Von Braun Center
The name “Von Braun Center” (originally “Von Braun Civic Center”) originated from German-born American rocket engineer, Wernher von Braun. Dr. von Braun (1912–1977) is widely known as one of the most important rocket developers and champions of space exploration in the twentieth century.  He and his team of rocket engineers transformed Huntsville, Alabama (known in the 1950s as the “Watercress Capital of the World”) into a technology center that today is home to the second largest research park in the United States and to the U.S. Space & Rocket Center (USSRC) with its world-class educational program, Space Camp®. 
After moving to Huntsville, Alabama, in 1950, Dr. von Braun became technical director (later chief) of the U.S. Army ballistic-weapon program. Under his leadership, the Redstone, Jupiter-C, Juno, and Pershing missiles were developed. In 1955, he and German members of his team became U.S. citizens. After the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed to carry out the U.S. space program, Dr. von Braun and his organization were transferred from the U.S. Army to NASA. As the first director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, he led the development of the large space launch vehicles: Saturn I, IB, and V. The engineering success of each rocket in the Saturn class of space boosters remains unparalleled in rocket history. Each was launched successfully, on time and met safe-performance requirements. 
During the final months that Dr. von Braun and his team of scientists were refining the giant Saturn V rocket that would send Apollo astronauts to the moon, he was also preparing to launch another important project: A permanent exhibit to showcase the hardware of the American space program. Dr. von Braun was director of MSFC when he approached the Alabama Legislature with the idea of creating a museum jointly with the U.S. Army Missile Command and NASA. The U.S. Army donated land, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center® opened its doors in 1970. 
It was a short five years later, in 1975, that Von Braun Civic Center opened in downtown Huntsville.
Additional impacts from Dr. von Braun’s team in Huntsville include:
- Development of rockets that put the first U.S. satellite into orbit and sent men to the moon;
- Development of propulsion for the space shuttle;
- Development of modules for the International Space Station (ISS);
- Development of America’s next great ship – the Space Launch System (SLS);
- Continual 24/7 monitoring of science payloads on the ISS;
- Development of the Von Braun Astronomical Society (originally named Rocket City Astronomical Association) – a facility that played an integral role in the Apollo moon landing as Dr. von Braun and his team used the Association’s telescope to search for possible landing sites for the Apollo program;
- Development of the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and positioning it as a world-renowned research institute that continues to provide advanced engineering and science curricula including astrophysics, atmospheric science, aerospace engineering, cyber security, digital animation; and
- Development of the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra – Alabama’s oldest continuously-operating professional orchestra.
   
Any discussion of Dr. von Braun requires an honest reckoning of his work in Germany, where he served as the technical director of the Third Reich’s V-2 missile project. His involvement with this program raises fundamental questions about his legacy. 
In the spring of 1930, while enrolled in the Berlin Institute of Technology, von Braun joined the German Society for Space Travel (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt). By the fall of 1932, the rocket society was experiencing grave financial difficulties and membership dropped dramatically as German police began objecting to rocket tests within the Berlin city limits. At that time, Captain Walter R. Dornberger (later major general) was in charge of solid-fuel rocket research and development in the Ordnance Department of Germany’s 100,000-man armed forces, the Reichswehr. He recognized the military potential of liquid-fueled rockets and the ability of von Braun so he arranged a research grant that enabled von Braun to perform research at a small development station set up adjacent to Dornberger’s existing solid-fuel rocket test facility at the Kummersdorf Army Proving Grounds near Berlin. Two years later, von Braun received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Berlin. 
By December 1934 (when Germany was ruled by dictator Adolf Hitler), Dr. von Braun’s group, which then included one additional engineer and three mechanics, had successfully launched two rockets that rose vertically to more than 1.5 miles. However, by this time there was no longer a German rocket society after the group dissolved themselves following an inability to find funding coupled with a fear of Adolph Hitler, who began restricting the activities of organizations like the rocket society which had significant ties to the international community. Upon the disbanding, all private rocket testing in Germany ceased and the only way open to such research was through the military forces. 
