When construction was started on the Fieldhouse in the summer of 1926, Washington University was playing its home games in the Francis Gymnasium and the St. Louis Coliseum. Built for the 1904 St. Louis Olympic Games, my best estimate of the seating capacity of the Francis Gym was around 1,000 persons with seating located in bleachers along both sidelines and additional places for fans on a running track encompassing the upper portion of the building above the playing floor.1 The Coliseum, on the other hand, held 7,000 people but was expensive to rent. It stood at the southwest corner of Washington Boulevard and Jefferson Avenue from 1908 through 1953. When the cornerstone was laid on August 12, 1908, it was claimed the structure would be the largest public building in the United States. It replaced the St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall as the city’s main indoor arena. When Kiel Auditorium opened, it effectively replaced the Coliseum which was condemned as unsafe by the city in 1953.
In 1926, most of the major colleges in the nation were playing in facilities that seated 5,000 or fewer people. In the Missouri Valley alone, capacities were 3,500 at Kansas; 3,000 at Oklahoma A&M; 1,750 at Grinnell College; 3,000 at Iowa State, 4,000 at Drake, and 2,800 at Kansas State. Nebraska would open an 8,000 seat arena in 1926; Oklahoma its 5,000 seat McDonald Fieldhouse in 1928; and the University of Missouri its 5,000 seat Brewer Fieldhouse in 1929. St. Louis University played its games in the 2,200 seat West Pine Gym. And yet to come in the St. Louis metropolitan area was the Arena which opened in 1929. Financed by the National Dairy Association, I was unable to find what its original capacity was, but it was the near equal to Madison Square Garden. And, finally, the original 9,300 seat Kiel Auditorium was opened to the public five years later.
Sometime in 1923, it was decided that Washington University needed a Fieldhouse. Grandiose plans were described in the October, 1925 WUSTL publication Washingtonian.
“… Have you heard about the new Fieldhouse? It is just behind the gymnasium and extends clear to Pennsylvania Avenue. At the present writing its foundations are about completed. Every effort is being put forth to have it ready for the opening of the basketball season, January 15th. The field house is intended primarily for intercollegiate basketball but it will also be used for classes in physical education, indoor track, spring baseball practice, intramural basketball and track, interscholastic basketball and track, and as an auditorium. It will seat 8,000 when used for basketball and 9,000 when used as an auditorium. In shape it will be much like the (St. Louis) Coliseum but more compact. With Wilson Pool, the Francis Gymnasium and the field house connected by corridors, we shall have the largest single gymnasium unit in the world. A few other schools have a gymnasium, pool and field house but in each case the various buildings are widely separated and do not form a single unit.”
The article continued,
“The cost of the building, $250,000, is being charged against the athletic department which will pay off the debt from gate receipts. For the past few years Washington athletics have been operated at a loss but the University was willing to advance the money because of the urgent need of the building and the expectation of better teams and therefore bigger gates.”
Continue to read more about Fieldhouse history…
The University did what would be ‘the impossible’ today. The Fieldhouse was erected in a 6-month period! The time span was probably typical for those times. Eight months for Madison Square Garden was another example of the expedient construction in the 1920s. It was constructed with no unions; few if any building regulations and controls; and no environmental assessment. It was rumored that a new gymnasium would probably built, but no definite announcement concerning its construction was made before the end of the 1925-26 school year. However, during the summer, the athletic department became active. There was a campaign not for the purpose of raising funds but to secure the interest and co-operation of university authorities. When students returned to the campus in late September, excavation was completed and construction well under way. The construction company was under contract to finish the Fieldhouse by the end of the year in order that Washington might play its first home game in mid-January.
On January 15, 1926, the Bears and Iowa State tipped off in the first game played in the Washington University Fieldhouse. The following is a summary of the contest from the 1926 Hatchet Yearbook.
“On January 15, the Bears played their first game of the season on the local court. As the new $250,000 field house had been completed by this time, the game with Ames was played on a new floor. Two pretty goals by Sanford and Eckert in the last two minutes of play gave the Bears a hard earned victory over the Iowa State Cyclones by a score of 30-26…. Captain Seago scored five of the prettiest goals ever seen on the Pikeway.2 He scored the first four field goals for Washington and his stellar playing kept the White men in the running during the first half…”3
So, it is likely the first man to score a basket in the Fieldhouse if not in the game itself than, at least, for Washington University was Russell Seago, a six foot, two inch center (pictured to the left).
Due to lack of finances, the Fieldhouse capacity fell far short of the 8,000 seats projected in Washingtonian. What was called the upper mezzanine sat 2,214 spectators; the lower mezzanine 1,526 and bleacher seating on the floor was 1,267 for a capacity of 5,007. In 1947, rollaway bleachers were installed on the floor area. These seated 1,500 fans and increased the house to 5,240. Still crowds were hard to estimate since both the floor and upper mezzanine seats were not blocked out which allowed more than the capacity to find seating in the building. Thus, there were numerous games with 6,000 plus attendance including the record crowd of 6,565 that attended the WUSTL vs. Princeton University basketball game on January 3, 1964.
About the Author: Bill (William) Gullion, BU ’57, moved to the WU campus at age 12 when his father, W.U. Coach Blair Gullion, took over the basketball program in 1947. Bill played for the Bears as a student, and stayed on a coach for a number of years. Along with fellow team alumni, Bill is working to document the history of basketball program.
2. The earliest nickname for the University’s athletic teams was “Pikers”, a name whose roots lie in the 1904 World’s Fairs amusement section. After the Fair, when the University moved to the Hilltop campus, the new campus’ proximity to the Pike led to the tradition of using the nickname “Pikers” to refer to both athletic teams and W.U. students in general. Because of its negative connotations, WUSTL teams became the Bears on December 18, 1925.