The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium was a public works project to replace an aging civic auditorium (Buffalo Broadway Auditorium c. 1858, now a highway department garage known as the "Broadway Barns") and Fort Erie's recently collapsed Peace Bridge Arena. In June 1938, city officials sent a loan and grant application to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) for funds to build the structure. The approval of the $1.2 million grant was announced in Washington, D.C. on October 7, 1938. Construction at the junction of the Erie Canal and Main-Hamburg Canal began on November 30, 1939.
The Auditorium's construction brought a great deal of activity to downtown Buffalo. On December 31, 1939, Buffalo Evening News reporter Nat Gorham wrote:
As if overnight the Terrace once more is coming back to life. The massive new hall will be the mainstay, but city planners also want to improve the section with a boulevard in the old canal bend, waterfront parks and relocation, if not removal, of the New York Central tracks. Visible proof of these good intentions is construction of the new hall, which is being watched daily by hundreds of citizens.
Built for $2,700,000, Memorial Auditorium's grand opening celebration took place on October 14, 1940. The dedication event was a luncheon attended by 3,000 people, including the mayors of more than 60 local communities. The arena originally seated 12,280 for ice hockey, with an additional 2,000-3,000 seats in the floor area for basketball and other events. Memorial Auditorium's first event—a rally for Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Wilke—took place on October 14, 1940. In its first seven months, Auditorium events such as auto shows, roller skating, circuses and dog shows drew nearly one million spectators and the first year's attendance was 1.3 million.
An $8.7 million (approximately $51.4 million in 2017 dollars) renovation took place after the 1970–71 inauguration of the Sabres and Braves franchises. The arena's roof was raised 24 feet (7.3 m) to make room for an upper level that increased the arena's capacity from 10,449 for hockey to over 17,000 for basketball and 15,360 for hockey in 1971–72, to 15,668 for hockey in 1972–73, and to 15,858 for hockey in 1973–74, making it a more suitable home for the NBA and NHL.
Other changes to the Aud's original design included:A new scoreboard which would be the Aud's final scoreboard upgrade.
A new upper level with stairways, escalators and upper exits.
Repainted and replaced seats. The original gray seats at the top of the lower bowl were painted blue, and all seats in the lower sections were replaced with cushioned seats in the Red and Gold sections.
The removal of exit tunnels in Red sections 6, 7, 14, 15, 22, 23, 30 and 31, and Blue sections 2, 3, 10, 11, 18, 19, 26, 27, 34 and 35. The areas the tunnels occupied were replaced with seats, and the continuous wall that separated the red and blue sections was opened at each stairway.
The removed exit tunnel openings in the wall that separated the red and upper gold sections were closed into a continuous wall between the remaining red exit tunnels.
The Aud's seats were mostly made of white ash, but the gold seats were converted to padded cushion seats. From top to bottom (floor level), the seating colors went orange, blue (originally grey), red and gold.
In 1974, the city added five seats, increasing capacity for hockey in the 1974–1975 season to 15,863. After the hockey season, the city removed the walls and aisle that separated the upper gold and red seating sections. The 570 gold seats the city installed in the vacant space raised the arena's capacity to 16,433 for hockey and over 18,000 for basketball.
In the late 1980s, the Buffalo Common Council and mayor James D. Griffin scaled back plans to renovate the Aud when the Sabres owners (the Knox family) made it clear the franchise's long-term viability depended upon a new arena. A compromise led the city to agree to build a new arena (now known as KeyBank Center) and complete a renovation to keep the Aud functional until the arena was complete. The 1990 renovation added designated handicap-accessible seating areas (lowering the seating capacity to 16,325 for hockey) and new air conditioning and elevators. The money borrowed for these improvements was not repaid until 2001, five years after the Aud closed.
At the time of its closing in 1996, the Aud's concessions included The Aud Club, a sports bar; BBQ Pit, a sports bar and restaurant; and Sport Service bar.
The Aud closed in 1996, at which time the Sabres, Bandits and Blizzard moved to the nearby Marine Midland Arena (now KeyBank Center). After 1996, the building remained closed, although members of Buffalo's Studio Arena Theatre used the floor as a surface for painting backgrounds. During the 2001–02 season, Sabres officials and the city moved items from the Aud's main concourse to the KeyBank Center, including a sign for the "Pour Man's Aud Club" which was reincarnated by popular demand.
In 2003, the Sabres filmed a 30-minute infomercial inside the Aud to promote season ticket sales. While the production showed the arena was intact, it was without utilities and the crew had to supply all light and electrical sources.
The Aud continued to deteriorate after the 2003 production visit. Water pipes ruptured, moisture began to take its toll and the city's lax monitoring led to graffiti, vandalism and theft of many artifacts. A segment aired during the CBC Television Hockey Night in Canada broadcast of the 2008 NHL Winter Classic showed the arena's seating bowl and floor were virtually untouched. Notably, the advertisements on the boards from the final Sabres game in 1996 against the Hartford Whalers and the scoreboard above center ice remained.
