capital improvement project in the history of the Indiana State Fairgrounds – a fact that didn’t elude us while designing the renovation.

Across the board, whether it’s a fairgrounds arena, an equestrian venue, a ballpark or an airport, renovations are incredible opportunities for a city to rebrand and reshape itself to attract new events and revitalize some of the most frequented buildings authentic to their community. The Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum will do just that with the renovation, which opened last week. The building had once been a premier venue and a destination for some of the most exciting sports, entertainment and exhibition events in the nation, as evidenced by the laundry list of previous visitors and performers. However, because of the evolving demands of the modern spectator and the substantial changes in the understanding of what makes a great performance venue over the past several decades, the facility was in need of a face-lift in order for it to continue its reign as a premier facility. As the facility began to age, the evolving demands of the events the facility aimed to attract had changed. Clubs, restaurants, technology, concessions and support spaces, commonplace in most modern facilities, were just some of the attributes Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum was missing. In order to reshape this to accommodate both performers and spectators, our design was driven by the following considerations, many of which are the same issues facility operators and owners of other aging venues should examine:

  • Access: Access encompasses both the spectator experience and performer / event back of house functionality. At the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, the arrival experience and signage and wayfinding were added to make entering the facility an exciting experience in itself. While we maintained the existing architectural details, we worked to enhance the journey a spectator takes from their vehicle to their seat. In addition, separate access for the performers and event staff is also critical and something many historic venues are lacking. Because of the previous configuration, these individuals had to move through the concourses, mixing in with fans and spectators, and didn’t have access to an event level that was solely theirs, negatively impacting event operations.
  • Functionality: The task of increasing functionality and ease of programming by creating different spaces for the spectator from the event and the performers is critical to the successful operation of any venue, new or historic. With the previous configuration of the Coliseum, spectators on the public concourse often come in close contact with large animals, wagons and other performers, creating an operationally unsustainable and challenging layout… and substantially taking away from the mystery and excitement of an event. With some strategic reconfiguration, we elevated the public concourse and provided enhanced concessions, additional restrooms and amenities, while freeing up an event level to specifically serve the needs of the operations personnel, rodeo crews, concert staff or sports teams. This also plays a critical role in attracting events to the venue.
  • Technology: As one may expect with an historic venue, the Coliseum lacked the necessary technology prior to the renovation to provide a truly high quality sight and sound experience for spectators. As my colleague Geoff Cheong outlines in his post Video Boards, Scoreboards and the Arena Experience, arena technology “is essential to the long-term success and viability of any arena.” The design of the renovation includes high definition video boards, a dramatic sound system and engineered acoustical design to help better attract world class entertainers. More importantly, the integration of this technology is critical to keeping an historic venue relevant and modern.
  • Flexibility: We took special care with the design of the Coliseum to create flexibility. Because the venue often hosts such a wide variety of events – from large concerts, to rodeos, to conventions – the space was required to turn over from one event to the next at a rapid pace, aiding the critical notion of freeing up the event level. In addition, we spent a considerable amount of time interviewing over 30 stakeholders and user groups along with staff and board members to understand the needs of various shows, events, and exhibits.  We utilized our “Heinz 57” list to discuss the many uses which the Coliseum could accommodate and developed the design accordingly.
  • Historic Significance: Spectators will immediately notice the details that pay homage to the original Coliseum. An entire section of the lower bowl features original seats, restored to 1939 condition. On the concourses, the Coliseum’s underlying metal structure is exposed and restored, along with the exterior limestone and brick that makes the facility instantly recognizable. These iconic details are important to the character of the venue, and we wanted to draw attention to them in the design.

When working on an historic venue, it’s important to honor and preserve the facility’s heritage while creating a fresh design solution that can create a better, more meaningful experience for spectators and entertainers alike. At the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum, the renovated space speaks for itself, making it easy to imagine the arena’s ability to add to its impressive list of entertainers over the coming decades. Read more about the renovation here.

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