Old gym series: Doremus Gymnasium, W&L

On my recent, and presumably final, trip to Salem for the Division III men’s basketball Final Four, I stopped off I-81 and did some multi-tasking, picking up an interview for the Around the Nation Podcast. In chatting with both football coach Garrett LeRose and sports information director Brian Laubscher, it was mentioned that the “newer” half of the athletic building, Warner Center was built in 1972 and the office portion of the building is in desperate need of rehab.

The historic side of the building, Doremus Gymnasium, is another lovely example of early-20th century gymnasium architecture. This is the oldest of the old gyms I’ve had a chance to write about, as it was built in 1915.

The floor was recently refinished and is in really good shape. Robert P. Doremus came to campus at W&L, the story goes, in 1913, unannounced. Doremus was looking to bestow money on a Southern school in honor of his mother and was so struck by the student’s courtesy that he made his decision without even looking at the University of Virginia. This facility was built at a cost of between $80,000 and $100,000, and Doremus’ entire estate was given to W&L 21 years later, a gift of $1.5 million.

I really enjoy these looks back in time, picturing students from the 1920s all the way up through the 1960s and 1970s crammed into a tiny space. While I sometimes mourn what we’ve lost in small college athletics, I certainly recognize the need to play in spacious areas with room for a couple thousand fans, to have practice space for multiple sports, to have enough locker rooms to host weekend tournaments, and to have office space for 20-some sports.

Meanwhile, though, I’m going to pass on jogging on this wooden track suspended above the Doremus Gymnasium floor. No thanks.

Old gym series: Loras Fieldhouse

I havent written a blog post about old gymnasiums in years, but I still enjoy walking through them and seek them out when I am on Division III campuses.

The Loras Fieldhouse still stands, overlooking the Rock Bowl, home to the school’s field sports in Dubuque, Iowa. This gym was in use when started and it remained in use until 2007, when it was replaced by a sparkling athletics center elsewhere on campus. But it’s hard to picture college basketball being played here.

The cement balcony rings the playing surface. A 3-pointer from the corner was legimitately in danger of hitting the underside of the balcony, which juts pretty far out.

Partially neglected by deferred maintenance, the building is currently set up to host a band or orchestra concert. Football coach Steve Helminiak and his assistant, Jake Olsen, still have offices here, as does Sports Information Director Jim Naprstek. The banners reflect the time in which it was used — a women’s basketball banner celebrates the team’s NCAA Tournament trip in 2003. The banners for each team in the Iowa Conference do not include recent addition Nebraska Wesleyan, although they do reflect the departure of Upper Iowa and William Penn more than 15 years ago.

Seating is minimal. The listed capacity of 1,100 is hard to fathom. A fire marshall would likely have a fit over anything more than about 700 people here. And some of those would be standing.

But for every flashy new building that we celebrate in Division III, somewhere there is, or was, a building like this. Converted into office space. Or an architecture studio. Or classrooms. Or recreational space.

This one, which opened in 1924, still stands.

Old gym tour: Wittenberg

Wittenberg's old gymnasiumEarlier this month I was at Wittenberg for a football game. I usually try to make a drive through campus either before or after the game — sometimes the drive through campus before the game is unplanned, if you know what I mean.

I’ve been to Wittenberg before, for a basketball game when Wooster and Wittenberg were the two top-ranked teams in the country. And the old building is connected to the current playing arena, Pam Evans Smith Arena. (It was still called the HPER Center when I visited.) But this time I saw the building from the outside and realized there was an older portion — and you know how it goes — some buildings just look like a gym from the outside. So I pulled over and went in to do a little exploring.

This gym clearly couldn’t have seated very many people, though the bleachers have been gone for decades. There’s a stage underneath one basket and a balcony all the way around that would have held more spectators.

Touring another old gymnasium

DE PERE, Wis. — I got to see another old gym tonight. I’m at St. Norbert this weekend to see the Green Knights open a new football stadium against No. 5 St. Thomas and got the tour of campus from sports information director Dan Lukes.

When we drove by a particular building, Dan mentioned that it used to be the gym, and I asked if we could get out and see it. We couldn’t get in the gym itself, but it is indeed still a gymnasium. This being September, there were volleyball nets up. There are glass backboards, with “No Dunking Allowed” on the bottom of the glass.

The playing floor is just 77 feet long — just long enough to make a Grinnell game even more of a breakneck speed. If you have ever been in the old gym at Mount St. Mary’s, yes, the Division I school in Emmitsburg, Md., this looks exactly like it. It has a big wall with windows on the end — in this case, facing the Fox River instead of U.S. 15, a high vaulted ceiling, and was built in the 1930s. I could almost picture Jim Phelan stalking the sidelines in a bow tie, although in this case, I was told that Dick Bennett coached in the last game St. Norbert played in the gym, for UW-Stevens Point.

I’ve written about my fascination with old gymnasiums before. Since then, I’ve added the old gym at Wash U to my list (it’s connected to the new gym), as well as the old gym at Stevens. I think Randolph-Macon may be my favorite, however.

Our old gymnasiums

There are still some schools that play in their vintage gymnasiums, and many others at which the old gymnasium is a memory. But when I see one or learn about one, I always make it a point to stop by, if I can get in.

Heck, sometimes I just stumble across one. I did that at Amherst tonight. Do it at enough campuses and you can begin to tell from the outside. I was hoping to at Wesleyan last week but the place has been torn down.

Small gyms — perhaps 94 feet in length but not always. Lots of history, not much space. Now they’re intramural gyms and practice gyms, and that’s OK.

The old gym was gone at my alma mater by the time I arrived. It was an early 20th century armory, converted into a gymnasium after World War I, then into student architecture studios in the ’80s. That wasn’t a bad use. But when I got to see vintage gyms at Hampden-Sydney and especially Randolph-Macon, it made me wonder what I missed.

Randolph-Macon’s is exactly what you’d expect. The old scoreboard is still high on the wall. The gym is connected to the current gymnasium. It has a track ringing the top and everything. Looks like it came straight out of 1921. Hampden-Sydney’s old gym is still around on campus as well. And shoot, Macalester is still playing in its old gym, for a little while at least.

What has your campus done with its old gym?