"Wonderful Old Lawrence" by Elfriede Fischer Rowe

Robinson Gymnasium

     MANY BEAUTIFUL VIEWS COULD BE SEEN from the windows of old Robinson gymnasium and from the top of the fire escape, when it was completed in 1907. From the south side, the view swept over the Wakarusa Valley to the south, and beyond to the Pleasant Grove hill, with nothing to break it but farmland. To the southeast, was Haskell Institute, and beyond that Blue Mound, and to the west, the Daisy Field. The view from the north windows took in the town of Lawrence, the Kaw river, and the valley stretching for ten miles to the hills.

     The view now is perhaps not so inspiring, but just as breathtaking, because of the changes in the scenery. The farmland is now filled by almost solid apartment buildings and homes, and dotted by business and motel signs. The trees are so tall and thick to the southeast, you can barely make out Haskell. Blue Mound shows signs of a ski lift and run. Stouffer Place apartments and the giant dormitories have filled up the Daisy Field to the west. Strong Hall and trees have shut out the view on the north entirely.

     Old Robinson soon will be torn down to make room for a new humanities building, Wescoe Hall.

     Many strange sights and events have taken place during the lifetime of Robinson Gymnasium. It has seen co-eds taking boxing lessons from the "Fightin' Parson", Earl Blackman. To be sure there were only three girls taking, but one today boasts she taught her three sons the fundamentals, and the lessons came in handy. It has seen several baptismal ceremonies conducted in the pool.

     Many famous people graced its halls. Billy Sunday, the famous evangelist, sang, "Brighten the Corner Where You Are", and the students joined in, at a convocation. William Jennings Bryan gave a commencement address there. It can boast of entertaining a president of the United States.

     Under the auspices of the University Y. M. C. A., William Howard Taft opened the chapel exercises at the beginning of the fall semester in 1911. John Philip Sousa and his band played there -- Madame Schumnn-Heink sang there; Efrem Zimbalist gave a violin concert; the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra of fifty performers, and the Lawrence Ladies Chorus of sixteen solo voices, performed there. A centennial anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln took place there in 1909. It has watched women's gym clothes change from middy blouses and bloomers and long stockings, to T-shirts and shorts and socks.

     Old Robinson years ago began to show its age like an old

page 69

vine and ivy that turned a brilliant red in the fall. It became difficult even to see that the building was faced with Oread limestone. Bird nests were all over the place. Even owls nested there every year. In early spring, on the east side, you could see the baby owls sticking their heads out over the nest and later clinging to the top ledge. When you walked up the front steps, the stones were so worn by countless feet, your shoes almost fit in a groove. The walls inside were discolored and damp, especially after heavy rainstorms.

     Some changes inside were made over the years. The women's dressing room, originally had wooden cubicles where at that time, you were too modest to undress or dress around anyone. These cubicles were so small, you backed in and by all sorts of contortions, you managed to get in and out of your gym clothes. You had more things to take off in those days.

     Later there was one long room with benches on the sides to sit on and lockers to store your things. The pool was made longer from fifty feet to sixty feet. The original depth was eight or nine feet all over, but later the depth was graduated. Originally, beginners had no shallow water to stand in, you either swam or else. It is said, that was the theory of Dr. James Naismith. The gym was divided for the men and women by sliding, accordion type doors, and they always had trouble closing them. Now a permanent partition has been installed.

     Robinson Gymnasium can claim it had more activities than any other building on the campus ever had or ever will have. As soon as the building was completed, every student attending K. U. had to start at Robinson for registration and enrollment. To get a degree, one of the requirements was that you had completed two years of physical training, and could swim the length of the fifty-foot pool, or at least try.

     All physical examinations for both men and women were given there for years, and only by Dr. Naismith. All basketball games were played there. State high school basketball tournaments were held there for both boys and girls.

     In the days before the dormitories were built, the visiting boys and girls often slept on cots in the building. When service men and women returned after World War II, the two floors had bunks for men students who couldn't find suitable housing. For the early relays and band festivals, cots were placed on both floors to accommodate the participating students and their equipment.

