With the WPA putting up 65 percent of construction costs and providing the labor, work was begun on the auditorium in 1936. It hosted some events before its completion but wasn’t fully open until 1938.
It became the USO-Civic Auditorium in 1942 when military officials and USO personnel approached the city about providing off-base entertainment services for the “boots” at the new Farragut Naval Training Station (FNTS), and smaller military facilities in the area. The United Service Organization (USO), a non-profit dedicated to providing entertainment to US troops, took over the operation of the building with the understanding that it would be returned to the City of Coeur d’Alene when it was no longer needed as a USO.
The beautiful log building (pictured) was in a city park adjacent to Lake Coeur d’Alene. Service members could enjoy the beach, weather permitting, and take part in dances, play ping pong, see movies, and just enjoy a little free time. More than 2,000 sailors a day visited the USO during its peak.
On October 9, 1945, a 17-year-old recruit from Farragut boarded a bus with fellow boots for a little R and R in town. William Barna, from New Jersey, had been at FNTS only three weeks. A 6th-grade drop-out, Barna had no explanation for his actions that night. What he did was methodically tear stuffing from the upholstery in three cars in preparation for lighting them on fire. Then, he went into the USO and surreptitiously unlocked a back door so he could get back in after the building was closed for the night. When the patrons and staff were gone, Barna entered through the door and began pulling down curtains. He piled them on the floor along with wads of paper, and set it all on fire.
The three cars and the log USO-Civic Auditorium went up in flames, a devastating loss to the community.
Barna was convicted of second-degree arson and given 5 to 10 years in the state prison. He served only four years before being released in 1949.
Much of the material for this post was taken from an article written by Don Pischner in the summer 2012 edition of the Museum of Northern Idaho’s newsletter.