Keeper of the Plans

Dramatic change to Wichita’s skyline may be coming

Century II through the years

A look back at Century II over its nearly half-century existence, as seen by Eagle photographers. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)
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A look back at Century II over its nearly half-century existence, as seen by Eagle photographers. (Matt Riedl/The Wichita Eagle)

John D’Angelo pulled out a yellowed newspaper and laid it on a table in his office.

The 48-page Wichita Eagle special section from January 1969, headlined “Presenting … Century II,” waxed poetic about the $12.5 million investment the city had made in the new Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center.

One of the articles boasted it was the fulfillment of a “Wichita dream.”

That was in 1969.

In the decades since, the glamor of Century II has faded, said D’Angelo, director of the city’s Division of Arts and Cultural Services.

The city is currently floating four options for the future of Century II, ranging from an extensive remodel to razing the complex and starting over. No firm cost estimates are available, but fixing Century II could range from $163 million to $592 million, according to a 2014 city document.

Century II still functions – the product of creative patchwork maintenance – but unless action is taken soon, Century II could become a hindrance to Wichita’s performing arts community and its convention business, D’Angelo said.

“I don’t want to act like it’s doom and gloom – it isn’t at this point – but we’re starting to see where our competitiveness is being lessened because we’re not as desirable,” he said. “If you say, ‘Well, we’ll just keep doing what we’re doing,’ the reality is at some point you’re not going to be doing it.”

It’s not a new problem; city officials have talked seriously about the need for a new – or at least significantly renovated – facility at least since 2010. Consultants did studies on the issue in 2013, and D’Angelo has been compiling data since.

But “there is an energy brewing that this is the year to do this,” said Wayne Bryan, producing artistic director of Music Theatre Wichita.

Could Century II, which has been synonymous with the city skyline for multiple generations of Wichitans, be on the chopping block in 2017?

Mayor Jeff Longwell said it’s an issue he expects the City Council to tackle in 2017.

“It’s hard to argue the need, because there’s a very apparent need,” Longwell said. “Now how do we go from a large community need to a strategy that helps us ultimately build a new center? That is really the question.

“The question isn’t need. The question is, ‘How do we get there?’ 

The question isn’t need. The question is, ‘How do we get there?’

Mayor Jeff Longwell

Looking to the future

Century II was completed in 1969, just in time for Wichita’s centennial celebration in 1970 – hence the name Century II.

It replaced The Forum, Wichita’s primary auditorium and convention center from 1911 to 1965, a place that was “pretty much a big one-room barn affair, where you might see a cattle show one night and you might see ‘Carmen’ the next,” Bryan said.

“There was emotional attachment to it at the time,” D’Angelo said. “It was controversial to build” Century II.

Century II was designed by John Hickman, an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. Perhaps its most distinctive feature is its blue-domed roof – which some affectionately liken to an alien spacecraft.

That blue dome is not as charming to outsiders, according to Bill Krueger, a consultant with CS&L International, whom the city contracted to study Century II in 2013.

“My first impression when I drive into town is, ‘Oh, there’s that blue dome again,’ ” he told The Eagle’s editorial board in 2013. “That’s what I remember from 20 years ago, and that’s what I saw when I came back into town now. That’s fine for local people, but the national event planners … that first impression can go a long way.”

The problems with Century II go beyond the aesthetic – though the round building presents challenges for its tenants.

Over its roughly 47-year history, Century II has played host to many notable people, including former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and President-elect Donald Trump. The nationally televised Miss USA Pageant was held at Century II from 1990 to 1993.

Most of Century II’s shortcomings exist simply because the needs of the performing arts and convention industries are far greater now than they were in 1969, or even in the 1980s.

“When they built this in 1969, they were good stewards – they said, ‘OK, we need to build something for the future,’ ” D’Angelo said. “I think we need to again be good stewards and have that discussion.”

Performing arts concerns

Three major performing arts groups use Century II – Music Theatre Wichita, the Wichita Symphony Orchestra and the Wichita Grand Opera. Various other groups use the smaller Mary Jane Teall Theater inside Century II, including the Forum Theatre Company and Music Theatre for Young People.

