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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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FIVE FLAGS CIVIC CENTER. The Five Flags Center was a multipurpose facility in downtown Dubuque named for the five flags that once flew over Dubuque; the Fleur de Lis of France (1673–1763), the Royal Flag of Spain (1763–1803), the Union Jack of Great Britain (1780, during a brief interruption of Spanish rule), the French Republic Flag of Napoleon (1803) and America's Stars and Stripes (1803–Present).

Known as the MAJESTIC THEATRE, the existing theater was designed and built in 1910 by C.W. and George L. Rapp of Chicago, who went on to become America's premier theater architects. From 1929 to 1933 it was owned and operated by prominent local businessman Harker Brentnal SPENSLEY, Sr. Spensley, who was the president and manager, named the theater "The Spensley." Four years later, it became part of the RKO film theater circuit and was renamed the RKO ORPHEUM. By 1969 the building had fallen into disrepair and was scheduled for demolition during URBAN RENEWAL.

A Five Flags Council comprised of 120 Dubuque civic leaders was announced in January, 1972. On February 29, 1972 the "Five Flags Spring Gala was held at the Orpheum. The event featuring the Roshek style show was used to kick-off the community teams' division of the Five Flags Civic Center Campaign. A community-wide solicitation was begun in March. By December, 1972 Wayne Andrew NORMAN, Sr. could announce that the fund drive had reached about 55% of its goal. Helping fundraising efforts was the designation that year of the Orpheum to the NATIONAL REGISTER OF HISTORIC PLACES. Sufficient resources had been gathered to plan in 1973 for the hiring of an architectural firm, make a bid for federal restoration funds, and seek federal money for the a multi-media exhibit. (1)

Proposals to aid were presented to Iowa Governor Robert Ray; Murray Goodman, Iowa Director of the American Bicentennial Commission (ARBC); and Del Black, regional director of ARBC. Each endorsed the idea, but offered no money. In February, 1973 a delegation including Wayne Norman, Five Flags chairman; Mayor Joseph BITTER, a county supervisor and 24 Five Flags committeemen flew to Washington, D.C. On their invitation list to see a presentation about the project were the entire Iowa congressional delegation, officials from Housing and Urban Development, representatives from the departments of Interior, Health, Education and Welfare, National Trust for Historic Preservation, ARBC, and the Bureau of Parks and Recreation. Their theme was a multi-media theater would depict the development of the Upper Midwest and its importance to the nation beginning with the adventures of Jean Marie CARDINAL. According to their plan, the entire center in 1976 would be devoted to the bicentennial with frontier exhibits, multi-media theater, and perhaps a commissioned play. After that, the center would serve the tri-states. Their appeal was for $1.4 million--two-thirds of the $2.1 million need to refurbish the Orpheum and construct the civic center. (2)

A smaller delegation presented the city's proposal to the Federal Regional Council meeting in Kansas City, Missouri in November, 1973. Helping the city was its recent designation as a national bicentennial city. Hopes were to receive part of $749,000 anticipated in federal funding. (3)

Thoughts of federal financial assistance were dashed in April, 1974 when the Iowa Bicentennial Commission voted 12-8 to designate the Living History Farms near Des Moines as Iowa's official meeting house instead of Five Flags or the Old Capitol restoration project in Iowa City. This prevented Five Flags from receiving $1 million in federal funds. (4) In September, 1974 a $2.5 million Five Flags-Ice Rink referendum was defeated by local voters. (5) A 'town hall' meeting was scheduled for January 9, 1975 to determine the future of the project. Invitations were sent to the Five Flags Council of approximately 150 people and to the 400 people who had contributed money. It was hoped a recommendation could be written. The city council had asked to meet with the Five Flags Committee. (6)

Private funding reached $800,000 in September, 1975. The sale of a 1976 postcard book and stationery featuring the work of local artist Mrs. Laura Foster was hoped to bring in an additional $8,000. (7)

Construction began in 1976, and the facility had its grand opening on March 24, 1979. The $3.7 million complex wrapped around the theater and extended north between Locust and Main STREETS.