Plans to renovate the Aud and repurpose it as a Bass Pro Shops store were abandoned on March 29, 2007 when Bass Pro announced it would construct a new building on the site after the auditorium's demolition.
In December 2007, the city sold the Aud to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation for $1 in hopes it would lead to asbestos removal and demolition. All salvageable items were to be removed and sold or stored. The sales of these artifacts, especially of seats, would help pay for a memorial to the Aud. The salvaged items include art deco flag holders, limestone eagles, a time capsule as well as a number of blue and orange level seats, which were sold at auction.
The city also salvaged ten cylindrical stainless steel "ice tanks" that helped maintain chilly conditions at ice level during hockey season and cooled spectators during warmer weather. In 2007, the city moved the ice tanks to Shea's Performing Arts Center as part of a $1.5 million overhaul of the landmark theater's heating and cooling system.
Asbestos removal and other environmental remediation took place in late 2008 and major demolition of the Aud began in January 2009. On February 9, 2009, the "Buffalo Memorial Auditorium" entablature above the main entrance fell and much of the front façade met the same fate shortly after. The entire demolition was expected to cost $10 million. The formal "Farewell Buffalo Memorial Auditorium Ceremony" took place on June 30, 2009 at 1:30pm when officials opened the copper box time capsule. The structure's final pieces came down in early July 2009.
In February 2010, less than three years after the plans to repurpose the Aud as a Bass Pro Shops store, Bass Pro announced it was no longer pursuing a superstore in Buffalo, a decision which left the site vacant.
After the Bass Pro Shops decision, the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation began to convert the site (known as the Aud Block) into an extension of Erie Canal Harbor with the junction of the old Erie Canal and Main-Hamburg Canal re-dug (although shallower than the original canals) and new bridges. The canals that opened in 2014 are frozen for skating and other winter activities by an underground refrigerant plant housed in a rebuilt sub-basement that was part of Memorial Auditorium. In addition, a marker on the canal ice denotes center ice's former location.
Across Main Street at HarborCenter is the one-of-a-kind Tim Hortons restaurant with a memorial to the Auditorium. A statue of the chain's namesake, who played at the arena during his time with the Buffalo Sabres, occupies the corner of the site facing the restaurant.
Before the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League came to Buffalo, college basketball was Memorial Auditorium's most popular sporting event. On December 11, 1940, the Auditorium hosted its first college basketball game when Canisius College played the University of Oregon. Interest in college basketball grew after World War II, and the first college basketball sellout crowd occurred in the 1946–1947 season when 11,029 spectators saw Canisius lose to Notre Dame. Ten days later, a record 11,891 watched Canisius defeat Niagara, 52-44.
While the teams were typically from Western New York, including Canisius, Niagara University, St. Bonaventure University, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College, other teams such as Cornell University took part. Over time, the rivalry among the "Little Three" colleges—Niagara, Canisius, and St. Bonaventure—came to dominate the Auditorium's college basketball schedule. Throughout the 1950s, the three schools were all national powers, and their games at Memorial Auditorium drew strong local and national interest.The Auditorium hosted the men's Division I ECAC Upstate Region Tournament organized by the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) in 1975.
In 1991, a visit from Buffalo native Christian Laettner and national champion Duke University Blue Devils drew an Aud collegiate-record crowd of 16,279.
A 1996 Buffalo News article named Memorial Auditorium's all-time all-visitors team: Ed Macauley (Saint Louis University), Tom Gola (La Salle University), Tom Heinsohn (College of the Holy Cross), Jerry West (West Virginia University), Willie Somerset (Duquesne University), Dave Bing (Syracuse University), Sonny Dove (St. John's University) and Bob Lanier (St. Bonaventure University).
The National Basketball League's Buffalo Bisons was the first professional basketball franchise to call Memorial Auditorium home. The team featured center Don Otten and coach Nat Hickey, but on December 27, 1946—only 13 games into their inaugural season—owner Ben Kerner moved them to Moline, Illinois. After the 1949 merger of the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America and stops in Milwaukee and St. Louis, the team became the Atlanta Hawks.
Professional basketball returned to the Aud in 1970 with the National Basketball Association's Buffalo Braves. The Braves moved to San Diego in 1978 and then to Los Angeles in 1984, where they are now the Los Angeles Clippers.
College hockey made its modern debut at Memorial Auditorium on January 23, 1972, when the University at Buffalo Bulls met the Central Collegiate Hockey Association's Ohio State University. Ohio State won the game 5-2.
The American Hockey League's Buffalo Bisons played 30 seasons at the Memorial Auditorium, beginning with the 1940–41 season. The Bisons won five Calder Cup championships, with the last coming in 1970 during the franchise's final game. The team folded in 1970 after the National Hockey League awarded Buffalo an expansion team.
