Like schools nationwide, looming unknowns confront Virginia Commonwealth University as it enters uncharted waters this month, the first full academic year since the outbreak of coronavirus. How many students will enroll? And how will the institution juggle in-person versus remote learning?
Meanwhile, VCU’s sprawling, 31,000-student campuses are at the epicenter of an unprecedented perfect storm. The pandemic has shattered the modulated rhythms of the university’s health and medical center while Monroe Park, in the heart of the school’s Fan District campus, has been a staging ground this spring and summer for ongoing protests and marches sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Participants’ cries have triggered the removal of major vestiges of the cult of the Confederate Lost Cause here. Monuments to Confederates Joseph Bryan and Williams Carter Wickham have been swept from the park, while just blocks away images of Jefferson Davis, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Matthew Fontaine Maury and Jeb Stuart have indecorously been hauled off from Monument Avenue.
In the turmoil, few people on the mostly shuttered Monroe Park campus made much notice this spring as bulldozers chomped away at a major university landmark, the Franklin Street Gymnasium. This sprawling, red brick modernist building with aluminum jalousie windows had dominated the 800 block of West Franklin Street since 1952. So along with rubble from the three-story, architecturally unremarkable building, seven decades of associations have been swept away.
But along with the memories of generations of students who matriculated, played sports or exercised here, many compelling figures from the disparate worlds of sports, entertainment and arts and letters – baseball’s Hank Aaron, musicians Alice Cooper and Bruce Springsteen, dancers Twyla Tharp and Robert Morris, and 20th century art world giants Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein – played, performed or shared their knowledge there.
And importantly, it was in this twice enlarged, modest gymnasium complex, squeezed onto an elegant block of late 19th-century mansions, that VCU’s men’s basketball players learned they could be national contenders.
The Franklin Street gym’s removal, to make room for a $121 million, six-story science, technology, engineering and math building, removes another important physical link to the university’s past. Completed in 1952, the gym was the campus’ first purpose-built structure. Previously, Richmond Professional Institute had only recycled aging residences and their outbuildings for educational, administrative and residential use.
A History of Expansion
Richmond Professional Institute, which merged with the Medical College of Virginia in 1968 to become Virginia Commonwealth University, was established in 1917 during World War I. Initially there were only 52 students who took social work and occupational therapy classes. Tuition paid the bill. There was no outside funding.
Its visionary founder, Henry H. Hibbs, cobbled together a campus by converting old houses and their dependencies on Franklin Street and Park Avenue. The mansion at West Franklin and Shafer streets, now Founder’s Hall, was RPI’s first multiuse facility, with classrooms, dormitory rooms, administrative offices and a cafeteria. Hibbs cleverly selected that intersection for his nascent school since the Richmond Public Library was then directly across Shafter Street. RPI used that facility at no cost.
During the 1920s and ’30s, as Fan dwellers left the old neighborhood for the automobile suburbs, RPI purchased their homes. Athletics took place downtown at the YMCA or YWCA. Following World War II in the late 1940s, enrollment grew as veterans supported by the G.I. Bill caused facilities to burst at the seams.
In 1950, the Commonwealth of Virginia budgeted $100,000 for an RPI gym, the first state funds ever allocated to the school. The state engineer added $200,000 more for the two-story structure that was constructed on the rear of a West Franklin Street lot, just east of Founders Hall. The new gym was accessible from a cobblestone-paved alley. Richmonders J. Binford Walford and O. Pendleton Wright were its architects.
Occupation of the boxy, red brick building played a factor in RPI receiving its first-ever institutional accreditation in 1953 when the school had some 1,000 students.
When the gym opened, Ed Allen was RPI’s baseball coach. He soon took on additional duties as basketball coach and athletic director. His teams were the Green Devils and the school colors were green and gold, the same as RPI’s one-time associated institution, the College of William & Mary. Trivia bit: Allen later renamed RPI teams the Rams for the mascot of his alma mater, the University of Rhode Island.
Among the first to play in the new gym were two future baseball greats serving in the Army in Virginia during the Korean War. Willie Mays and Don Newcombe played competitive basketball games for their bases in games Allen set up in the RPI gym. Mays, at Fort Eustis, would become center fielder for the New York and San Francisco Giants and New York Mets. Newcombe, stationed at Camp Pickett during the war, later pitched for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers, the Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians.
In 1956, the Franklin Street gym was enlarged with a three-story classroom addition also designed by Walford and Wright. It extended the building closer to the West Franklin sidewalk.
Among the early wave of students in the expanded structure was Tom Robbins, a journalism major who wrote for The Postcript, the student newspaper. Its offices were upstairs in the new gym. One of his columns in the 1958-1959 academic year, “Walks on the Wild Side,” captured the hip goings on West Grace Street: “It takes on an insect quality in the spring,” he wrote of the neighborhood, “People swarm over the front porches and over the front steps of every ‘Beat’ apartment house.” Robbins later wrote novels “Even Cow Girls Get the Blues” and “Another Roadside Attraction.”
It was intercollegiate basketball, however, that brought the Franklin Street Gym affection and fame. “That cramped, hot, underwhelming gym became the lab where the DNA of VCU basketball was formulated,” wrote Richmond Times-Dispatch sportswriter Wayne Epps Jr. recently, in a eulogy to the arena.
Visiting teams were often shocked at its cramped facilities since the spaces were smaller than their high school gyms. Spaces alongside the basketball court were so narrow that folding chairs for opposing squads were set at far ends of the court.
