Open house shows off newly renovated State Fairgrounds Coliseum

State Fairgrounds Coliseum

It's an Indianapolis landmark where the Beatles once took the stage. It's also the site of tragedy where an explosion at a concession stand killed 74 people in the 1960s.

The Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum has been closed for 18 months for renovation, but today, it reopened to the public.

It was built as a Works Progress Administration project in 1939 and weaved its way into the fabric of Indiana.

"First came here 61 years ago.  Showed my first Jersey heifer and I was astounded then.  But my goodness, it just takes your breath away," Bill Tyner from Westfield observed as he looked out from the second deck of the new Coliseum.

That's saying something because his wife Janet took his breath away 13 years later and they both are better than ever.

"My first concert was Pat Boone and I saw Tennessee Ernie Ford.  He actually said, 'Hi, you little pea pickers.' It was part of Indiana,"  Tyner's wife Janet added.

It's made history from the Beatles to the presidents and the Coliseum explosion.  It gave us a sense of who we are and what we value.  The outside is the same but the inside all new.  Wrapped in ribbon board, a state of the art scoreboard and sound system with 4,800 hundred seats, the $63 million renovation has preserved the Coliseum for years to come.

"You took the best of the best state fair in America and made it better," Governor Mike Pence said at the ribbon cutting.

In part, he likely said that because this was accomplished without any new taxes.

"We are going to self-fund this project by using a whole lot of events in the Coliseum and maximizing the usage of it," State Fairgrounds Executive Director Cindy Hoye said.

That includes IUPUI Jaguar basketball and Indy Fuel Hockey and a host of concerts starting in July.

"It's so much better in person than any plans I saw," Andretta Erickson noted.

Now after seven years of planning, 17 months of building, 1,200 workers have braced the Coliseum for its next 75 years.

"Clean, nice, bigger spaces to get crowds through faster.  The club areas are beautiful.  Just everything is better," Erickson swooned.

It is the largest capital improvement project in the 123-year history of the Indiana State Fairgrounds.

With such a long history behind it, Hoye says the idea driving the renovation was to honor the tradition while bringing in more modern comforts and improvements.

"Most importantly, we wanted to capture those memories. We wanted to make sure we preserved the soul of this complex and this facility. But then we wanted to make sure that it functioned for now and for the next 75 years," she said.

In addition to a new scoreboard, fairgoers may see some original seating and glass block. Hoye said the goal was to blend old and new traditions.

The coliseum renovation cost $53 million, with an additional $10 million going towards a new youth arena. No tax dollars were spent on the improvements. 

"We are earning our own revenue to pay back these bonds," Hoye said.