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The Elbert Files: C.Y. Stephens magic


I was 7 years old in 1954 when Iowa State College President James Hilton came up with an idea for creating a closer bond between the school and the Ames community. 

His proposal was to build an Iowa State center that would include an auditorium, coliseum and exhibition hall. The whole thing would cost $7 million to $8 million.

It was a grand plan, and it was ever-present in the background when I grew up in Ames and graduated from Iowa State University. The center would be built on the flood plain that separated the ISU campus from the main part of Ames, where my family lived. 

In 1961, the year I entered high school, Hilton recruited C.Y. Stephens, a 1925 Iowa State dairy industry major, to lead the effort. Stephens grew up on a farm in Georgia, attended Iowa State and married a student from Marshalltown. After graduation, he moved east and opened a dairy store in the Washington, D.C., area. It grew into a chain of 265 stores in Maryland, Virginia, Tennessee and Indiana. 

Stephens pledged $1 million – the equivalent of nearly $9 million today – to the ISU project, and by 1963, when he was killed in a car accident, the 60-year-old entrepreneur had raised $4.2 million. 

In 1964, two architectural firms – Cedar Rapids-based Crites and McConnell and Des Moines-based Brooks Borg and Skiles – were hired to design the auditorium that would be named for Stephens. The collaboration produced a dramatic structure with angled sides of dark glass and concrete that would be named “Building of the Century” by the Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2004. 

Ground was broken in 1965, the year I entered ISU as a freshman; construction continued throughout my college career. During my junior year, I captured a once-in-a-lifetime view of my hometown by slipping through a fence and climbing to the top of the crane that was there to lift pieces of the auditorium into place. 

C.Y. Stephens Auditorium was completed in 1969, and plans were laid for an elaborate opening in September that would feature five performances by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra with Maestro Seiji Ozawa conducting. 

Here’s a little-remembered fact: The first performance in the new auditorium wasn’t New York’s famed orchestra. It was the Cowsills, a pop singing group, and the First Edition, a rock band that featured Kenny Rogers. The groups did one show on Saturday, Sept. 6, for ISU students, and I was in one of the 2,622 seats.

The New York Philharmonic arrived the following Monday by private jet and “completely took over the Holiday Inn” in Ames, the Des Moines Register reported. 

The orchestra’s initial concert featured works by Felix Mendelssohn, Aaron Copeland, Claude Debussy and Alberto Ginastera, prompting Des Moines Register reviewer Ogden Dwight to note that, while the performance was “flawless,” the “vacuity” of the selections “was regrettable.” 

The orchestra’s 106 musicians were treated like rock stars. During their week in Ames, they visited farms and traveled to the Amana Colonies; a 56-year-old cellist worked out with the ISU judo team, others played golf and softball. 

A shirtless, 34-year-old Ozawa was injured when a student slid into him at second base, causing him to hobble off the field and conduct from a chair that night. 

Donald Kaul, the Register’s acerbic columnist, praised both the orchestra and the hall, writing: “The building is more than an auditorium, it’s a piece of sculpture.” 

Hilton had been right in 1954. When C.Y. Stephens Auditorium opened 51 years ago, it brought the university and my hometown together in a way they had never been before.

How sad it is now that a lack of adequate funding for that magnificent building is pushing them apart.

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