The gym’s completion coincided with major civil rights activities here and nationwide. A January 1960 basketball game between RPI and nearby racially integrated Union Theological Seminary, now Union Presbyterian Seminary, was canceled by university officials at a time that sit-ins were being held at downtown lunch counters.
An unsigned article in The Ghost, a local alternative newspaper, mused sarcastically about state-supported RPI: “It is fine and dandy and brotherly lovely to play ball against negroes so long as you don’t play on state property (you all know the tradition).”
Big Bang for VCU Arts
If the VCU’s men’s and women’s basketball programs came of age in the Franklin Street Gym, the university’s School of the Arts also sprouted there. In addition to studios in the building, in 1964 some art professors staged the first annual Bang Arts Festival. The goal was to bring to Richmond contemporary music, drama, choreography, film, painting and graphics, as well as promote discussion and contact with artists from beyond the city. The festival featured Jesse “The Lone Cat” Fuller, a blues singer from Georgia who played an instrument of his own invention called a fotdella, which he operated by using various parts of his anatomy.
A highlight of the better documented second Bang festival, in April 1965, was a panel discussion held in the gym, “Crisis in Painting Today.” Internationally known painters Larry Rivers and Roy Lichtenstein, Thomas Hess, the highly regarded editor of Art News magazine, and New York author Allen Solomon spoke. With the Vietnam conflict a rising concern, another event in the gym was a happening choreographed by professor Richard Carlyon that addressed the horrors of war. It included marching soldiers in sunglasses, bicycles and a mass murder scene featuring women in bathing suits.
But the performance that got the festival organizers in hot water was “Waterman Switch,” a piece featuring Yvonne Rainer and Robert Morris, two well-known New York dancers. The pair, both nude, embraced and moved extremely slowly across the stage. The next day, RPI President George Oliver summoned the art professors and demanded an explanation for condoning obscene activity. Then, as if on cue, Theresa Pollak, the founding dean of the School of the Arts, arrived and waxed poetic to Oliver about the performance: “I wish you could have seen it,” she told her superior. No one was fired.
At the third installment of Bang in March 1966 a panel discussion on contemporary art was held in the gym. “Art, Non-Art, Anti Art” was moderated future best-selling author and ’59 alumnus Tom Robbins. World famous artists on the panel included Donald Judd, Barnett Newman and Ernest Trova.
The final Bang festival took place in April 1967. Participants who flew in from New York were greeted at the airport by a festive, costumed assembly of students who led a parade of decorated trucks and cars back to campus. Later, in the gym, a dance included Twyla Tharp, one of our nations’ leading choreographers and dancers. Also performing in the gym at the festival was Steel Mill, a band featuring a longhaired guitarist named Bruce Springsteen.
On the basketball court, in 1966 Charles McLeod, a transfer from Virginia State, was the first Black man to play basketball for the men’s Rams. While at RPI he and five other students established an African-American Studies Program.
The last game played in the old Franklin Street gym was held on Feb. 19, 1970. The Rams defeated Hampden-Sydney College 87-81. The outcome of that game, like others, was swayed by the opposing players being rattled by noise from the fans. Today, this Rams tradition continues.
A second addition to the Franklin Street Gym was completed in time for the 1970-71 season. This eastward wing dignified the building with a faux-classical temple front of four peculiar colossal columns fronting Franklin Street. Designed by Wright, Jones & Wilkinson, it also had a swimming pool in the basement.
The 1,500-seat new gym opened directly through double doors to the old gym. The opening men’s Rams season saw a brilliant 11-0 home record. Among the victories was a remarkable 63-56 overtime win over the much more powerful University of Minnesota.
From 1968 to 1979, when the Rams moved their home court to the Richmond Coliseum, the Rams went 74-3 in the Franklin Street Gym. But there was reportedly a distinct advantage. The basket at the eastern end of the court was 1.5 inches lower than regulation. VCU teams always concentrated on building a lead in the first half at that end of the court.
The new Franklin Street Gym however, was attractive enough for the Virginia Squires, a professional ABA team, in 1971. They used it for pre-season training with Julius “Dr. J.” Irving and Charlie Scott playing.
After moving to the Coliseum, the men’s Rams continued to use the gym as a practice facility and the women’s team played games there until 1999 when the Siegel Center was opened.
But despite VCU’s fired-up basketball fans, perhaps the loudest nights in the gym occurred at a rock concert on May 23, 1970, and the contract called for the space being vacated at 11 p.m. Bruce Springsteen and his musicians were performing “Going Back to Georgia” and “Sweet Melinda” when the security staff shut off the electricity. That didn’t stop the band, especially drummer Vini Lopez. The audience continued to “whoop” and “holler” according to an observer. Police were called in and fistfights ensued. Lopez spent the night downtown.
Springsteen would return to the gym for other concerts, as would Alice Cooper and such punk rock greats as the Ramones.
But from 1952 to 2019, thousands of students, many of them not necessarily athletic and artistic, passed through the Franklin Street Gym. Their memories may be of classes in communications, visual arts, theater, or art foundation. There were swim and wrestling meets and gym classes.
Richmonder Melanie Berman Becker, a sociology and social welfare student who graduated in 1967, took gym: “I showed up, what can I tell you? Phys ed was not high on my hit parade, so I took ballroom dancing, folk dancing and a golf class there. I didn’t have to wear a gym suit, thank god.”
Becker says that the plain facilities didn’t deter her college experience: “RPI allowed me to be somebody.”