UK's historic Alumni Gym being transformed into fitness center
To many students and passers by in recent years, Alumni Gymnasium, the first arena built for Kentucky men’s basketball, stood as more of a historical marker than functional part of the UK campus.
That changes in early 2018 when UK unveils a completely renovated space that harkens to its past while looking to the future needs of students trying to stay fit.
While purists will lament the loss of the gym’s basketball court — home to the Wildcats’ first two national championship teams and many legendary high school Sweet Sixteens — a stunning makeover will turn what was once a dimly lit and often stuffy space into a state-of-the art fitness center that showcases more of the building’s architecture than perhaps it ever did as an arena.
“It was nothing fancy by any means,” recalled former UK Coach Joe B. Hall who was on the roster at the beginning of the 1948-49 season, Coach Adolph Rupp’s first national championship team that featured the Fabulous Five. It was the next to last UK team to play in Alumni Gym.
“The all-wood bleachers, the balcony upstairs — typical 1920 construction. … There were no hidden beams, no fancy paint jobs, brick inside and out, and a scoreboard that was nothing to be proud of,” Hall added. “It was a clock that had a hand that went around. Sometimes, the clock wouldn’t work and the referee would take a ball and throw it up and hit it.”
Part of a $201 million project that razed the neighboring student center for a new structure, Alumni Gym’s exterior, excluding the roof, has been preserved, while its interior was gutted. The process has been documented on a Renovation Blog on UK’s website.
Gone is the court that once had pull-out bleachers like any high school gym, where 2,800 would pack in to see the Wildcats play. Gone are the first floor offices where Rupp and other coaches and athletics administrators, including the legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, conducted their day-to-day business.
In their place, the new fitness center will feature a vaulted ceiling and enormous rooftop skylight that also showcases the original building’s metal trusses for the first time in decades while keeping the interior brick and arched windows. The result will be an expansive cardio and weight room that shows off a structure steeped in UK basketball lore.
There is such a historical connection to this building and UK basketball and the campus. And just the look, aesthetically, I think it’s a beautiful building, and it would have been a crime to tear it down.
Ron Lee, UK’s director of campus recreation and wellness
“You know, me, speaking as the director of campus recreation, getting the biggest bang for my buck, we could have done more if we tore it down probably than try to do what we did,” said UK’s Ron Lee. “But there is such a historical connection to this building and UK basketball and the campus. And just the look, aesthetically, I think it’s a beautiful building, and it would have been a crime to tear it down.”
UK has torn down a number of other structures on campus in recent years as part of a large-scale modernization, drawing criticism from some in town, including the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, which put 11 UK buildings on an endangered list in 2014. Five of those 11 buildings have been demolished. Alumni Gym was not among those listed.
“We are glad UK kept the original Alumni Gym masonry structure,” Sheila Omer Ferrell, executive director of the Blue Grass Trust said in a statement. “We have not seen what the final plans call for regarding opening treatments and finishes and will wait to make final comments when we are able to see the finished project, which isn’t a pure historical restoration, but an example of adaptive reuse.”
The Alumni Association raised $100,000 to build the gym for the 1924-25 season after the basketball team’s popularity made it unsafe to continue to have games at Barker Hall’s Buell Armory, according to UK. Critics called the structure on the corner of Limestone and Euclid Avenue a “white elephant,” a past UK media guide said.
The Cats won 247 games and lost 24 there before moving to Memorial Coliseum in 1950. In its last seven seasons, UK went 78-0 there. Hall recalled during his playing days the student ticket allotment was alternately split between an “A” and “B” game, so students only got to see the UK varsity team play every other game.
It was also home to the boys’ high school Sweet Sixteen from 1924 to 1941, 1943 and 1944 and saw the historic run of Carr Creek in 1928 from a dirt court in Knott County to the state finals. Carr Creek lost 13-11 in four overtimes to Ashland, but the legend that culminated in their 1956 state title was born.
In its day, Alumni Gym was once a hub of all team sports activity on the campus. The football and baseball fields were nearby. But it was also a recreational home for the students who played pickup games and held other activities there.
“I was in that gym every hour I had off. We’d play half-court games, 3-on-3, with other students,” Hall said. “I’d be there at noon after I’d eaten, then dress out early for practice and play with the other students. I never will forget I had a good pickup game and this kid said. ‘You ought to go out for the team!’”
The original floor was removed about 1992 when then-UK Coach Rick Pitino looked to solve the problem of sharing the Coliseum with volleyball and women’s basketball for practice. The rough, old floor wasn’t fit for that, so a new one was installed. Cheerleading used the gym for a while, as well. But, gradually, all team sports moved to new facilities.
There’s no information on what became of the spots where Gov. A.B. “Happy Chandler drove a nail to mark where Joe “Red” Hagan hit a 48-foot shot that beat Marquette in 1937 or where Ralph Beard placed his nail marking his 54-foot shot against Tennessee in 1948.
UK has listed some of those “nail” shots in its media guides over the years, but there’s no evidence the spots were saved for posterity. Lee said he’d sometimes hear of people coming into the gym after the new floor was put down and trying to find the nails. Some folks would swear they spotted them, he said.
In 1998, marking the 50th anniversary, small pieces of the original floor were given to surviving members or family of the “Fabulous Five,” the 1948 national championship team during an in-game commemoration in Rupp Arena.
Alumni contained a lot of different offices over the years, and the gym continued to be used by the recreation department for student games. One balcony had the seats removed and was leveled to contain a dojo for club sports.
When the building was shuttered for its makeover, it held a small, staff fitness center which students could use after hours, and offices for the Disability Resources Center and Student Support Services, which have since been permanently relocated.
A new purpose
With more than 2,000 students living on the North Campus, the new Alumni Gym will provide a fitness center that hasn’t existed for that group for decades. UK has actually been partially paying up to 500 YMCA memberships for those students to work out at the nearby High Street location.
Now, when they enter through the first-floor entrance of Alumni, they’ll have some of the amenities that have been available on the South Campus for years, including a multi-purpose gym, a cycling studio, a group fitness studio, locker and shower facilities and a fitness and conditioning center.
“This will will have as much cardio, strength equipment and fitness area here as we have at the Johnson Center,” Lee said.
By shelling out the building, UK has been able to raise the ceiling of the first floor. The broad stairwells along the main corridor allow the natural light from the second floor skylight to pour in. The roof is all-new, but the metal trusses supporting it are original. They were covered by paneling during the gym’s early years. The old roof had three cupolas spaced across the center.
“(University architect) Warren Denny, that was one of the things he wanted was that natural light,” Lee said. “Just the sense and the feel of this is going to be fantastic. An industrial look to it almost, but students are going to love it. They are absolutely going to love it.”
Upstairs, students will work out in a room that spans the length of the gym and will include treadmills, ellipticals and other fitness machines. At the center, four large-screen TVs will be placed on a central column.
In addition to the modern touches, UK plans to include graphics and archive photos from the UK teams that played there.
Hall called the makeover a wonderful idea.
“I think that’s a great utilization of the old gym,” Hall said. “The mystique of that era will never be erased by fresh paint and new wood.”