CY Stephens - Iowa Building of the 20th Century

C.Y. Stephens Auditorium in Ames has a unique design, especially created to enhance the experience of those who attend events there. It is this unique design that lead to it being selected by the Iowa Chapter of the American Institute of Architects as the Iowa "Building of the Century."


Hello, I’m Morgan Halgren. Thanks for joining us for another edition of "living in Iowa." When the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects set out to identify the most significant Iowa buildings of the 20th century, it became clear that despite low-profiled skylines and an abundance of small towns, Iowa is home to an amazing array of architectural gems. Among those, one structure emerged as the overall winner and earned the title of building of the century. Take a look. In October of 2004, the Iowa chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the AIA, celebrated their organization's 100th anniversary. They decided that the best way to celebrate this milestone was to make a list of the best, most architecturally significant buildings built in Iowa during the twentieth century. They collected nominations and then a committee narrowed the list down and took it to a panel of jurors. The jurors chose 50 buildings, five per decade, as finalists. Finalists had to be more than just photogenic; they had to have a unique background.

Well, I think what we were looking for were buildings that achieved excellence for their time. That would be one mark of significance. Another would be that they had a significant cultural impact on their community or on the state. In a few cases, hey were both examples of excellence and had significant cultural impact.

The jury continued narrowing down the list until they named one building "the building of the century." That building, decided by a jury of two architects and three nonarchitects, is C.Y. Stephens auditorium in Ames.


The Stephens auditorium is one of the nicest things that ever happened to Iowa. It's just a great place to walk into.


C.Y. Stephens auditorium is one of my favorite performance halls with, again, the roof that welcomes you, beckons you, keeps it grounded, yet sort of soars at the same time.

My personal response to that building is that it has a quality of elegance through the use of materials that in some of them seem surprising. Rough concrete and getting an elegant appearance out of rough concrete I think is a feat, and it has been done very nicely.

C.Y. Stephens was the first of four buildings conceived of as the Iowa State Center. The others were fisher theater for small stage productions, the Scheman Building for continuing education, and Hilton Coliseum for indoor sports and large concerts. C.Y. Stephens was built for musical and theatrical performances. Teams of Iowa architects from different firms and specialties worked on the building, led by Crites & McConnell from Cedar Rapids and Brooks Borg Skiles from Des Moines. A California company, Paul Veneklasen and associates, were the acoustical consultants, and they used cutting-edge techniques to test the sounds.

Howard Heemstra worked with Crites & McConnell in the design of that auditorium, and he tells the story of how, in designing the space for acoustics, they used a way of projecting light beams and you could tell how the sounds were going to be reflected. I guess it would be the locations of the sounds, how they would be reflected in the auditorium. So that was an aspect of the design of the auditorium space.

I think that the auditorium, the house, the stage, it's as good as any. I've been in the Paris opera house. I've been all over the damn world, and it's as good as any of them.

At its completion in 1969, the building was already considered an architectural treasure. ISU College of Design students were told to sit in the building's shadow and study the design.

You would literally go over to the Iowa State Center with a pad of paper, and you would sit and draw this building because it really was understood even at the time to be a significant piece of architecture.

I really experienced that architecture as a student. I went to the first concert there with the New York Philharmonic in C.Y. Stephens, and it was quite an exciting event, because that building was anticipated for a long time. The students watched it rise out of the ground very slowly, because it was built with a lot of concrete and it took a long time to build the building. It was a very heavy structure because of acoustics and the shape of the environment within that dictated what happened on the outside, so they articulated that also in a fresh way for structures of that period because it took on a unique shape. I don't think there would be another one like that in the country.

The acoustics, the soaring roof, and the creative use of materials are all reasons that architects give for enjoying the auditorium. Tom Leslie, a professor at ISU, says yet another reason to admire it is that the building went out on a limb.

Most clients come to architects because they've got a complicated problem that needs to get solved, but the adventurous buildings I think are what keep the profession lively and what keep it interesting. Buildings like C.Y. Stephens Auditorium, for instance, which is one of the most adventurous buildings on campus is a building that even today, thirty years later, people sort of appreciate for how bold it was. Whether stylistically it's still something that we would copy is another story. But when it was built, it was certainly an adventure in concrete and an adventure for the university campus.

C.Y. Stephens is just an exciting experience. This building has been recognized nationally as a national design award winner, but the most important thing is i think it brought to more Iowans, than any other building, a new sense of design, a new sense of excitement.

It brought international programs to Ames and I think it made Ames more of a central hub than it had been previously. So I think it was -- it's a very good choice. I think it was very smart.

I think it just has a kind of spirit about it.

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