A large military development facility was erected, with Dornberger as the military commander and Dr. von Braun as the technical director. Liquid-fueled rocket aircraft and jet-assisted takeoffs were successfully demonstrated, and the long-range ballistic missile A-4 and the supersonic anti-aircraft missile Wasserfall were developed. The A-4 was designated by the Propaganda Ministry as V-2, meaning “Vengeance Weapon 2.” By 1944, the rocket and missile technology being tested at Peenemünde was many years ahead of that available in any other country. 
The V–2 ballistic missile, the antecedent of U.S. and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles, was the primary brainchild of Dr. von Braun’s rocket team. The V-2 assembly plant at the Mittelwerk, near the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp, used slave labor, as did a number of other production sites. Dr. von Braun was a member of the Nazi Party and an SS officer, yet he was also arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 for remarks he made about Germany’s likely defeat in the war and the rockets future use as peaceful travel to the moon. His responsibility for the war crimes connected to rocket production is a subject of debate. 
By late 1944, it was obvious to Dr. von Braun that Germany would be defeated and occupied, and he began planning for the postwar era. Before the Allied capture of the V–2 rocket complex, he was sent south, eventually to Bavaria and surrendered to the Americans there, along with other key team leaders. For fifteen years after World War II, he worked with the U.S. Army in the development of ballistic missiles where his knowledge and expertise gave the United States a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As part of a military operation called Project Paperclip, he and an initial group of about 125 were sent to America where they were installed at Fort Bliss, Texas. There they worked on rockets for the U.S. Army, and assisted in V-2 launches at White Sands Proving Ground, New Mexico. 
Dr. von Braun and his team of both Germans and Americans changed the trajectory of Huntsville, Alabama, and ensured its future as The Rocket City. After securing funding from the Alabama legislature for the founding of UAH, specifically the Research Institute, the university has maintained a tradition of producing capable and highly educated individuals in the fields of rocketry and aerospace sciences to meet the needs of Huntsville’s aerospace industry. NASA’s Artemis program, poised to put new generations of explorers on the moon by 2026 and establish a long-term human presence there by 2028, relies heavily on the expertise and capabilities of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
Additionally, Huntsville is home to Cummings Research Park – the second largest research park in the country and the fourth largest in the world. Huntsville is continuously recognized as a top location to live and was recently named the ‘Best Place to Live in the U.S.’ by U.S. news & World Report. The Von Braun Center is proud to play a role in improving the quality of life for the Huntsville community and surrounding areas, as well as adding another reason for companies and individuals from all over the world to visit or relocate to Huntsville and continue growing the community’s rich tapestry of backgrounds.
- The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica (2023) Wernher von Braun. Available at:
https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wernher-von-Braun (Accessed: 13 March 2023).
- Jennifer Harbaugh, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (2017) Biography of Wernher von Braun. Available at:
https://www.nasa.gov/centers/marshall/history/vonbraun/bio.html (Accessed: 13 March 2023).
- U.S. Space & Rocket Center (2023) History and Overview. Available at:
https://www.rocketcenter.com/overview#hometo (Accessed: 13 March 2023).
- Wikipedia Contributors (2021) Von Braun Astronomical Society. Available at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Von_Braun_Astronomical_Society (Accessed: 15 March 2023).
- Wikipedia Contributors (2023) University of Alabama in Huntsville. Available at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Alabama_in_Huntsville (Accessed: 15 March 2023).
- Wikipedia Contributors (2023) Huntsville Symphony Orchestra. Available at:
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Huntsville_Symphony_Orchestra&action=history (Accessed: 15 March 2023).
- Neufeld, Michael. (2007). Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
- Cliff Lethbridge, Spaceline.org. History of Rocketry. Available at: https://www.spaceline.org/history-cape-canaveral/history-of-rocketry/history-rocketry-chapter-3/ (Accessed: 1 May 2023).