Those groups are “sort of the bread and butter that keeps this place open,” said Bryan of Music Theatre Wichita.

For years, those tenants have found ways to work around Century II’s quirks, but the continued deterioration of the building hampers their growth, leaders of the organizations said.

Some of the main problems with Century II, from a performing arts standpoint:

▪ The round design of the building creates problems.

Underneath Century II’s circular dome, its halls are subdivided into wedges, much like a pie. For the performing arts tenants, this design choice leaves little functional backstage space – and navigating the hallways of backstage areas is a labyrinthine process.

“When you’re on stage and you come offstage left or right, instead of having a standard space in the wings to move into, you hit a curved wall,” Bryan said. “That’s something we’ve learned to work around. It’s always a shock to the touring shows.”

▪ The halls of the building are not sound-proof.

Speaker systems and bands now are generally louder than they were in the 1960s, and the building was not designed for the increased noise levels, said Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. Consequently, sound from one hall often percolates into other halls.

“That can ruin a concert if you’ve got a band playing in the Exhibition Hall or the Convention Hall space, and this has happened,” Reinhold said. “When you have that sound bleeding over into something delicate like Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – which happened last year – it can ruin a performance. The end result is you lose customers. You lose patrons who say, ‘That’s enough – I’m not paying to go to concerts down there.’ 

Century II’s halls are divided by a thin vinyl layer in the walls, according to D’Angelo, and those walls don’t extend all the way to the roof. Consequently, sound travels not only through the walls, but over them too, D’Angelo said.

Underneath the dome, “besides being full of asbestos, there’s nothing that divides this hall or that hall,” D’Angelo said.

Well-known acts that performed at Century II include Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Johnny Cash, Fleetwood Mac, Motley Crue, REO Speedwagon, Pearl Jam and comedians Kevin Hart, Tyler Perry and Rodney Dangerfield.

▪ Loading sets and equipment has become more difficult.

Century II was designed with a drive-in loading bay, complete with an elevator to stage level, intended to simplify the load-in and load-out processes. However, standard-sized semi trucks in the 1960s were 44 feet long. Over the years, the standard length of semis has grown to about 53 feet. Those trucks no longer fit in Century II’s designated loading bay.

So to load a touring Broadway show such as “Wicked” into Century II, semis have to back over Kennedy Plaza and crews have to carry – or wheel – the set pieces about 160 yards across the Exhibition Hall to get to the Concert Hall stage.

The symphony has had similar problems.

“I remember when we did the ‘Duke Bluebeard’s Castle’ a few years ago with (sets by glass artist Dale) Chihuly – that was a very challenging load-in, because we had to bring 9,000 pounds of crates and glass through the Exhibition Hall just to get it through to the backstage and then construct it on stage, which resulted in having to do a night’s rehearsal downstairs in the basement,” Reinhold said. “There’s sort of impracticalities to all that.”

▪ The lobby area of the Concert Hall is not conducive to gathering and socialization.

There are essentially two separate lobby spaces – one on house right and one on house left. Reinhold called the lobby of the Concert Hall “a disaster.”

“The first thing you see is a wall with restrooms on either side – it’s just poor design,” Reinhold said. “You would never build something like that today. There’s no sense of community that you can get from the public milling about before and after a great performance. They come in, they hurry to their seats, and afterward on both house left and house right, they flow out and there’s no intermingling, and that’s not really good.”

▪ Rehearsal space can be difficult to find.

“We’ve been sharing to the extent that we never have enough space for rehearsal, and we have to improvise,” said Parvan Bakardiev, president and CEO of the Wichita Grand Opera. “We rehearse under the (Concert Hall) stage, but that has a lot of problems because they’ve never fixed the acoustic problems. When there’s a performance on stage, we cannot rehearse because it leaks, so that diminishes how many spaces are available to us.”

Reinhold, of the symphony, said a soundproof rehearsal hall should be a priority in any new facility.

