EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the current Corn Palace building, which opened in 1921.
The new Corn Palace was a modern marvel, one of the largest auditoriums in the country at the time it opened.
In fact, it was hard to hear some bad news about the building. Literally.
In May 1922, when the new building had been opened for less than a year, Mitchell city officials discovered the $200,000 Palace had poor acoustics, making it hard to hear speakers or bands that were playing in the building. Reviews called the acoustics “faulty” and “less than satisfactory.” Not only did the audience have a hard time hearing, but performers had to strain to carry their voices as well.
In retrospect, the audio issues were tough to solve at the time with limited technology. There was an electric magnavox amplifier that was used during the February 1922 performance of The Mikado, a comic opera that was supposed to make every voice clearly heard but didn’t. During the Mitchell Automobile Show later in 1922, a radiophone was used to transmit the audio to the balcony of the building, but it was reported there was too much static in the atmosphere that made it difficult for those sitting there to hear music and speeches. (As an idea of where audio technology was in 1922, commercial radio technology was just barely taking off, with the first AM broadcast occurring in 1921.)
Mitchell Mayor Earl Victor Bobb, or E.V. as he was known at the time, took on the task of figuring out what was wrong with the building. He found quickly that the problem was in the 19,000 square feet of exposed roof space in the building when it was built, with sound bouncing around the exposed steel girders of the roof. Bobb had contacted other cities with buildings like the Palace and found they had the same problems and fixed that by closing off the roof with a ceiling.
Bobb, an ear, nose and throat doctor by trade, had some experience with helping solve the Palace’s problems. He was on the Palace’s building committee when it was constructed and had helped solve a problem in the previous year. In February 1921, a “strata of quick sand” was discovered about 6 feet below the surface of Main Street, which was about to where the heavy concrete footings for the walls of the building were supposed to reach.
The construction crew from Sugarman Construction from Des Moines, Iowa, found the quick sand just below the base of where the footings were supposed to end. To fix it, crews installed sheet pilings through the sand and down to a blue clay base below. As city engineer Frank Henson told The Mitchell Evening Republican, the building was “too large a building to take any chances with.”
In June, the Mitchell City Council considered what to do with the ceiling. One idea was to have a wood ceiling with a covering of inch-thick felt, but the price was too high. Instead, they contracted with local man Charles Darms to build the ceiling, with the goal of having the work done in time for the Corn Palace Festival in the fall. Darms used half-inch sections of insulite, a new product developed in the 10 years prior, which was a type of insulation built with paper and wood products.
The roof was tinted in a light shade of brown and finished by the end of August, in time for the Corn Palace Festival, which had a musical revue, the quartet from the Chicago Grand Opera and a singing comedian performed.