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Feldman, Jim (Writer) / The buildings of the University of Wisconsin

Gymnasium and armory,   pp. 75-79

Page 78

Among the changes made to the gym in the earliest days were several attempts to solve a
ventilation problem under the floor at ground level, where joists were rotting from dampness and
heat. The building was ventilated according to a highly innovative system designed by the architects
and engineering professor Storm Bull; it utilized a huge floor fan on the first floor and a series of
ducts and air shafts in the towers of the building. The system was not especially successful, and is
now mostly removed. Other difficulties involved adding electrical lighting which had been generally
an afterthought in the original design. In 1905 buttresses were added to the rear (north) wall to help
avoid the kind of collapse which occurred at the New York armory after which the gym was mod-
elled. The foundation and windows were modified at this time also.
The use of the second floor as a public assembly hall as envisioned by Charles Adams included
speeches by William McKinley (1894), William Jennings Bryan (1912), Eugene Debs (1923), Upton
Sinclair, (who, in 1922 had to promise not to refer to any controversy), and of course the famous
Republican state conventions of 1902 and 1904 where UW alumnus Robert M. La Follette was
nominated for governor.7
By 1911 the gym was already too small. When it opened in 1894 the enrollment was about
700, by 1910 it was almost 2000. The new president Charles Van Hise believed that the uses of the
building, gymnasium, armory and assembly hall were "quite inconsistent with one another." One
heavy user of gym space was the university basketball program. In the 1920s the Big Ten games were
very popular in Madison. [See Fig. 4] Until the construction of the field house in 1930, these games
packed the red gym. The regents decided to expand the space by building an annex onto the east side
of the gym. This annex stood until the mid 1960s.
After the first world war (during which the gym was a dormitory for 900 men from the war
department) the gym was hopelessly undersized, now trying to accommodate 5000 students. An
antimilitary sentiment became strong in Wisconsin and it became the first state to eliminate the com-
pulsory military training at a land grant university. After the Memorial union (1928) and the field
house were completed, the gym was little needed for mass meetings and was used only for student
registration. During the depression some athletes were allowed to live rent free on cots set up in the
turrets. With this great decline in use, the gym was modified very little during the 30s and 40s. By
1953, the bowling alleys and rifle ranges were gone and offices created by partitioning the running
track. Maintenance of the building also declined.
Shortly after WW II, plans to demolish the outmoded facility were made but sentiment and
discussion delayed all demolition except for the annex which was torn down in July 1956. In the late
1950s plans were made for a new gym at a new location and in the fall of 1963 gym 1A located on
the west end of Observatory Drive was opened. The old gym was supposed to come down then too,
but in 1965 demolition was delayed until gym Unit II was built on the west end site. The building
then remained in use as a gym and ROTC headquarters throughout the 1960s. A firebomb on January
2, 1970, aimed at but missing the ROTC offices, started a fire which burned for seven hours (helped
by the ducts and air passages in the old towers). Substantial but nonfatal damage was suffered by the
Now [ 1993] after decades of neglect and underutilization, plans are being made to find new
uses for a building that has stood as a Madison and University landmark for 100 years. A committee
headed by dean Mary Rouse has developed an extensive plan for the buildings reuse contained in a
published report "Armory and Gymnasium Historic Structure Report". After restoration of the basic
structure, including cleaning, repair, and reroofing of the exterior, the three main interior spaces will
be reversibly converted to a University Visitors Center (first floor), multipurpose assembly space
(second floor), and offices (third floor). In addition a tunnel connecting the building to the union will
be built and a new addition on the east side of the building containing stairs to the second floor

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