OPENING DAY & ICONIC PERFORMANCES
Tickets for opening weekend attractions went on sale February 24, 1975. Opening day was highlighted by the Beaux Arts Ball sponsored by the Arts Council on March 14. March 15 was the premier performance of “Galileo Galilei” conducted by Dr. Marx Pales which had been commissioned by the Huntsville Symphony Association for the grand opening of the Concert Hall. Notable Huntsvillians that performed that night were Ken Turvey, Albert Lane, Lady Shivers Tucker and Mike Sheehy.
Rounding out the first month of operation were Holiday on Ice, Huntsville Little Theatre’s “Barefoot in the Park” and Johnny Cash. Also appearing the first year of operation were Truman Capote, Linda Ronstad, Merle Haggard and Van Cliburn. The iconic Elvis Presley appeared May 30 through June 1 for an unprecedented five performances. It was the first time Elvis had played that many consecutive performances in a venue outside of Las Vegas. The Arena’s first rock show featured the Electric Light Orchestra with Sugarloaf and Jo Jo Gunne. Other rock groups appearing that year were the Doobie Brothers, the Jackson Five, Jimmy Buffett, the Allman Brothers and Jethro Tull. Country fans also enjoyed such acts as Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride and Chet Atkins. In its first six months of operation, the Civic Center drew over a half million attendees. Later that year Fantasy Playhouse, a local theatre, began its 1975-76 season with a production of “Puss ‘N Boots” in the new VBC Playhouse. Other locally bred performances included Community Chorus with “Brigadoon” and Broadway Theatre League with “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway,” starring Ken Berry and Mimi Hines.
Iconic artists continue to perform here and is why people return to the Von Braun center time and time again. Recent performers include Harry Connick Jr, Miranda Lambert, Rascal Flatts, Jason Aldean, Weird Al Yankovic, Willie Nelson, The Beach Boys, Little Big Town, Elton John, Kid Rock and much much more!
In 2015 the Von Braun Center celebrated their 40th anniversary. In light of the celebration the VBC hosted the Von Braun Music Run & Open House. It took place on March 21st, 2015 at 9am and had over 2,500 people in attendance. The 5K included live music and entertainment throughout the route. Once participants reached the finish line they we able to enjoy a live band and other family friendly activities at the Von Braun Center in similar fashion to other great family friendly events the VBC hosts. It was at this event when Mayor Tommy Battle proclaimed March 2015 as Von Braun Center month in honor of the 40th anniversary.
CHANGES AND RENOVATIONS
The demand for space in the Civic Center quickly overwhelmed supply. To meet the demand in late 1980 additional exhibition and meeting room space was added with the addition of the West Exhibit Hall. Under the direction of Chef Tommy Armstrong, the center became “the” place to hold banquets. A much larger and more modern kitchen was added shortly thereafter. During the Tupperware Convention the civic center’s catering staff fed one thousand people a splendid prime rib dinner.
The ever-increasing popularity of the Center for banquets, conferences and receptions necessitated yet another expansion. The new North Hall was to be a stylish, well-appointed place of public assembly. Highlighted by oak trim and 18 chandeliers, the North Hall opened with fanfare in 1987. Due to budgetary constraints, the landscaping of the North Hall was done by the Civic Center staff. The final touches were completed only moments before guests arrived.
The demand for space escalated, and larger exhibitions and tradeshows gradually outgrew the available space. For instance to accommodate the Intergraph Graphic Users Group, meals were first served in a large tent which quickly became inadequate. Food service then moved to a makeshift dining hall created in the Monroe Street parking garage. During the typical five-day conference, over twelve thousand lunches alone were served. The logistics of food service in the City parking garage brought home the need for larger convention space. With the opening the South Hall, the Center could now accommodate these conventions as well as draw others of national significance. The new South Hall opened in January 1997, ahead of schedule and under budget, and was to have been inaugurated by the American Bowling Congress, a six-month event drawing bowlers from all across America. However, the early completion date enabled the Boat show to open first. To establish the center as a regional site for convention trade, the name was changed from Von Braun Civic Center to Von Braun Center.
