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Editor’s note: In 2013, the Cross Insurance Center will become the third structure to serve as the community auditorium since 1897. This is the first in a four-part series to tell the historic tale of those three structures and of their importance to the Bangor region for the past 116 years and beyond.

The first auditorium in Bangor came about because of a conversation that William Rogers Chapman, a choral conductor in Bethel and New York, had with Lillian Nordica in 1895.

Born Lillian Norton in Farmington, Nordica was an opera singer who had built a major career in the United States and Europe. An Italian maestro reportedly dubbed her Giglia Nordica (from “giglio del nord,”, meaning “lily of the north”) because he knew she’d never be taken seriously in the European opera world with an Anglo-American name. She became known as Madame Nordica or simply Nordica and established herself among the foremost dramatic sopranos of her time. She was known for being able to perform an impressive range of roles in French, German, and Italian operas.

In early 1897, Chapman was trying to start his Maine Music Festivals, and when he secured the agreement of this world-famous Maine-born opera singer, he knew he had the headliner he needed. He began organizing choral groups statewide and ending up with more singers than any Maine concert hall could handle; he planned for major events in Portland and Bangor that October.

No Bangor venue could hold an audience that performers estimated to be 1,800 or more, but Bangorians wanted it to happen. On July 8, 1897, 183 stockholders formed the Bangor Auditorium Association with a goal of building the city’s first auditorium. Construction began later that month next to the Maplewood Park fairgrounds, on land provided by former mayor Joseph P. Bass.

Builder James M. Davis completed the auditorium by the end of September. The massive wooden building, 175 by 80 feet (half the length and width of a football field) looked like a huge barn with an ornate façade; inside were exposed woodwork, rafters, and beams. Davis reassured a concerned public of the building’s solid construction, and Chapman vouched for its fine acoustics.

And according to blueprints of the original structure, it would seat 1,692 people.

On Oct. 14, the three-day festival kicked off. Two lines of traffic, carriages, and trolleys reached all the way to West Market Square downtown. The show was an enormous success, with the stage featuring hundreds of singers and a 60-person orchestra, including many from Seiol’s New York Symphony. Lillian Nordica wore white satin and her trademark diamond tiara and sang “Hear Ye Israel” from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”

The auditorium was a big hit, and by 1912 it had been expanded twice. The first was the addition of an enclosed vestibule on the front entrance, which destroyed the musicians’ gallery. The second was the annex added to the left rear of the building. The annex resembled a miniature version of the auditorium, complete with the same corner pinnacles and central gable, although it was soon removed.

Chapman’s festivals graced the auditorium for years, bringing world-renowned opera singers to Bangor, such as world-famous French opera singer Emma Calvé in 1907. The last festival was in 1926, but the auditorium saw continued community use for concerts and conventions afterward.

Planning for a New Auditorium

Joseph Bass died in 1919, but he bequeathed the land to Bangor provided that the city accept it by Jan. 7, 1933 — six months after the Maine Music Festival’s lease with Bass’ estate expired — and that it forever be named Bass Park.

Bass was specific about its use for public and semi-public purposes. The timing worked out well, because by then talk of a new auditorium had been buzzing for years. A flier from 1927 indicates a circus held there to benefit the auditorium fund, and a $1 raffle ticket from that year, to benefit the fund, gave the purchaser the chance to win a $9,000 house. That $1 would be $13 in 2013 dollars, and the house would be worth $119,000 today.

During its life, the auditorium hosted many famous guests and performers, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the Dorsey Brothers, Bill Haley and His Comets, and Spike Jones. But, as it aged, Bangor outgrew it, and by the late 1940s it was clear that Bangor needed a new facility.

Official planning began around 1948, and the city considered several sites. One was downtown at Abbott Square, across from the Bangor Public Library. Another was near Dow Air Force Base. The city finally decided to build at Bass Park, behind the existing auditorium.

The city had several firm requirements, such as seating capacity, no spectator having an obstructed view, and a strictly observed budget. Everyone from city officials to civic organizations were involved in the project, but the design came down to Bangor architect Eaton Tarbell. Key to his design was the signature inverted roof that many people later criticized, but Tarbell had solid reasoning for it: It offered better bracing than a traditional pitched roof, and it reduced the heating area by 235,000 cubic feet.

But unlike the universal enthusiasm in 1897, not everyone approved this time. Some opponents argued that building the new auditorium would violate the terms of Joseph Bass’ will. Ultimately, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it didn’t because the new auditorium would replace one that no longer served the city’s needs.

Next week, in Part II: Bangor’s Economic Engine: the auditorium becomes a major factor in the region, but then the troubles begin.

Click here to read all four parts of this series.