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How the City Made it to the Big Stage: Phoenix Civic Plaza

by Douglas C. Towne
History Douglas C. Towne December 6, 2023

In the early 1960s, Phoenix residents complained about living in a desert—a cultural desert, that is. While Tucson, Albuquerque, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles had impressive performance halls for touring artists and companies, Phoenix could only offer high school auditoriums, opined an article in The Arizona Republic in 1961.

The story noted that the National Orchestra of Holland played outdoors for the first time since 1929 on a warm May night at the Encanto Bandshell. “It was disastrous! Of their entire tour of 60 American cities, Phoenix was their only unpleasant experience.”

In response, a citizens’ group developed a plan to build a performing arts auditorium, which morphed into a convention center. The non-profit Phoenix Civic Plaza Building Corporation was created to finance construction in 1963.

Phoenix Civic Plaza under construction, 1969. (Photo: City of Phoenix)

The announcement to build the Phoenix Convention Center in early 1968 came with a twist: the City of Phoenix and the Phoenix Gazette held a contest to name the new facility. “Our $16 million Convention Center Complex is a building in need of a name befitting the architectural grandeur and cultural atmosphere which awaits our cities,” the contest description read.

Judges submitted their top 10 entries to the Phoenix City Council, which decided the winner. The prize was a first-class vacation to Mexico City and a plaque with their name at the new convention center.

Claudia Alta “Lady Bird” Johnson was supposed to announce the winner on May 28, 1968, but bad weather delayed the First Lady’s flight to Phoenix. So instead, Mayor Milt Graham announced that the new facility, located between Washington and Monroe streets from Second to Fifth streets, would be named the Phoenix Civic Plaza at the suggestion of Mrs. Atlee Hites.

Phoenix Civic Plaza after completion, 1973. (Photo: Phoenix Convention Center)

Groundbreaking occurred in July 1968; a Dixieland band played as a bulldozer moved the first earth for the construction project. “Completion of the Civic Plaza will be one of the most important happenings that have ever occurred in our Valley,” H.W. Cronrath, president of the Valley of the Sun Convention Bureau, told the Republic. “The existence of the plaza will help to directly attract more convention business and, indirectly, more new wealth, more new industry, and more new investment dollars.”

Phoenix Civic Plaza, which included Phoenix Symphony Hall, was built by Del E. Webb Corporation on 16.5 acres. Designed by Charles Luckman Associates, the Brutailistic-style convention center was dedicated in 1972. “The versatility of the Civic Plaza will be demonstrated as tourists and conventioneers join Phoenicians in enjoying the tremendous variety of events that are possible at this cultural and convention center,” said Phoenix Mayor John Driggs.

The project brought a new role and vitality to Downtown Phoenix, having lost its role as a shopping destination for residents as the 1950s expired. The facility was expanded in 1985, remodeled in the mid-1990s, and rebuilt as the Phoenix Convention Center, which opened in 2008. The venue last year celebrated its 50th Anniversary, and since 2008, the city has estimated it has hosted 2.7 million conventioneers and generated more than $300 million in tourist spending annually.