Memorial Fieldhouse is 50 and Doing Fine
Ah, the fieldhouse. A burly, echoing, oversized bunker. Cold in winter. Hot in summer. Plain in the extreme. Yet, behind that utilitarian wrapper, Puget Sound students and the people of Tacoma have been finding a treasure-trove of athletic spirit, thoughtful reflection and downright fun for more than half a century. From Gene Autry to Ziggy Marley, from Harry Truman to Richard Nixon, from the Shrine Circus to the Golden Gloves, the fieldhouse has hosted them all.
Students take the lead
"One day in the fall of 1947, two students walked into the office [of University President Thompson] and didn’t sit down," reported The Trail in December of 1949. "Rob Rinker [’49] and Lloyd Silver [’49] asked Thompson: ‘How’s about a fieldhouse memorial if the students will foot part of the bill?’"
"The existing gym [opened in 1907] was obviously inadequate for the booming post-war enrollment," remembers Silver. "All the basketball games were being played in the Washington National Guard Armory. And a fieldhouse would be a great resource for the community, since back then Tacoma did not have any other location for large-scale events."
"Doc T" had similar feelings, and he challenged the two to get student support.
"A petition was put on the student election ballot proposing a $5-per-semester fee that would be applied toward raising 10 percent of the cost of a new facility," Silver says. "Our publicity campaign for the referendum played upon a popular advertising slogan of the day, ‘There's a Ford in your future,’ with posters stating, ‘There's a Field House in Your Future.’ The vote, as I recall, was resoundingly in favor, and it wasn't long before the Board voted to go forward."
First step: a site. A special committee, headed by former football letterman Donald J. Shotwell ’31, discussed location options. President Thompson suggested they attempt to acquire the land south of campus owned by John S. Baker, who had also owned part of the original campus. The parcel was swampy, with a deep gully and springs underneath, and many people had used the area as a trash dump, but the contiguous location made sense.
Summoning the guile he was famous for, Thompson met with Baker and proposed that the University buy 11 acres of land from him for $5,000. Baker could then donate the rest of the land required to Puget Sound, remove it as an asset from his estate and have the satisfaction of knowing he was making a fine contribution to Puget Sound and the surrounding community. Baker hesitated, but eventually Thompson worked out a compromise: Puget Sound purchased the land for $15,000, and Baker gave $10,000 back to offset the University’s debt for the project.
Ground was broken in the summer of 1948. Shotwell, a heavy equipment contractor, prepared the site and constructed a parking lot over the swamp. Weyerhaeuser engineers designed massive wooden trusses that allowed a post-free, open floor. At 285 feet, they were the longest beams that had been used in any U.S. structure prior to that time.
The 200 x 180-foot fieldhouse cost $405,000 to build, $68,000 more than the original estimate. It housed four basketball courts, dressing rooms, offices and classrooms. Originally, a pool and indoor running track were part of the plans, but they turned out to be unfeasible for reasons of cost and building layout.
A facility for all seasons and all reasons
The new fieldhouse started generating lore the day its doors opened. Roy T. Earley, the contractor, estimated that the building would be finished in time to host the state Class B high school basketball tournament in the spring of 1949. But as the tournament approached, difficulty obtaining building materials and unusually rainy weather had delayed construction, and the hardwood floor was not ready. Instead, the contractor put down a temporary floor made of oil-treated plywood intended for use on concrete forms. Big mistake.
"Sadly to say, when the first game of the tournament began the players were sliding on it like an ice rink," remembers William Moyer ’50, "and the whole thing had to be shifted, first to Warner Gym on campus [which proved too small], and then to the new gym at Pacific Lutheran University."
Six months later, on December 9, 1949, the fieldhouse opened for Puget Sound’s game against the University of Washington. It was a big event since the Loggers had beaten the Huskies the year before for the first time since 1937. That night, the facility was dedicated to the Washington men and women, among them 138 students and alumni of the University, who had lost their lives during World War II. Former President Herbert Hoover was slated to be guest speaker, but due to Hoover’s health, his doctor cancelled the visit.
Puget Sound lost its fieldhouse "christening" game by 13 points, but the setback did little to dim enthusiasm for the new building.
"The fieldhouse kicked off with tremendous spirit," says former athletic director Doug McArthur ’53.
Before the Tacoma Dome opened in 1983, the fieldhouse served as a civic auditorium for everything from high school graduations to big-name concerts--all in addition to hundreds of University events annually.
