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Non-requiem for a Gymnasium

Saint John's (Summer 1973)

There’s no way the “old gym” at St. John’s is going to die. Not with the completion of the Warner Palaestra or ever. Old gymnasiums, particularly this one, don’t die, they just get replaced…or moved…or enlarged.  Even if the old gym would be torn down, it would live on in the memories of those who used it; or moved it; or enlarged it; from May 1901 to the present and into the future.

The Record charted the history of the gym on paper. The two men who probably spent the most time there, George Durenberger, athlete/coach/athletic director for nearly 50 years, and Ed Klein, equipment manager for more than 30 years, find the history of the gym a part of them

“On May 14 the foundation…of the gymnasium (was) begun,” the May 1901 Record reports. “As we go to press the basement and the foundation walls of the gymnasium are about half completed. This building will probably be erected under the immediate supervision of the authorities of St. John’s.” Chas. R. Aldrich of Minneapolis designed the castle like structure “of great symmetry and beauty”; John Heimann of St. Cloud was “contractor of laborers…of one of the finest gymnasiums in the Northwest” and one of the few with a wood floor.

Menomonee brick was used for the walls with St. Cloud brick used on the inside. The building measured 120 feet x 93 feet “entirely free from pillars and other obstructions” although it was divided with a portion for the “smaller boys” (Prep School students, Durenberger says) and a portion for the “larger boys” (University students). By July 4, the walls were 10 feet high and could “give the spectator some idea of the magnificent appearance of the building.” The brick work was finished in August 1901 despite a delay in construction as the work crews were called on to finish the new railway station building in Collegeville. The October 1901 Record said, “The completion of the new ‘Gym’ will be another epoch in the history of athletics. Here the student will find new fields and a larger scope for the development of his muscular abilities.” The gym was “under roof” in October and boasted a “fire proof floor.” It also had a running track elevated nine feet, complete with banked turns; the track also served as a grandstand. There were bowling alleys in the 20 x 90 basement and a billiard room on the second floor.

The gym, which originally faced west, met the needs of the students for 36 years before it was found to be too small and moved about 100 feet west in 1937. That summer it was turned completely around to its present location; improvements and renovations were made. Contractor was Paul Pappenfus, a 1913 St. John’s graduate.

The main floor was enlarged to 113 x 87 with a 60 x 40 dirt floor. The main floor, made by the Benedictines from maple trees growing on the campus, is still used. The battlements were replaced by a Mankato-stone coping to match the windows. The flat roof gave way to a rounded one and the tower housing the present press room was shortened. The elevated running track was removed with seats installed on the west side. The private stall showers were replaced by the two present open shower rooms which Klein says are still adequate. In 1937, when the facilities were improved, some of the brothers felt the open shower areas would lead to all kinds of “sin.”

A dirt floor area in the basement adjacent to a small hand ball court has recently been taken over by the headquarters of the Centrex phone system. Nearly every squad used that floor: there was indoor football practice in the spring and baseball, track, golf and archery in the winter. “It was sure dirty,” Klein recalls. “It seems some of the men nearly choked to death down there.” The dirt floor had Durenberger’s approval since he was opposed to outdoor spring football practice which denied spring sports participation to football players. And it meant varsity and non-varsity students could develop skills in “life-time” leisure activities such as golf, tennis and archery.

In 1950 the building was enlarged to its present size. Louis Pinault ’07 was the architect; he was assisted by Raymond T. Hermanson ’38 whose firm handled the design of the Warner Palaestra 20 years later. The gym floor increased 32 feet on the north end to the present 85 x 142 surface. The extension meant a third cross court intramural basketball floor and more area for a broader physical education program. The front of the building was renovated and the bowling alleys, having been moved from Benet Hall earlier and back to the gym basement in 1937, were moved to the current location. At that time, two old lanes were brought from a church in the Twin Cities, and, best parts combined with the three at St. John’s, meant a total of four alleys. Bleachers were constructed at each end of the main  floor. The property rooms were moved into the basement; an additional handball court was installed.

Lavatories were built on the main floor; it was the second restroom for ladies at St. John’s and had the first shower for females. Simon Ryan ’34 remembers. He and his wife, Florrie, were back at St. John’s for a football game and were passing the gym. Seeing a student near the almost completed facilities, Ryan asked, “Is there a woman’s toilet nearby?” “No,” said the student, “but when this building is completed there will be one inside.” “I don’t think we can wait that long,” Ryan replied.

The cost of the 1950 renovation was $76,805, nearly doubling the worth of the building to $150,169. The present value is $171,838.

There were other changes through the years. The University started to use a “no burn” gym floor finish in the early ‘30s which eliminated floor burns and the use of leather knee and elbow pads. “It was one of the finest things they ever did for gym floors,” Big George, a former Jay basketball star, says. Klein noted many equipment changes, including glass backboards, since he started working in the gym in 1942. Seats were added near the main entrance in the ‘40s and a rifle range was constructed in the basement.

There have been problems. Ventilation was poor until St. John’s hosted a National Liturgical Conference and installed two blowers. The roof has leaked from time to time. Every heavy rain, like the one this June, forced the pipes to back up, flooding the locker rooms and leaving the whirlpool baths full of sand. The pressure was so great water was forced though the drinking fountain near the main entrance. Always, it seems, the shower pipes “jump.” As anyone who ever took a shower in the gym can attest, when a toilet is flushed, the hot water “jumps” and scalds those under the shower head who are unable to move quickly enough as the pressure and temperature change.

