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Green Meets Grandeur: Rehabbing an Illinois State Fair Building

Springfield Coliseum building renovation
Photo: Bailey Edward

Every year, thousands of visitors flock to Springfield, the heart of the Land of Lincoln, to see Lincoln’s stomping grounds. But thousands more visit the city for another reason: to attend the Illinois State Fair each summer. One of the Fair’s key structures, the Coliseum, was designed for prizewinning ponies as much as for people. It recently was treated to a major renovation that focused on safety and sustainability while honoring its illustrious past.

The entire State Fairground complex has been named a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. Constructed at the turn of the last century, the three-tiered Coliseum was one of the first of its kind. Its 2700-seat arena has hosted everything from horse shows and goat auctions to rock concerts and vaudeville shows; even a Democratic Party rally in 1962, where another famous president, Kennedy, gave a speech. Over the years, the amphitheater underwent numerous modifications, like filling in its original arched entryways with wood, then glazed block. But in 2016 it was deemed structurally unsound, and the Coliseum went dark.

A wholesale upgrade of the 60,000-square-foot building was called for. In spring 2018, the rehabilitation team, led by Bailey Edward architects and engineers, faced multiple challenges. Although the roof had been replaced before, the leaky roof and deck were in dire need of repair. Poor air circulation plagued the interior. The fix had to modernize the aging Coliseum and optimize energy efficiency, while at the same time maintaining its historic flair. The comfort of both people and animals had to be taken into account. Not only that, but construction had to be completed by opening day of the 2019 State Fair.

The team came up with a roof redesign that included a layer of thermal insulation to protect fairgoers from temperature extremes. Adjustable roof vents, controlled electronically, were added to enhance ventilation. After the roof design was blessed by the State Historic Preservation Officer, it was literally all hands on deck. Shingles and deteriorating wooden support beams were replaced one by one. Steel columns were shored up and repainted.

Throughout the arena, old light fixtures were changed out with LED lamps. On the second level, each of the 250 windows was substituted with an energy-friendly window. The amount of incoming daylight can be varied via new remote-controlled window blinds that help cut down on heat, and avoid spooking show horses with too much bright light when they first parade into the ring.

Two giant 24-foot overhead fans, plus 21 smaller ones, were installed to keep indoor air moving, in conjunction with the roof louvers. This passive ventilation system obviates the need for costly air conditioning. Carbon dioxide sensors keep track of air quality. 

Despite drawbacks like an unusually rainy season, the renovation reached the finish line just in time for Governor Pritzker to cut the ribbon to kick off the 2019 State Fair. And the structure now sports a new name, the Coliseum of Champions, thanks to a suggestion by local 4-H students.


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