Time to tear down

Red Gym seen as relic of the past
Time to tear down
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today, the university’s Red Gym/Armory is a national and local landmark for its architectural, cultural and social significance. But in 1967, it was just an old building in bad shape that was going to be torn down.

“It will be razed this summer,” president Fred Harvey Harrington told the regents in January. Once the massive new gym out by the western playing fields opened that fall, he said, it wouldn’t be needed. He wasn’t sure if the lakeshore lot should be used for a faculty lounge, guest house, or some other purpose, but as to the building, he was clear: “It should be razed.”

Students living on Langdon St. or in the southeast dorms were outraged at the threat to their athletic facility, and by the notion they should have to go a mile out Observatory Drive for their recreation.
Harrington held firm. “There is a University commitment to pull down the old red gym,” he reiterated for the regents the next month.

Chancellor Robben Fleming accurately warned “we will meet a good deal of faculty and resistance if we take it down without any replacement” recreational facility. But he disavowed any interest in this work of famed architects Allan Darst Conover and Lew Porter. “I don’t feel attracted to the aesthetic value,” he told the regents.

Nor did the Campus Planning Committee, which in April endorsed the concept of replacing the red gym with a “multi-purpose campus community center,” featuring dining, social, recreational and meeting facilities for students, faculty and alumni; a 400-seat auditorium; a guest house of 30 to 60 rooms, and underground parking. The plan also called for a major recreational facility south of Dayton and west of Park streets.
“We believe the red gym should be eliminated as soon as possible,” Engineering Dean and campus planning chief Prof. Kurt Wendt told the regents in May. “The gym should be pulled down this summer,” Harrington added.

Regent James Nellen asked if the exterior could be preserved ‘for sentimental reasons. Wendt said it could, but “the cost would be completely fantastic.”

No attention was paid to the cultural or social element of the building where Robert La Follette was twice nominated for Governor, William Jennings Bryan spoke and Isadora Duncan danced, and three generations of young men took their physical education and military drills.

But although Wendt called the fortress-like facility “a firetrap” that had “started to slide into Lake Mendota,” the administration agreed with the recommendation from the Board of Visitors that it be maintained until construction of the new gym.

But as soon as the replacement athletic facility was ready, everyone agreed, the Red Gym would be razed. Wendt told the regents he hoped to start construction on a replacement building for the Old Red Gym within two years, but thought it might take three.

Return to 15 web extras about the summer of 1967 here.