Part 1 of 3

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake had sent Oakland's population zooming when refugees poured into the city and decided not to go back to the west side of the bay.

Since the city was growing so rapidly and becoming so prosperous, the Chamber of Commerce decided it was time for Oakland to have an auditorium, a big one, an imposing one, perhaps on the line of the Greek Theatre, which had been constructed three years earlier in Berkeley. But Oakland's auditorium would be enclosed, so it could be used in all kinds of weather.

It wasn't until 1910 that Oakland boosters really got serious about the auditorium project. They supported San Francisco's bid to get the Panama-Pacific Exposition and thought Oakland could benefit from the crowds. In the March 3 issue of the Oakland Tribune, the Rotary Club's C.C. Craig called for a building with movable walls, "which shall have an ultimate capacity of 20,000 and which may be sub-divided into several meetings (that) may be held at the same time. ... Without a doubt, the proposed building will earn at least 4.5 percent on the amount of money invested in it." Craig pointed out there were only two other convention halls in the West capable of accommodating large meetings, one in Los Angeles and the other in Denver.


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Club women got involved in the push for an auditorium. Mrs. James B. Hume, president of the California Federation of Women's Clubs, said, "We could have one of the largest biennial conventions, and no less than 3,000 women would come." On May 16, 1911, Oakland voters approved a $500,000 bond measure to construct a municipal auditorium. Although women did not get the vote until November of that same year, they were credited with getting out the vote, which was 7,119 for and 2,734 against.

It took another 10 months for the city to figure out exactly where to put the auditorium on the shores of Lake Merritt and to choose an architect to design and supervise the project.

John Joseph Donovan, 32, had come to Oakland from Pittsburgh to supervise the building of the new City Hall. He liked the Bay Area so much, he never returned East. He was appointed Oakland city architect in 1912.

By May 24, 1912, Donovan was ready to present his design plans to the City Council. His sketches showed a magnificent structure that would be 450 feet long, 200 feet wide and the height in the middle portion would reach 75 feet. The seating capacity in the arena would be 10,000, and it would have a retractable roof. There would be an adjacent lecture hall that could seat 3,000. There would be a large plaza leading up to the auditorium that fronted the lake with steps leading to the water.

He said it could be done for $500,000. He was wrong, very wrong.

The first shock came when it was time to drive down the pilings for the structure. Donovan had estimated it would cost $10,000, but it turned out the cost was in excess of $80,000 because the site the city had chosen needed a lot more pilings than Donovan had figured.

Next time: The battle to get the Oakland Auditorium finished.

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.