The arena could seat up to 5,200 for basketball, although in its primary use, ice hockey, actual seating capacity was only about 2,500. The creation of the floor began with a two-inch thick mat of styrofoam to insulate the floor above. Supported above the styrofoam were 9.1 miles of piping that carried 1,300 gallons of ethylene glycol solution cooled to 15 degrees F. That temperature seeped through the concrete to freeze the water into ice. Twenty tons of steel reinforcing bars stretching 11.3 miles crisscrossed above the piping. To make the actual floor, 1 million pounds of concrete was pumped through heavy hoses on top of the steel grates. Crews then worked the concrete between the grates and over the pipes. Smoothing the top to within one-eighth inch of perfection was made possible by a laser marker. Curing the concrete took two days since it was submerged under a thin coat of water to slow the process and avoid cracking. (8)

The ice hockey rink was made in four layers. The bottom one-quarter-inch layer of ice was painted white after it froze to give the ice its color. Placed on a higher layer of ice were the hockey lines and other markers. A total of four layers of ice were created with 9,588 gallons of water. (9)

The area featured one side of permanent seating; the other three sides were bleachers, some for LORAS COLLEGE basketball, and most of Dubuque's major concerts.

High school graduation ceremonies for STEPHEN HEMPSTEAD HIGH SCHOOL and DUBUQUE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL were regularly held at the center.

The Five Flags Center was the main convention center in Dubuque. The Center featured a large exhibition hall with seating capacity of 4,700. The hall could be converted for use as an ice hockey rink with the removal of an insulated floor laid over the ice. It was the former home of the DUBUQUE FIGHTING SAINTS (1980-2001) of the United States Hockey League from 1980–2001 and the home of the Dubuque Thunderbirds hockey team of the Central States Hockey League from 2001–2010.

Construction of other venues impacted the use of the Center. In 2003 the building of the Grand River Event Center moved many events away from Five Flags. The MYSTIQUE COMMUNITY ICE CENTER hosted the expansion Dubuque Fighting Saints.

SMG took over operations of the arena in 2004, which were formerly handled by the City of Dubuque.

In 2005, the arena was closed during the summer for concession, entrance, and concourse renovation.

By 2015 the size and age of the building was beginning to limit efforts to bring in additional revenue. Its 4,000 person seating capacity prevented attracting major performers and sporting events. The 34-foot ceiling made it difficult to accommodate modern productions with rigging, lighting and other equipment. For the 2015 fiscal year, gross revenues fell 7.8 percent while expenses remained flat. Over $10 million in tax funds were spent on Five Flags from 2002 to 2015. The city subsidized operations in recent years with more than $800,000 annually. (10)

In 2016 the city council approved $50,000 for a building and market evaluation to identify better uses for the facility. The management company for Five Flags, SMG Worldwide Entertainment and Convention Venue Management, contributed $30,000 to the study with $70,000 to lessen show losses to performances that might bypass the city. (11)

In December 2016 the members of the city council were asked to approve a request for proposals (RFP) prepared by a steering committee of city and economic development officials to determine the future of the building. A consultant would be asked to consider five proposals including demolishing the building (but not the ORPHEUM, leasing or selling the center to a private business, renovating the current building, expanding the building as it now exists, or relocating the Center. H. R. Cook, the facility general manager, estimated the Center had an economic impact of the city of $2-5 million. Since city officials did not have more exact figures, this would be part of the study. The consultant's work was scheduled to be done in July with council members given recommendations in August. (12)



1. "Action Line," Telegraph-Herald, March 10, 1972, p. 3

2. Miller, Jim. "Restoring Theater Would Enhance Heritage," Telegraph-Herald, January 14, 1971, p. 13

3. "Civic Center Donor Told," Telegraph-Herald, January 18, 1971, p. 10

4. Bulkley, John. "Advisory Unit Maps '72 Plans," Telegraph-Herald, November 24, 1971, p. 4

5. "Culver Looks to Orpheum Aid," Telegraph-Herald, October 31, 1971, p. 8

6. Ibid.

7. "Local Artist Lends Paintings to Civic Center Fund-Raiser," Telegraph Herald, September 25, 1975, p. 7

8. Freund, Bob. "The Ice Man Cometh to Five Flags, but First..." Telegraph Herald, Dec. 19, 1978, p. 1

9. Ibid.

10. "Five Flags Struggles to Add Revenue," Telegraph Herald, November 29, 2015, p. 1

11. Ibid., p. 2

12. Jacobson, Ben. "Five Flags' Fate: Demolition a Possibility," Telegraph Herald, December 5, 2016, p. 1