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Celebrating 70 Year Anniversary of Opening of Cincinnati Gardens

Gardens Opened in 1949

 

The Cincinnati Gardens opened February 22, 1949; the first event was a hockey exhibition game – the Dallas Texans (whose nucleus would form the new Cincinnati Mohawks of the American Hockey League) versus its parent club, the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, which featured Hall of Fame right wing Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.

The first week of events at Cincinnati’s newest sports and entertainment center was staggering: following the exhibition hockey game was a U.C. vs. Butler basketball game, a Xavier vs. Kentucky basketball game, and a heavyweight boxing match between Cincinnatian Ezzard Charles and Cleveland’s Joey Maxim (Charles won in 15 rounds to become the #1 contender to Joe Louis’ title).

Since that flashy beginning, the Gardens hosted an exalted array of diverse events, including major-and-minor league sports, rock concerts, comedians, symphony orchestras, broadway-style musicals, political rallies, rodeos, roller derby, tractor pulls, circuses, ice follies, dog shows, dirt track auto racing, auto and baseball card shows and more.

 
 


 

7th largest U.S. Arena at the time

 

The brick and limestone Gardens – with its six distinctive, three-dimensional carved athletic figures decorating the buildings facing – was built on 22 acres in Cincinnati’s north and was modeled after the popular and historic Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Ontario. At the time of its opening in 1949, Cincinnati Gardens was the seventh largest indoor arena in the U.S. with a seating capacity of 11,000. Stock in the Gardens was widely held throughout the U.S. Cincinnati Gardens Inc.’s first president was Cincinnatian Charles Sawyer, U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Cincinnati Gardens was built using some 325,000 man-hours by the Frank Messer & Sons general contractors for a cost of $3 million. It was constructed with no interior pillars or columns obstructing sight lines. Some 2,200 tons of structured and reinforcing steel were used in the project, and it was said that a 10-foot story tall building could fit under the Gardens’ roof. A Cincinnati newspaper reported at the time: “The answer to Cincinnati’s appetite for indoor sports and spectacles, Cincinnati Gardens by its great expanse of uninterrupted space, will awe the thousands of first-nighters.”

The Garden's enjoyed a renaissance when real estate developer, Gerry Robinson purchased the Gardens in 1979.  At the time, Robinson said "as so many others, I grew up in Cincinnati with great, great memories of the Cincinnati Gardens with hockey, the NBA Royals and concerts. I loved the building’s rich history and knew it was a tremendous Cincinnati asset to be saved for future generations.”

 

Hosted Countless Sports and Concerts Events

 

As a sporting venue, Cincinnati Gardens hosted minor and major league hockey, professional, college and high school basketball, amateur and professional boxing, professional soccer, professional wrestling, indoor football, roller derby, auto and motorcycle racing, karate championships, even swimming exhibitions.

As for entertainers, the Gardens has hosted, literally, hundreds of the biggest names in show business – Elvis, the Beatles, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., Tom Petty, Neil Diamond, Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Kinks, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Pearl Jam – and even Lawrence Welk. Country singers appearing include Reba McEntire, Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams Jr., Randy Travis, Statler Brothers, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Alan Jackson, Wynonna Judd, and many more. Though he didn’t perform on stage, Garth Brooks visited the Gardens to enjoy some public ice-skating. So did actor Alan Thicke.

For kids and families, there were circuses, ice follies and shows featuring Sesame Street, Snoopy, Bugs Bunny and Barney. There were horse shows, dog shows, and baseball card shows with the sport’s superstars such as Mickey Mantle and many greats from the local Cincinnati Reds. Evel Knievel performed death defying motorcycle jumps at the Gardens and the arena even hosted political rallies – Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge spoke to the largest throng ever in the Gardens history with 19,000 on hand as they spoke October 25, 1960, and Barry Goldwater September 29, 1964, while seeking the nation’s top office. There was also an indoor “aqua-parade” starring Olympic swimmers and Tarzan movie star Buster Crabbe, and the musical play “Jesus Christ Superstar” also performed there.

 

Incredible Sports History

 

Of course, Cincinnati Gardens will forever be linked to great sporting events, especially hockey, basketball and boxing. The long hockey history includes the Cincinnati Mohawks (’49-’57), the popular Cincinnati Swords (’71-‘74), Cincinnati Cyclones (’90- ’97) and the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks (’97-’05).

But another professional hockey team played at the Gardens, too – one perhaps lost in the annals of history. The Cincinnati Wings of the Central Hockey League played twenty-eight games at the Gardens in 1963-64. The Indianapolis Capitals team moved from that city to the Queen City during the season when the Indiana Fairgrounds Coliseum in Indianapolis – the team’s home arena – exploded and caught fire, killing 74 people and injuring more than 300 – thus the Cincinnati Wings were born.  The Gardens played the quasi-home for the Wings that season, but the tragedy was hard to overcome as the team amassed just a 12-53-7 record and a fifth place finish that season, including 8-20 at the Gardens.

The Cincinnati Mohawks, an NHL Montreal Canadiens affiliate, played three seasons in the American Hockey League and six in the original International Hockey League. From 1952-1957, the Mohawks dominated the IHL, winning five straight Turner Cup championships, an IHL record that stood until the original league folded in 2001.

