Jehovah's Witnesses transform West Palm Beach's 'leaky teepee' auditorium Listen to this article or download

Palm Beach Post/October 1, 2008

West Palm Beach - It has been 10 years since the city transferred its auditorium to the Jehovah's Witnesses in a controversial $12.5 million sale.

Although most of the public hasn't set foot this decade in the building that once housed the county's major concerts and events, the crumbling structure known derisively as the "leaky tepee" has been transformed into a state-of-the-art beacon for a religion that is 1 million strong in the United States.

The Jehovah's Witnesses "have done a beautiful job, and they're very good stakeholders with the city, so I have no misgivings about that at all," Mayor Lois Frankel said. "But we gave up the ball field, the city lost an opportunity for development rights, and it was not a good economic deal for the city in retrospect."

It was a great deal for the Witnesses, who have converted the auditorium on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard into the Christian Convention Center.

The Witnesses bought the land for $12.5 million, then sold much of the property, including the baseball field, recouping a good portion of the initial cost.

Since then, the building has been completely remodeled at a cost of about $13 million.

Evelyn Ellison, who became a Jehovah's Witness as an adult, spent her youth in the old West Palm Beach Auditorium and remembers appearances by James Brown, Gladys Knight, Peaches and Herb, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Sesame Street Productions.

She also remembers how the auditorium was in shambles in the 1990s.

"It was a sore thumb that stuck out to the community and it was in such disrepair that one of the commissioners called it an albatross," Ellison said. "But we saw the potential beauty in it."

Frankel said the city's finances made it "a reasonable decision for the time."

Attorney Bob Sanders, the key orchestrator of the deal as assistant city administrator, said selling the auditorium was in the best interests of the city.

The "leaky tepee," so named because of the shape of its roof and the fact that it leaked, would have needed massive repairs before the city could have considered selling it, and the county wasn't interested in helping with the cost.

"If I had to do it all over again today, I'd do the same thing," Sanders said.

Religion was another point of controversy.

"A lot of (the negativity) had to do with the religious factor," Sanders said. "Several key people didn't very much hide their real feelings" that they opposed the deal because the Jehovah's Witnesses were the buyers.

Sanders defends the deal as giving the city an economic boost during the summer, when many of the Witnesses' conventions are held.

The building itself had problems from the time it opened in 1967. The roof began leaking the first year and never stopped. Jimmy Buffett and other performers complained of poor acoustics and upkeep.

It was hard to imagine that the auditorium not only would still exist in 2008, but it would be a modern convention center hosting dozens of Jehovah's Witnesses events annually.

In 1998, the Jehovah's Witnesses were looking to buy a building that would become their largest enclosed gathering place in the world. West Palm Beach was a logical location because Florida has a sizable Jehovah's Witnesses community, and the group was already the auditorium's top tenant.

Some doubted the Witnesses would be able to raise enough money to turn the structure around.

"I think the concern was that we would keep up the inside of it, but we weren't going to go to the expense of taking care of the outside," said Mike Berrier, assistant assembly hall overseer. "I think a lot of people didn't realize that we wanted it to stand out.

"Yes, we wanted it nice for the Jehovah's Witnesses, but we're not trying to hide things. We're a part of the community and we want to be a presence in the community."

The outside of the old auditorium included a moat that became an eyesore. It was torn apart and drainage pipes were added. Massive amounts of vegetation were planted around the building to obscure the tepee-style roof from the street.

The inside of the auditorium was gutted to add a new air-conditioning system, more comfortable seats and a large baptism pool. Plants surround the altar.

Berrier believes the cost of improvements would have been at least double if volunteers had not done much of the work.

During the summer, the center hosts religious conventions in English, Spanish and French, drawing an estimated 70,000 visitors from around the country. Various groups have approached the Witnesses about renting the convention center, but that's not something they're willing to do.

"It's not about trying to make money," Berrier said. "To us, it's a house of worship and it's not something we would want for any type of other event."

Frankel's main regret is that the city no longer has an all-purpose indoor facility.

Several miles south of the tepee, county commissioners are starting from scratch on a plan to build a hotel and condo complex next to the county's underused convention center. The Kravis Center has better acoustics than the leaky tepee ever had, and the Cruzan Amphitheatre seats up to 19,000, triple the capacity of the old auditorium.

"We used to bring in the (Harlem) Globetrotters, arena football, the circus, and there's nothing indoors where we can do that anymore," Frankel said.

Although Frankel might miss the auditorium, for the most part it has become a part of West Palm Beach lore, remembered as much for its shortcomings as it successes.

"Knowing how we are busy as ants and busy as a team working together, I had an idea it would turn out to be a beautiful place," Ellison said. "But to see it come to fruition is just outstanding."

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