Century II

‘Hub’ has delivered arts to Wichita for 50 years

Written by Amy Palser

Fifty years ago this month, Wichita entered a new era in culture and entertainment in the form of a circular, blue-roofed building that looked like something out of “The Jetsons.” Located on the east bank of the Arkansas River, the $12.6 million Century II boasted a hall that could seat over 5,500, a nearly quarter-mile-long promenade, and exhibition and convention halls that joined to create 90,000 square feet of continuous display space.

Century II represented, by all accounts, the future of Wichita.

Fast forward a half century, and the world is a different place. The Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center of 2019 faces challenges of ADA compliance, safety and maintenance issues, and the fact that the building is nearly impenetrable to electronic signals. “While it was visionary for its time, no one in the ‘60s could have envisioned the modern needs,” said Mary Beth Jarvis, CEO of Wichita Festivals, the group that runs events like Riverfest, of which Century II is a major component.

Jarvis also is chair of the Century II Citizens Advisory Committee, a group whose job it is to evaluate the future of Century II and make a recommendation to the city. The group will spend much of this month gathering community input before making a formal recommendation in late January or early February on what to do with Century II — namely whether to remodel or to raze and rebuild.

Century II is among several downtown landmarks that have recently undergone or are undergoing transformation, including a newly constructed library (the library it replaced was built about the same time as Century II) and Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, which was recently demolished to make way for a new ballpark. And while change is inevitable for Century II, it doesn’t alter the fact that the uniquely round building advanced art and culture in Wichita and took the city in a positive direction.

‘Progressively modern’

Just days before the dramatic dedication of Century II on Jan. 11, 1969 — a dedication that included nine days of special events, including the inauguration of Gov. Robert Docking — Wichita businesses praised the new civic cultural center complex in a special section of The Wichita Eagle. They said things like:

“It’s the most exciting civic event in the memory of this generation of Wichitans.”

—Busch’s Luggage and Leather Goods

“Let’s all applaud the progressive spirit which led to Century II.”
—The Fox Theatres

“A climax to Wichita’s civic and cultural endeavors to meet the demands and expectations of the future.”
—Henry’s Inc.

“Montgomery Ward salutes the progressively modern Century II.”

Howard Ellington of Wichita was part of Century II from its inception. The Wichita native was practicing architecture in California when he was recruited by Century II architect John Hickman to join the project.

“I spent five years on the project. I was the last one to leave the office. I didn’t leave until it was completed,” said Ellington, now 80. He recalls the 1969 Century II dedication as being well attended and said people responded positively to the building.

Hickman, the Century II architect who handpicked Ellington, died shortly after hiring him, so Ellington worked under Hickman’s successor, Roy Varenhorst. Both Hickman and Varenhorst were students of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ellington said — a strange twist of fate for Ellington, who is the restoration architect and founding trustee of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House in College Hill.

Living in Wichita has allowed Ellington to attend events at Century II throughout the years. Being inside the building doesn’t stir Ellington’s emotions, but hearing rumors of its demise does. “Hopefully they’ll find a continued usage for the building,” he said. “I think it needs to be saved. I’m not sure what the future holds for it, but it’s certainly justified its existence. The talent that was brought to Wichita because of it is unreal.”

Talent aplenty

Splayed across John D’Angelo’s desk are playbills and posters from 50 years of concerts, musicals, competitions and shows at Century II. As the city’s director of arts and cultural services, and with an office located inside Century II, D’Angelo is used to the constant stream of shows, events and crowds at the civic center. There’s no doubt about it, the round building with the blue roof has drawn talent galore in a half century’s time.

The Monkees played there the year it opened. David Copperfield, ZZ Top, Anne Murray, and Charlie Daniels performed there, along with touring Broadway shows like “Miss Saigon,” “CATS,” “The Lion King” and “Wicked.” And John Mellencamp will perform on its stage this April.

In 1990, Century II hosted the national Miss USA pageant, with announcer Dick Clark. Circuses and ice shows have drawn thousands of spectators over the years. President Trump stopped at Century II in 2016 on his campaign route. Then there are the vendor events: garden shows and home shows, boat shows and bridal shows, and the popular Women’s Fair and Holiday Galleria.

And in the midst of it all are the tenant organizations: Music Theatre Wichita, Wichita Symphony Orchestra, Wichita Grand Opera, and Music Theatre for Young People, among others. At the time it was built, the jazz festival was a popular feature of Century II, and both Friends University and Wichita State University used the space frequently.

“It was really used for a lot of purposes. It’s well used,” D’Angelo said. “We service anywhere from half a million to a million people a year.”

D’Angelo joined the city staff when Century II was only six years old. It was a very good investment, he said, and that’s why it’s an important decision about what happens to the building. “One of the challenges is that, like everything, it’s reached an age where we’re going to have to make a significant investment into it. In 1969 it was state-of-the-art; now it’s not.”

While the fate of Century II is uncertain, one thing is for sure: The round building east of the river has been good to Wichita. It served its purpose time and again, bringing arts and culture to the city on the plains.

“It is the hub of the city in many ways,” said Jarvis. “So you’ve got to respect it as ‘the hub.’ ”

Just what will happen to Wichita’s “hub” is a question pertinent to residents both inside and outside the city’s borders.

“I think a lot of people see the building as iconic and have an emotional attachment to it. I think a lot of people are fond of the blue roof and what it represents,” D’Angelo said. “What happens to the building next is kind of a milestone: What do we need to do for the next 50 years?”

 
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