The Cincinnati Swords were an affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres and were immensely popular with fans in the early 1970’s with players like Gary Bromley, Rick Dudley, Rocky Farr, Billy Inglis and Ray “Spider” McKay. The Swords won the Calder Cup in their second season in 1973.  The Cincinnati Cyclones performed successfully on and off the ice in both the ECHL and IHL over a seven-year span before choosing to vacate the facility in 1997, paving the way for the AHL to return the Queen City after a 24-year absence with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. Following an eight-year run – the longest by one franchise in the same league and same arena in Cincinnati pro hockey history – the Mighty Ducks were forced to suspend operations following the 2004-05 season due to the lack of an available NHL affiliate. Hockey continued at the Gardens until the building's closing in 2016 with both high school hockey and youth hockey playing in the grand old barn.

 

Hoops Heaven

 

In addition to hockey, basketball – high school, college and the pros – will be forever linked with Cincinnati Gardens. One of Cincinnati’s favorite teams, the NBA Cincinnati Royals – with such stars as Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Connie Dierking, Sam Lacey and Nate “Tiny” Archibald – called the Gardens home from 1958-1972. The Royals franchise still exists today as the Sacramento Kings. The Gardens even hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 1966, where the best of the best competed and the Royals’ Adrian Smith was named game MVP. Another professional basketball team – the Cincinnati Slammers of the Continental Basketball League – played in the Gardens from 1985-1987.

College basketball had a rich tradition at the Gardens from the arena’s inception, with both the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University playing on the Gardens’ hardwood. The Gardens was the home to dozens of Bearcats games and was the Musketeers proud home from 1983-2000.

Boxing was always a favorite with Gardens’ fans, and they saw the best from Golden Gloves championships to professional champs like Ezzard Charles, Wallace “Bud” Smith and Aaron Pryor, all hometown products.

As for other sports and entertainment, consider the Gardens legacy of the ever popular wrestling, with such stars as Georgeous George, The Sheik, Handsome Johnny Barend, Roddy Piper, Hulk Hogan, Stone Cold Steve Austin and hundreds of other big time wrestlers who entertained ardent Gardens’ crowds for decades. Other sporting events hosted by the Gardens include indoor football, as the Cincinnati Commandos began play in the spring of 2010.  In their three season’s of existence, the Commandos captured their league championship (Continental Indoor Football League) twice.  Professional soccer also called the Gardens home. The Cincinnati Silverbacks played from 1995-1997 and the Cincinnati Kings moved to the Gardens in the fall of 2010 for two seasons.  In addition, roller derby, rodeos, monster truck rallies, horse shows and indoor auto races on cement and ice, have also played the historic building. The final professional team to call The Cincinnati Gardens home was a part of the Women's Flat-Track Roller Derby Association; the Cincinnati Rollergirls (2007-2016).

 

Not Resting On Its Laurels

 

In the final years of operation, the Cincinnati Gardens did not rest on its laurels. For its 50th year of operation in 1999, the Gardens underwent a beautification program to take it into the new century. Outside the building, there was new landscaping, with dozens of trees and flowerbeds, new lighting and wrought iron fencing and a 50th anniversary logo etched in marble in a courtyard area. Inside, the visitors saw a fresh new paint scheme throughout the lobby and concourse area. Improvements were made to the arena’s sound system and a videoboard was installed in 2011. There were modernized restrooms, new lighting and a remodeled press box, incljuding full wireless internet capabilities.

One of the most exciting new additions to the Gardens in the final deacde was the Legends Museum. Legends Museum was a virtual memorabilia treasure trove of the thousands of exciting events that have taken place at the Gardens during its extraordinary 67-year history. It was located on the second floor of the building’s back (east) side and the Legends Museum was open to the public free of charge.

 

Gone, But Not Forgotten

 

From it's opening in February of 1949 and after more than 67 years, 2016 proved to be the final year of operation for the Cincinnati Gardens. The Cincinnati Rollergirls’ game on Saturday, June 11, 2016, was the final event in the history of the Cincinnati Gardens.

With mixed emotions, on July 20, 2016, Cincinnati Gardens, LLC announced the decision to sell the historic sports and memorabilia venue to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Authority. It was the decision of the Port of Greater Cincinnati Authority to permanently close the building with eventual plans to demolish the grand structure to make room for a repurposing of the more than 24-acres of property on the corner of Seymour Avenue and Langdon Farm Road.

After spending just one month, the staff of the Gardens salvaged much of the usable day-to-day equipment and materials from the building for auction. On Wednesday, August 17, 2016, the Cincinnati Gardens closed its doors of operation for the final time.

Sitting abandoned for more than one year, the first visible sign of the demise of the Cincinnati Gardens was the removal of the iconic letters that adorned the front facade of the building in November of 2017. In March of 2018, the first bulldozer began to tear into the mammoth steel and brick structure with the wrecking ball completing the task over the next month. By the summer of 2018, after standing for more than 69 years, there was no visible sign remaining of the iconic Cincinnati Gardens. The demolition was handled by the Cincinnati-based O'Rourke Wrecking Company.

At the building's closing in 2016, much of the memorabilia was auctioned off and can be seen in many local businesses and establishments. The American flag that hung in the Gardens until it's final days, can now be seen in the brewing room at MadTree Brewing in the Madisonville section of Cincinnati. Some of the banners honoring various Gardens' championship teams that hung in the rafters, as well as memorabilia from the Legends Museum, are now displayed at locations of Cincy Shirts. Much of the hockey rink boards and glass, as well as the Zamboni ice-resurfacing equipment, was sold to Sports Plus in Evondale.

Most visibly displayed, are the porcelain Cincinnati Gardens letters, now hanging at the front of the American Sign Museum on Monmouth Avenue in the Camp Washington part of Cincinnati.

67 years, thousands of sports, entertainment, political and religious events and millions of spectators are a part of the amazing history of the Cincinnati Gardens. The physical structure may be gone, but the memories will live on - forever!

Copyright 2014 The Cincinnat Gardens