“When we rehearse, we have to book the auditorium starting on Monday, when we load in, and we have the entire week that we have to reserve for four rehearsals and two performances,” Reinhold said. “Now that limits the amount of calendar days that Century II can rent that Concert Hall space, so there’s a revenue factor involved there.”

▪ The infrastructure of Century II is aging.

Last summer, a freight elevator and one of the two passenger elevators in the Concert Hall broke down for a few months, Bryan said. That passenger elevator was the only way for disabled theatergoers to access the balcony.

“We were really in a dilemma,” Bryan said. “Because there’s been so much debate about maybe we should concentrate on building a new facility, I would suspect there’s been some deferred maintenance by not spending the money to continue to upgrade the facility that you normally would (spend) if you believed this was going to be your home for the next stretch of time.”

The building frequently has heating and air-conditioning issues, and last summer, a water main break near the west entrance disrupted operations for about a day and a half, Reinhold said.

“This has potential to either stifle the flow of the public or backstage stuff, which can jeopardize program production,” he said. “You can only go so far with duct tape.”

You can only go so far with duct tape.

Don Reinhold, CEO of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra

Convention concerns

When Century II was first constructed, it was considered a state-of-the-art convention facility.

Century II still offers about 200,000 square feet of flat floor space for conventions.

“It’s not good space – let me be fair and honest – but square footage-wise, that’s what we sell,” D’Angelo said.

Here’s why Century II falls short, from a convention perspective:

▪ The round shape of the building doesn’t fit with modern convention design.

Most convention planners want rectangular convention space, D’Angelo said, making Century II’s Bob Brown Expo Hall the choice convention space in the building. The Expo Hall is the rectangular-shaped appendage grafted onto the south side of the round blue building in 1986. Their wedge-shaped design makes the 97,500 square feet of Century II’s Exhibition and Convention halls hard to sell, D’Angelo said.

“Every planner will tell you they want a flat floor space where they can get the grid to lay out so they can maximize the booths, so again they maximize revenue for their event,” D’Angelo said. “A pie is more difficult to deal with. … The problem is, the closer you get to the center, the smaller you’ll get.”

The Bob Brown Expo Hall was completed in 1986 at a cost of approximately $12.5 million, funded exclusively through a hotel guest tax.

▪ Although it is rectangular, Bob Brown Expo Hall is not subdividable, and its ceilings are not an ideal height.

Of the 93,000 square feet in the Expo Hall, 30,000 square feet is under 14-feet-high ceilings and littered with concrete pillars. The rest of the hall has about 32- to 35-foot ceilings.

“Convention planners will tell you they want 32- to 35-foot ceilings, and the reason for that is when you walk into a convention, you see these hanging banners – things that are up above the booths – that attract you to go to that booth,” D’Angelo said. “Every one of our planners will tell us the space (under the lower ceiling) is very difficult to sell.”

Ideally, a large convention hall should be subdividable using room dividers. Century II is not.

“When Textron comes in here, they don’t use the whole hall, but from an environmental perspective I have to maintain the whole hall, even if I have a client only using 60 percent of it,” D’Angelo said. “If you look at modern convention centers, what they would do is sell you the amount of space you need.”

▪ Century II doesn’t have an ideal lobby area, or pre-function space, for conventions.

“That’s what the convention business is moving towards,” D’Angelo said. “When I go out to a convention, I want to meet up with my colleagues and have a conversation. I don’t necessarily want to be in a meeting room just having people talk to me.”

▪ Modern conventions also need more modern capabilities – Wi-Fi, audio-visual, telecommunications and electrical.

Because it dates to pre-internet times, Century II is not especially well-built for internet and other modern features.

“We look at our competitive cities – whether it’s Omaha, Des Moines, Tulsa, Oklahoma City – all of them have either new facilities in the pipelines or fairly new renovations compared to our facilities,” said Susie Santo, CEO of Visit Wichita. “We absolutely know there is a demand for industry-standard facilities.”

Wichita submits multiple proposals for conventions to come to town every year, according to D’Angelo, and gets a lot of rejections.