     All fine arts programs took place there. The opening exercises of the University were held in the "Auditorium". In the early years, commencement exercises as well as the commencement dinners, were held there. The exercises were in the morning, on the second floor. Folding chairs were set up and bleacher seats were installed around the running track in the balcony. A stage

page 70

was built at one end of the room for the speakers. After the exercises, the commencement dinner followed at noon in the gymnasium on the first floor. Mr. R. B. Wagstaff catered these dinners for many years. The meal was prepared and cooked by the top cateress for Lawrence society matrons, Mrs. Lucy Brown. The dinner was served by Lawrence High School girls -- juniors and seniors. It was considered quite an honor to be invited to serve, without pay. Church auxiliaries also prepared and served several of these dinners.

     For years, Mr. T. J. Sweeney, Jr., a former student, furnished cape jasmines for the dinner, and there was one at each place on the long tables that filled the gymnasium. Down the middle of the tables were bouquets of wild daisies, picked at the Daisy field by some of the high school girls who served. Sometimes daisy chains trailed on each side of the bouquets. The kitchen, where the meal was prepared on three big ranges, was in the southeast corner of the first floor. Later that room had an upright piano, a chair, and a small table, and the north wall was mirrored. It later served girls taking dancing lessons.

     October 6, 1911, Woman's Day was celebrated to "inaugurate a state wide movement for the building for University girls", under the auspices of the Alumni Association of the University. After the program in which all of the speeches were made by women only, luncheon was served in the gymnasium, followed by an automobile ride for those who wanted it. The only man participating in the program was Chancellor Strong, who conducted the devotional exercises. The following April, 1912, an Indoor Circus was given by the Department of Physical Education for the benefit of the women's dormitory fund.

     In 1916, April 10, the first transcontinental telephone K. U. Alumni reunion was held in the gym. Five hundred persons, including faculty, alumni, and a few students listened by individual earphones, to speakers in San Francisco, New York and Lawrence. And in 1922, the first "radio rally" was staged in Robinson. December 15, 1924, the dedicatory program of KFKU went out on radio and the listening audience heard it from Robinson Gym.

     Major campus social events were held in Robinson, including the sophomore hop and the junior prom. All of these were preceded by a dinner on the first floor, followed by the grand march and dancing on the second. Even the "Junior Farce" put on by the junior class of 1913, a one-act musical farce, was performed there. The Gymnasium was patterned after the Springfield, Massachusetts Y.M.C.A. Training School, where Dr. Naismith came from. It was on his recommendation that the balcony was constructed as a running track. It was one of the few gymnasiums on a college campus of this size that housed activities of both man and women in the same building.

page 71

     Every department of physical education was housed there before Allen Field House was built. The Traffic Offices were there at one time. The Athletic office was used to display the trophies. Then in 1917, more room was needed, so they were stored. In 1932, the trophy case, given by the graduating class of 1928, was installed in the Student Union and loving cups and silver plaques have been on display there ever since.

     Robinson Gymnasium served its University well. It served Uncle Sam too. Part of the Machinist Mates program during World War II, was carried on there, as well as the Navy V-12; Navy V-5 Flight Training, and the Army Student Training Program, (ASTP).

     The old gymnasium didn't go uncriticized, despite its many services rendered. In 1914, the Yellow Kansan, (but printed on pink paper), stated, "Kansas Fire Laws Flouted in Robinson Auditorium", Students Lives Menaced by Lack of Escape. Barred Windows and Too Many Seats Between Aisles. Gym Not Fireproof", "Billions of Bacteria Menace Swimmers in Waters of Gym Pool". These were the headlines, but the article following, backed down by saying, "Bacteria not sufficiently numerous to cause any alarm".

     Old Robinson soon will go the way of most old and outmoded public buildings, but it will be missed by many people who have fond memories of the place.

Journal-World Annual University of Kansas Edition -- 1965.

Previous     Next     Contents