Navy recruit torched new civic center

By By ROBERT SINGLETARY/Special To The Coeur d’Alene Press
| September 4, 2020 1:00 AM

In 1935 plans were underway to build a new civic center in the Coeur d’Alene City Park, replacing the 1905 dance pavilion. Construction began on March 8, 1935, and was completed in the fall of 1937.

Most of the labor was provided by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a works program for the unemployed that was created as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Civic Center was one of the largest log structures in the Pacific Northwest, using nearly five linear miles of peeled fir and tamarack. The main floor designed for large group activities and events had a seating capacity of about 2,000. There were bleachers on the sides and on one end that held about 1,800.

On the west end of the main floor was a 23×60-foot stage. In the front of the building was a two-room annex with a large fireplace. The annex on the south side of the structure was used as a kitchen.

From 1937 to 1942, a multitude of community activities were held in the Civic Center, including trade shows, weddings, basketball tournaments, art and craft shows, classes, holiday parties, political rallies, and concerts.

On March 28, 1942, just a few months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government selected the southern end of Lake Pend Oreille as the site of a new naval training station, named Farragut. By the end of 1943, Farragut was the most populated area in Idaho.

On Aug. 8, 1942, the Coeur d’Alene City Council agreed to turn the Civic Center over to the USO for the duration of the war. The main floor was used for ping-pong, badminton, volleyball, dances and large group activities. Smaller rooms were used for crafts, music and reading. One of the most populated areas was the snack bar, which took in over $80,000 during 1943.

A very unfortunate incident occurred late in the evening of Oct. 9, 1945, that brought an end to the popular USO building. A disturbed young Navy recruit by the name of William Barna started several fires in the downtown Coeur d’Alene area, including one in the USO building. By the time the fire department reached the building, the fire was out of control. By morning only a pile of debris and ashes remained.

Three days later the police arrested Barna as the person who set the USO on fire. Pleading guilty to second-degree arson, Judge O.C. Wilson sentenced William Barna to serve “not less five years, not more than 10 years at the Idaho State Prison.”

Almost immediately after the destruction of Coeur d’Alene’s beloved Civic Center, community leaders began to scramble for a temporary replacement. They decided to convert the large exhibition hall on the county fairgrounds into a gymnasium/civic center for community use.

Homer Schooler was hired as the construction foreman. Almost every organization in town gave cash donations, material or labor to the project. The former exhibit hall was named the Coeur d’Alene Sports Arena, which held its first event on Feb. 5, 1946. Three years later a modern gymnasium/auditorium was completed on the North Idaho Junior College campus.