I was wondering if, in the spirit of Pensacola becoming the “live music Mecca” it is again destined to be, could The Public Record do an article remembering the Bayfront Auditorium?
The red brick building that sat at the foot of Palafox Street for 50 years was first known as the Pensacola Municipal Auditorium. It was a mid-size venue built by the City of Pensacola to accommodate events such as concerts, dances and church meetings.
Planning for the new entertainment spot overlooking Pensacola Bay started in the early 1950s. Following construction that cost the city $820,000, the auditorium first opened its doors on Feb. 8, 1955. The inaugural performance came from the Pensacola High School band, which played the dedication ceremony.
Throughout the years, the 3,000-seat venue hosted a wide array of concerts and events. Some of the more memorable musical acts include Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull, No Doubt, Widespread Panic and the Foo Fighters. The attendance record was set by Charley Pride, whose 1971 concert filled the building to capacity. In addition, Roy Jones, Jr. notched his first professional boxing win in the arena by knocking out Ricky Randall in 1989.
Despite its benefit to the community, the auditorium received heavy criticism right from the start. Local organizations complained that the cost of renting the building was too high, while musicians griped over bad acoustics and a problematic air conditioning system. They all agreed that parking was an issue.
It wasn’t long before the venue was losing more money than it was taking in. In 1976, the city spent $75,000 to modernize the building in hopes of targeting convention business. In 1988, the name was changed to the Bayfront Auditorium, but nothing could save the failing giant. Towards the end, the auditorium was costing the city over $100,000 per year.
In 2004, the Pensacola City Council voted to demolish the building. The auditorium found a short reprieve when demolition was halted by a voter referendum. But in the end, Mother Nature made the decision for everyone. The storm surge resulting from Hurricane Ivan caused major damage to the structure. City officials estimated the cost of repairing the building at over a million dollars. When FEMA offered to pay the $561,000 cost of demolition, the city had no choice and the area was leveled in 2005.
Luckily, every dark municipal cloud has a silver lining. In this case, rubble from the auditorium was used as artificial reef material and items such as bricks and chairs were sold at auction to support local charities. Lastly, the razing of the Bayfront Auditorium made way for Plaza de Luna—a two-acre park that continues the tradition of preserving the waterfront for community enjoyment.