AUGUSTA, Maine — No one would call it a beautiful or elegant building. It sits close to the Interstate, separated from the street by a variety of business and office buildings, a hotel, and an expansive parking lot.
But while the Augusta Civic Center may not be a landmark from a design standpoint, it is highly functional, does exactly what it was built to do, and has been one of Maine’s most significant buildings for fifty years.
It was January 1973 when the civic center opened. It was built by the City of Augusta in part to boost the local economy. In the years since, retail stores, office buildings, restaurants, and hotels have grown up around it, both because of available land and to take advantage of some of the crowds that head to the civic center nearly every week.
"It's become part of the fabric of Augusta. I don’t remember Augusta without a civic center," Margaret Noel, the current director of the facility, said.
Noel said she was just a small child when the building opened, but the civic center has touched her own life in many ways.
"This place has great memories. I graduated here... I grew up in Augusta. I’ve gone to concerts here—saw my first rock concert."
Memories play a big part in the celebration of the civic center’s 50th birthday, which began with an anniversary party last week. City officials joined current and former civic center staff and other residents for the event. They entered the specially-decorated main auditorium, with dozens of easels holding photos of concerts and other events from the past half-century.
More special events are being planned for the rest of this year.
For tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Mainers, the Augusta Civic Center may be best known for hosting the annual high school basketball tournaments, when championship games will fill the bleachers to the brim.
But over the years there have been many other events, from the annual ones, like the Agriculture Trade Show and the Maine Sportsmen’s Show, to those that happen every four years—the inauguration of Maine governors.
That tradition began in 1975 when the newly-elected Jim Longley was sworn in before a crowd of thousands at the nearly-new civic center. Every Maine governor since then has held their inauguration in the same place.
Politicians also used the civic center in a time of crisis, as the whole Maine State Legislature moved its sessions to the building during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to allow more distance between people.
Political conventions, business groups, government conferences, graduations, weddings, and all sorts of other events have been held in the building.
All of those create memories, but aside from basketball, the most vivid memories are surely from the hundreds of concerts that have been held inside.
"We’ve had Bob Hope, Chubby Checker, Fats Domino, Arthur Fiedler, and the Boston Pops, Liberace, Glenn Campbell, hundreds," Noel said, mentioning some of the performers from an earlier era.
More recently there have been rock bands such as Phish, and years earlier, the Grateful Dead drew what some considered similar crowds.
No concert, however, assumed the legendary status of the one in May 1977, when Elvis came to the civic center.
Noel said one of her earliest memories of the building was standing with her father to buy Elvis tickets. It would be his only performance in Maine. The King of Rock and Roll died three months later.
"My mom actually kept her ticket stub in her wallet. For the rest of her life it stayed there," Noel recalled.
Lots of those memories are being recalled as the birthday celebration begins, for a project Noel said could have failed, but instead has been a great success.
"We want to just take a moment and say hey, everybody, these visionaries 50 years ago—look at what we’ve done."