Friday, February 29, 2008

A Short Pictorial History of Uline Arena

Photo courtesy of

For many years it appeared that the building would fall prey to time and the gentrification of the areas in and around Union Station. However despite being used as a depository for trash by the D.C. government( and other less than stellar purposes) several local groups are working to designated the structure as " historic." Based on this possibility developers have begun to explore ways to incorporate the original structure in a plan to design a upscale shopping and retail center. In short the building that hosted the first Beatles concert, countless hockey games and Bob Dylan will now be centered on, what else, Starbucks. (1)

Photo courtesy of

Sports was a major part of the Uline Arena. But the facility is most famous perhaps for the performers that appeared there, most notably those from some of the most important eras of rock and roll. Most people know that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show on February 9th, 1964. Their first "concert" however in America was a few days later at the Washington Coliseum ( the building was renamed in 1959). Pictured are John, Pau,l George, and Ringo on stage on the evening of 11 February and a poster advertising the event. Ultimately the group would become in the words of John Lennon, "bigger than Jesus " but at the time they were just another fledgling rock group ( they shared the bill with Tommy Roe and the Chiffons. Bob Dylan would also appear there in 1966
Photo ( s) Courtesy of The Washington Post (1877-1954). Washington, D.C.: Mar 20, 1953. p. 29 District of Columbia Department of Transportation Photo Archive/,a,1250,q,641329.asp

The first tenent and major attraction at the arena was the Washington Lions hockey team. The club played in the American Hockey League before being disbanded in the early years of WWII. Pictured here are three players from a later version of the team that played in the Eastern Hockey League (1953) and a poster advertising the club's upcoming games with Hershey and Cleveland. Hockey was the major reason the structure was built but Uncle Mike Uline also used the facility for boxing, political rallies and a host of other popular events. Uline Arena would never be mistaken for Madison Square Garden but for the residents of D.C. it was the place to see professional sports or hold the latest " America First" rally. (3)

Photo(s) courtesy of

The story of the building itself begins in of all places, Hershey Pennsylvania. In the spring of 1936, the 7,286-seat Hershey Sports Arena was constructed. It was at the time the largest monolithic structure in the United States in which not a single seat suffered from an obstructed view. Its unparalleled construction was to due to the unique and innovative use of concrete. The Sports Arena is composed of a barrel vault roof, then known as the Zeiss-Dywidag or Z-D type. The concrete shell is only 3 1/2 inches thick at the upper most part, and is stiffened at 39 foot intervals by massive two-hinged arch ribs. The roof crown is 100 feet above the floor, and the shell was constructed as five separate units, with expansion joints between each unit. In 1941 Miguel L. "Uncle Mike" Uline had started a successful ice making business. He had also purchased a hockey team, the Washington Lions, and needed a building for to them to play in. Wanting an arena much like the Hershey structure he contracted with the Lone Star Cement of company of Texas to build a similar facility. When it was done "Uline Arena" could seat close to 7,ooo fans. (4)

Photo courtesy of

The neighborhood around 3rd and M st. NE in Washington has yet to experience the urban renaissance that many areas of the Capital City have seen over the last 2 decades.. However walking up 3rd st. from Union Station one cannot help but notice a rather large building. Viewed from the street or the train tracks the structure looks like a facility that has seen better days. But the Washington Coliseum, or Unline Arena as it was originally called still stands as an enduring symbol of the fact that before the Capital Center, and MCI and Verizon Centers ever existed Washington had an arena where professional ice hockey and basketball and boxing were played on a regular basis. The building also is a stark reminder that in an earlier time professional sports was much more the province of the common man and the masses rather than the ruling classes (5)


One of the great joys in life is doing research on something you really love. I played hockey at the Washington Coliseum for most of my young adult life and being able to research the history (and potential future) of the edifice was a real joy. Finding information on the building was a breeze. Not only was the history available in places like the Historic Washington Post data base, but there was also a wealth of photos, not only from newspapers but from other credible sources such as photo archive of the D.C. Department of Historic Preservation and many other websites that deal with the history of the Capital City. In addition, finding information on many of the original teams that played there, such as the Washington Lion’s hockey club, was a snap due to the myriad sites on the web that focus on obscure teams from the past.

Another reason that finding information on the topic was so easy was that so many unique and interesting events occurred at the place. Even today, the Beatles (despite their lineage) remain a true American phenomenon. Due to the group’s popularity, I was able to locate any number of websites that cataloged memorabilia from just about every concert they gave in the U. S. These sites had tons of information, including pictures, that made the job of telling the Beatles portion of the story quite easy.

Finally, buildings like people have a past, present, and future. One of the best things about this project was I was able to find out a great deal about Uline Arena’s past but to also learn what the future holds for the building. There turned out to be a wealth of urban planning designs and proposals regarding the place that made my attempts to impart the “What’s happening now” part of the story very easy to accomplish.

In short, this project was fun.

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