But there is more to the “old gym” than its history of growth. There are many uses, the big games, the Johnnie spirit, the future. The building, with the word “RECREATION” painted over the main entrance, means different things to the thousands of individuals who have used the gym in a variety of ways. Athletes, both students and monks, have played handball, volleyball and whiffle ball there; they have bowled there and wrestled. The gym has been used for ROTC drills, registration, dances and concerts, for graduation, meals and homecoming. Durenberger remembers how packed the place would get for reunions: “You could have 30 classmates in the gym at homecoming and see two if you were lucky. If you bring your wife you’d better hang on to her or you’ll lose her in the crowd.”

The Rev. Alfred Deutsch, OSB, found different uses for the gym. He learned to smoke in 1928 hiding behind the building with Rusty Hogan and others. Cigarettes were hard to come by, he says, and friends would always share. “The owner would smoke some,” Fr. Alfred recalls, “and then pass it on. The second guy would get what we called ‘butts.’The third would get ‘pimps’ and the fourth ‘s-straws’ smoking what was left by holding the cigarette with a toothpick.” Fr. Alfred also learned to play poker in the tower.

St. John’s gym turned out many good handball players, including Fr. Alfred, and many good wrestlers including those on the championship teams of the past few years. But basketball, despite many lean seasons since it was first played in 1901, was king of the gym, both on varsity and intramural levels.

The first, and one of the few, championship teams was that of 1907. With a 3-1 record, the Johnnies earned the state intercollegiate title. The gym had its second champs the following year as St John’s was crowned best in the Northwest by beating Fargo Agriculture College, the champions of the Dakotas, 36-15, and the Holocombs of Minneapolis, in a challenge game, 52-29. The Jays won their only Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) championship in 1969.

Basketball gained popularity in the early years. In the 1903-04 season, St. John’s whipped Sauk Centre High School 68-15 and beat the St. Paul Turners in the ’08 championship season 73-15 in a season when the only loss came to the College of St. Thomas 43-31. Keeper of the record book, a journal which looks as old as the gym itself, attributed the loss to the “shape of the ball.”

In 1914, the Johnnies beat Melrose High 92-5 for the largest margin of victory ever, but then came the drought. St. John’s didn’t see many good basketball teams for year, but spirit, a trademark of SJU and its gym, was always there.

Spirit was high Dec. 16, 1937, as St. John’s beat North Dakota State 48-26 the night the gym was dedicated. Another highlight came Dec. 15, 1954 when the Johnnies beat Hamline 62-59 for the first SJU win over a Piper basketball team in 16 years.

But the gym saw its finest moment in 1969 as St. John’s MIAC champs went 12 wins – 4 losses in the conference, 20-9 overall, and undefeated in 11 games in the old gym. SJU won the title Feb. 24 by beating the University of Minnesota-Duluth 88-57. On March 3, St. John’s beat Winona State 66-61 for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics District 13 title and a trip to the national tournament in Kansas City. Losing by six points on the home court with five minutes left, the Johnnies rallied to tie Winona and finally win in overtime, the gym bursting with a jubilant overflow crowd and lots of pride. (SJU lost the first tournament game 78-76 to Henderson (Ark.) State.)

The spirit was always there. The Rev. Damian Baker, OSB, wrote in the Dec. 9, 1937 Record: “Johnny spirit which voiced itself vigorously in cheering that its (the gym) very walls and ceiling wondered how they could stand the strain, for the cheering at the Johnny games was matter of talk throughout the Northwest and merited the more appropriate name ‘the School of the Fighting Johnnies’.”

Fr. Damian noted that in 1926 the Record reported the 40-20 SJU upset over St. Thomas by writing “The cheering began 15 minutes before the contest and continued unceasingly throughout the entire game, having all the earmarks of a presidential campaign at a national convention.”

Durenberger feels the tradition of great fan support was due to the fact the students were always together, Prep and University students alike. “In the early years the kids had to stay on campus from the fall to Christmas,” George says.  “Preps even played on the intramural teams with the University students and ate in the same dining hall.”

In recent years, the spirit earned the gym the name “Rat Hall” with fan support intimidating some visiting teams, encouraging others. Some coaches, following a game at St. John’s, wished never to schedule a contest at Rat Hall again; Concordia coach Sonny Gulsvig and others felt their teams played better at St. John’s, trying to beat both the players and the Rats, George points out.

The spirit has also gotten out of hand. A melee erupted at the District 13 championship game in 1969 over a drumstick. A “rat” didn’t like a Winona fan beating a drum while the Warriors were beating St. John’s. The rat swiped the drumstick, the Winonan wanted it back. When the visitor and friends tried to retrieve the instrument, they found themselves covered with Johnnies. The players simply stepped aside for the sheriffs to restore order.

Another battle erupted late in the 1971-72 season as St. John’s dealt MIAC champs St. Thomas its second league loss of the year. The opposing fans rallied to the support of the two opposing coaches voicing a difference of opinion. The ensuing five minute brawl ended under an attack of mace, the players getting a break from the game action to watch the extracurricular activity.

It appears there will be coeducational activity in the gym’s future. Athletic Director Jim Smith says the gym will probably be used primarily by the prep school in the day with the new female preps joining the boys. He says the gym will likely be open to the University for intramurals at night. There is also talk of a Hall of Fame so the memories of the best SJU athletes can gain a permanent spot along with the gym.

It also appears Klein will retain his permanent position as equipment manager of the old gym. “I’d like to stay on here in this job for another 30 years,” he says. “It would not be too hard for me to stay…this is like a second home to me.”

Ed says he has very many memories about the gym, mostly good ones. He does feel bad, however, that the gym is being relegated to second place by the new facilities. But to Ed and many others connected to athletics at St John’s, the old gym will never be replaced.