Originally constructed in 1975, renovations were completed in 2010 transforming the VBC’s Arena into a dynamic modern venue. A $5 million donation from Bill Propst helped make renovations to the VBC Arena possible. The renovation changed the facade of the Arena to a modern glass frontage overlooking Big Spring Park and expanded the lobby adding more pre-function space and a pub. The project added over 1,000 seats to concert setups, VIP suites, and additional restrooms. The Arena was renamed the Propst Arena in honor of this considerable donation made by Huntsville businessman Bill Propst. Propst is well known in Huntsville for the success of Propst Drugstores and his entrepreneurial ventures in the marketing and manufacturing of generic pharmaceuticals.
Thanks to a generous $3 million donation from the Linda and Mark Smith Family Foundation the VBC Concert Hall underwent a major renovation completed in 2010. The gift given by the family of late prominent businessman, Mark C. Smith brought the Concert Hall up to date with the 21st century Propst Arena.
THE DEVLOPMENT OF THE VBC
Time and time again talented Huntsville citizens have stepped forward to share their expertise in leadership roles of great responsibility. They serve for no personal gain and motivated by a sense of community service and the desire to enhance the quality of life in the Huntsville community. The airport, public library, Huntsville Hospital and the botanical gardens are results of this kind of leadership and The Von Braun Center is no exception.
In the early 1960’s certain members of the community felt that Huntsville could do better than the meager arts facilities available at the time. Martha Rambo affiliated with the Symphony, Elvira Glover of the Art League, Martha Hamm with Community Chorus, Dexter Nilsson of Little Theatre and others began to voice the need for housing and performance space for the arts. City Attorney Charles Younger and Councilman Joe Peters embraced the cause. Charles Younger got the idea to fund the arts by way of a liquor tax. Huntsvillians traveled to Winston-Salem to observe, and Art Hanes, a member of the Hanes family of Winston-Salem where a successful Arts Council had been created, was invited to Huntsville to advise. As a result the Arts Council was born.
The Public Building Authority was able to make the old West Huntsville School available for an Arts Center. However, Arts Council members were careful to refer to it as the “temporary” Arts Center in fear of opposition to the proposed building project.
Today it is hard to imagine the city of Huntsville without the VBC but only a few decades ago to enjoy your favorite entertainment you had to travel to various venues around Madison County. Local theatre productions were presented in the auditorium of the old West Clinton School at the corner of Church and Clinton Street. Broadway Theatre League and the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra played at the Huntsville High School Auditorium. For rock and country music, one could enjoy the ambiance of the Madison County Coliseum which could only seat approximately 2,000 people. For elegant banquets the Russell Erskine Hotel and the Dunnavant’s Mall (now Medical Mall) were often the premier choices.
The want for a cultural center continued to increase and finally gained momentum in 1965 when The Public Building Authority, under the direction of Nathan Porter, contracted with Booz-Allen-Hamilton to make plans for a civic arts center. The original concept was for a large and small theatre along with an exhibition space and an art museum. In 1969 the Civic Center Advisory Board (CCAB) was chartered by the Huntsville City Council. Their mission was to advise the council on all aspects concerning the design, financing, construction and operation of a new facility to be called the Huntsville Civic Center. They were further charged with developing a master plan that included an auditorium that would seat 10,000. The council confirmed the belief that a large arena would be necessary to support the other facilities. One of the final recommendations of the CCAB was that a permanent Civic Center Board be established to oversee all aspects of the new facility. Original plans allowed for the building to be built in five increments but The Board insisted on all or none, as they deemed any negotiation for incremental development would jeopardize the overall project. As the building neared completion, famous Huntsville artist Ed Monroe offered to donate a portrait of Wernher Von Braun to the center. Dr. and Mrs. Von Braun were visibly moved at his stunning work.
The arts in Huntsville has never faced easy times. Its success in Huntsville is due primarily to the efforts of individuals who have inspired, challenged and motivated all of us to contribute our time and devotion to this great endeavor. The arts have not flourished because of the Von Braun Center; rather the VBC has succeeded and will continue to succeed because of those who firmly believe in the importance of the arts. Thank you for continuing to support the arts and Von Braun Center.