"You can almost still hear the echoes--the enthusiasm--because it was something that hadn’t been seen," reflected James "Zeke" Schuldt ’68, athletic trainer at Puget Sound since 1970, who remembers people climbing drainpipes to get into some of the concerts that had been sold out. "[The fieldhouse] wasn’t just a sports complex back in those days; it was the biggest building of its nature in the community."
Memories also abound for Lloyd Silver, who, while still a student, was asked by President Thompson to take on the daunting job of outfitting and managing the new facility.
"What an experience that turned out to be," recalls Silver. "There I was, a college student with no background in events promotion, about to single-handedly take on what amounted to a full-time responsibility.
"There was the elephant that broke through the temporary floor during a Shrine Circus; the faith healer who attracted thousands, constantly reminding them to ‘bow your heads’ or the evil spirits departing the bodies of the sick and infirm would be inflicted upon nonbelievers; the Daffodil Flower Shows, the Bobby Riggs Tennis Tournament and Boy Scout Expositions--every single one a new and exciting challenge--and for the first time on campus a Homecoming Ball, with Skinnay Ennis’ Band. Alcoholic beverages were rumored to have been in evidence under tables that night.
"The faith healer’s sponsor built and donated the stage, which is still used today. And the Shriners were wonderfully helpful. They needed lots of electrical components for their activities and installed and donated a veritable gold mine of stage lighting, wiring and switching devices.
"Other memories, not thrilling perhaps, were of disastrous acoustics, inadequate sound systems and huge chunks of asbestos-like insulation falling on fancy dresses during Easter sunrise services."
Puget Sound’s tennis, volleyball and basketball teams practice throughout the year in the fieldhouse. Intramural teams and club sports also share the building. Several notable athletes have emerged from these groups, among them coach, faculty member and Hall of Fame member Joe Peyton ’67; hoopster Tim Evans ’78, who was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers and played professionally in Australia; and volleyball star and Puget Sound Hall of Fame member, Cathy Flick Pollino ’88.
One of the winningest teams in Puget Sound history was the 1976 men’s basketball team that won the NCAA Division II national championship. The regional championship, the game that determines who goes to nationals, was played against the University of North Dakota at the fieldhouse.
"At the time the fieldhouse seated 5,000 people, and at that game, there was standing room only," McArthur says. "It captured the entire community." Puget Sound won the game by one point. North Dakota had the winning shot in the air at the buzzer, but they didn’t make it. Puget Sound then went on to win the national title.
Most recently, both women’s basketball and volleyball teams have received significant recognition. In 1993, the volleyball team won the national championship, and in the past three years, the women’s basketball team has qualified for national championship play.
Not getting older, getting better
Since 1949, the fieldhouse has served multiple purposes and undergone several renovations.
In 1978, with the help of a $250,000 donation made by the family of alumnus Milt Woodward, a section was added to the rear of the fieldhouse with enclosed racquetball and tennis courts. A second, smaller basketball court and multipurpose room were added. Offices, classrooms and the weight room were also renovated. The area formerly occupied by the Reserve Officers Training Corps was renovated into women’s locker rooms.
"The old signs for the AFROTC are preserved in my garage for future reunions of fellow former Air Force officers and cadets who passed through Detachment 900, AFROTC between 1951 and 1989," notes John Robertson ’76, a retired Air Force captain.
Until the addition was constructed, women’s sports teams dressed, practiced and played in Warner Gym, then known as the "Women’s Gym," the original Puget Sound sports facility.
In 1994, R.B. Pamplin Jr., of Portland, Ore., donated $1.5 million to build a fitness center and to renovate various segments of the fieldhouse and tennis pavilion. Puget Sound trustees also contributed to these improvements by donating $400,000.
"Today’s college students are fitness minded," said President Susan Resneck Pierce, "and expect to have first-rate fitness equipment. I don’t think students decide on a college or university based on whether there is a fitness center. Nevertheless, it’s a real plus."
The $1.9-million project added classrooms, tennis courts, an exercise science lab and the fitness center. The fitness center is a two story, 10,000 square-foot area that features cardiovascular exercise and weight equipment on the first floor and a dance/exercise area for aerobics and ballet on the second floor. After these renovations were completed, the complex was renamed the Memorial Fieldhouse–Pamplin Sports Center.
Rebecca Harrison ’01 researched this article and wrote large portions of it.