On May 15, 1973, the Cincinnati Swords, then the Sabres' AHL affiliate, played the final game of the 1973 Calder Cup Finals at the Auditorium. The Swords won the Calder Cup with a 5–1 win over the Nova Scotia Voyageurs in front of 15,019 fans—the largest playoff crowd in AHL history at the time. The Rochester Americans also played several games at the Aud after they became the Sabres' affiliate, including several during their 1987 Calder Cup championship season.
The Buffalo Sabres made their Memorial Auditorium debut on October 15, 1970 in a game attended by NHL President Clarence Campbell that began with a ceremonial faceoff between Sabres captain Floyd Smith and Montreal Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau. The Sabres' Roger Crozier made 53 saves in a 3-0 loss.
The Sabres occupied the Auditorium through the 1995–96 season, when they moved to the nearby Marine Midland Arena. Michael Peca scored the last in-game goal at the Aud while Pat LaFontaine put in a ceremonial goal after the 4–1 win over the Hartford Whalers. It was the last arena where the ice sheet fell short of the league-mandated 200 feet by 85 feet size (though Maple Leaf Gardens had irregularly shaped corners).
Memorial Auditorium hosted the 1978 NHL All-Star Game on January 24, 1978. Two members of the Sabres' "French Connection" line—Gilbert Perreault and Rick Martin—played for the Wales Conference. Both had a significant impact: Martin scored a goal with 1:39 remaining in regulation to tie the game at 2–2 and force overtime, and Perreault scored the game-winning goal 3:55 into overtime to defeat the Campbell Conference 3–2.
The Edmonton Oilers' Wayne Gretzky made NHL history at the Aud on February 24, 1982, when he scored a natural hat trick during the game's final seven minutes to help defeat the Sabres 6–3. Gretzky broke Phil Esposito's record for goals in a season (76) with the hat trick's first goal, his 77th of the season. In March 2009, Gretzky visited Buffalo as the Phoenix Coyotes' head coach and recounted his memories of Memorial Auditorium in an interview with Buffalo News hockey reporter Mike Harrington:
As much as the 77th goal was exciting for me as a NHL player, I think the biggest thrill was watching Gilbert Perreault play. I’d come down to the Aud with my dad or a friend and watch the Sabres play with the French Connection line...There was a great atmosphere in this building, it was always a hockey atmosphere, and it was always fun to watch the Sabres play.
On January 4, 1976, the Sabres played Krylia Sovietov as part of a "Super Series" between the Soviet Union's two best club teams—CSKA Moscow and Krylia Sovietov (named "Red Army" and "Soviet Wings" respectively, during the series) and eight of the NHL's top teams. The Sabres’ 12-6 victory over the 1974 Soviet league and European Cup champions was the worst defeat ever for a professional Soviet hockey club.
During the 1960s, the Aud regularly hosted professional wrestling on Friday nights. WBEN-TV broadcast the bouts at 6:00pm on the weekend.
The Major Indoor Lacrosse League Buffalo Bandits played in the Aud from the 1992 season until the arena's closure. Winners of the MILL title in 1992 and 1993, the Bandits are now a member of the National Lacrosse League, playing at First Niagara Center.
Major Soccer League's Buffalo Stallions attracted 11,028 to its home debut at the Aud against the Philadelphia Fever on December 7, 1979 and played in the Aud until 1984. The Aud also hosted the second National Professional Soccer League's Buffalo Blizzard from 1992 to 1996.
Roller Hockey International's Buffalo Stampede called the Aud home from 1994–1995.
In 1974, World Team Tennis' Buffalo/Toronto Royals called the Aud home for one season.
In addition to sporting events, the auditorium hosted concerts by many famous artists: The Rolling Stones performed in the Memorial Auditorium on June 28, 1966.Elvis Presley began his first tour of 1972 on April 5 to a sell-out crowd of 17,360.
Pink Floyd's June 1973 concert featured a special effects repertoire purported to have cost $250,000.
Led Zeppelin played nearly three hours without a break before a sell-out crowd on July 15, 1973.
The Bee Gees played to a sold-out crowd here on September 14, 1979 during their Spirits Having Flown Tour.
The Who performed on December 4, 1979, one night after 11 fans were killed in a crowd crush at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum. The band dedicated their performance to those who died the previous night.
Frank Zappa's album, Buffalo, was recorded at the Auditorium on October 25, 1980.
The Jacksons performed at Memorial Auditorium on August 2, 1981, during their Triumph Tour.
The Police's Synchronicity Tour visited the Aud on February 22, 1984.
U2 performed in October 1987.
AC/DC's final visit to the Aud came on August 3, 1996 as part of their Ballbreaker World Tour.
On April 24, 1982, The Price is Right host Bob Barker brought The Bob Barker Fun and Games Show to Buffalo.