“Typically what we hear is that, ‘Well, we picked this city or we picked that city,’ ” D’Angelo said. “ ‘We’ll go down to Tulsa. It fits our design better than you do,’ and part of it is because of the age of the facility, and in order to make Century II work square-footage-wise, there’s been a lot of discussion.”

What will happen

Research into the Century II issue has been ongoing since the Wichita City Council commissioned studies on it in 2013.

One of those studies, performed by Convention Sports and Leisure International, painted a dire picture for the future, warning “the current convention facilities in Wichita put the community at a competitive disadvantage,” according to a 2013 news release.

With other Midwestern cities offering newer convention spaces, the fear is that conventions will pass Wichita over for more prime space.

D’Angelo and his staff have been quietly compiling data since then, so that when the time comes for the public – and, ultimately, the City Council – to weigh in, no possibility will remain unexplored.

“We are not at this point recommending anything,” D’Angelo said. “What we’re saying is simply … that we’re going to have to do something, and what that something is is part of this community discussion, and the electeds are going to have to weigh in on it.”

Those findings are expected to be presented to the public this year – in spring, at the earliest.

“We’re close – really, really close – but there are some other pieces of the whole options issue that we have to get the answers (to),” D’Angelo said. “We’re in the final piece of looking at these financial options. A lot of it’s going to depend on some of the decisions you make down the road.”

While D’Angelo would not discuss specific costs, it’s clear this is no small project.

Massively overhauling Century II and building new would cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

A private-public partnership is a possibility, D’Angelo said, though he offered no specifics on that proposal. “That’s an option we’ve certainly talked about,” he said.

Other possibilities are a sales tax increase, a tax on entertainment, or diverting some of the hotel guest tax. Wichita currently has a 6 percent hotel guest tax that primarily goes to fund Visit Wichita.

“Could we work through all that in ’17? It might be a little ambitious,” D’Angelo said. “Not saying it can’t happen. Lots can happen.

“I don’t feel like we’re doing it right if it’s a decision you hurry into. It’s one you want to be thoughtful about. We want to have lots of different groups weigh in.”

Martha Linsner likes ambitious.

As the incoming president of the Arts Council, she said the fate of Century II will likely be one of the hottest debates in the Wichita art community this year.

“A big part of it is to be a visionary and look to the future – otherwise it comes too late,” Linsner said. “You just don’t want to be in that position. We’re all wanting our community to thrive and grow economically, and arts and culture are just a huge part of that.”

Could a new performing arts and convention center be the catalyst for a modern downtown riverfront?

If so, it could mean shedding a sentimental piece of Wichita’s past to pave the way for its future.

“People appreciate that as part of our landscape – when you look at Wichita, you see the dome, you see the Epic Center,” Linsner said. “That’s what Wichita is and has been for so many years, but we have to plan for the future, and in order to do that we have to have the right facility.

“Things that worked 50 years ago just don’t work today.”

Possibilities for Century II’s future

Here are the primary options regarding the future of Century II, ordered from least costly to most. Specific dollar amounts are unavailable, as the estimates are still being finalized. Similar projects in comparable cities have cost anywhere from $250 million to $500 million.

▪ Make major renovations to the existing facilities without adding any new space. This would improve Century II’s operating standards but likely wouldn’t bring its performing arts and convention spaces up to national standards.

▪ Retool the current Century II building as a convention center and build a separate performing arts facility elsewhere. One location that could work is the roughly block-long parking lot where the Allis Hotel once stood at Broadway and William in downtown Wichita. That’s about three blocks east of Century II.

▪ Raze Century II, build a new convention center on the same land, and build a new performing arts facility elsewhere, perhaps at the Broadway and William location. This option may include a new parking garage. D’Angelo said any plan like this would retain connections with the Hyatt Regency Wichita.

▪ Raze Century II and build a new combined performing arts and convention center on the same land. It’s possible new elevated parking could be constructed. D’Angelo said any plan like this would also retain connections with the Hyatt Regency Wichita.