So Here's To You, Dr. (and Mrs.) Robinson
It was “by far the largest social event ever given at the University,” wrote the Kansan. Attended by nearly 500 students and featuring a twelve-piece orchestra, KU’s Junior Prom of 1907 also included a musical comedy sketch and a series of short spoofs lampooning faculty members and University Chancellor Frank Strong.
In the preceding weeks, however, many feared that a prom on such a grand scale would be impossible given numerous construction delays associated with the event’s scheduled location, the not-yet-completed Robinson Gymnasium. Yet “when the electricity was turned on and the light appeared filling the magnificent hall with a combination of crimson and blue,” all agreed that it had been worth the wait. And indeed, beyond one class’s nervous anticipation, students at the University of Kansas had been waiting for a proper gymnasium for over 25 years.
In 1882, sixteen years after KU first opened, a small group of students began petitioning University Chancellor James Marvin for his permission to outfit a makeshift gymnasium in the basement of what was then called University Hall (it later became old Fraser Hall). At the time, students were able to participate in track, baseball and football on outdoor athletic fields, yet no suitable location existed for indoor activities, such as weightlifting, gymnastics, and eventually basketball. After much hectoring from the insistent students, Marvin relented, though he insisted the students purchase or provide all the equipment on their own.
According to KU historian Robert Taft, “The students themselves raised a fund which paid for all expenses incurred in providing for the new gymnasium, including the purchase of apparatus.” To make the rock-hard floor level and cushioned, noted the KU News Bureau, students spread “several loads of sawdust” and then promptly “fitted it with dumbbells, Indian clubs and parallel bars.” Though scarcely recognizable by modern standards, it was nonetheless “the first ‘gym’ on Mount Oread.”
Enthusiasm for this first makeshift gym soon ebbed, and it was not until 1891 that enough students became sufficiently motivated to reestablish a suitable indoor athletic area. They obtained a room below the north dome of University Hall. This time, students bought and maintained athletic equipment by imposing a fee-based user policy. The following year, KU Chancellor Francis Snow, cognizant of the growing interest among the student body in all fields of athletics, made the first formal recommendation to the Kansas Board of Regents regarding the possibility of building a freestanding gymnasium.
“I would call your attention,” he wrote, “to the urgent need of a well-equipped gymnasium, and a competent professor of physical culture, that all the students of the University may be provided with systematic physical training adapted to the peculiar needs of each individual.” He continued by insisting that, “There are grave dangers attending the lack of regular bodily exercise, and dangers almost equally grave confront the youth who resorts to the more vigorous forms of muscular activity without intelligent guidance.”
In 1893, KU welcomed its first “professors of physical culture” and, under the chancellor’s direction, work began to outfit the basement of Snow Hall as a temporary gymnasium until University officials could persuade the State Legislature to appropriate the necessary funds to build a permanent structure. When KU’s basketball coach and the game’s inventor, James Naismith, arrived in 1898, the basement of Snow Hall became his team’s court, even though the ceiling was only 14-feet high. Yet despite the administration’s best efforts to accommodate its students’ athletic interests, enrollments kept rising while physical space remained static. And to compound its own problem, the University, in 1893, formally required all freshmen and sophomores to take a class in “physical culture,” ensuring that already strained facilities would soon be bursting at the seams.
Not until 1905, however, did the state legislature respond to the University’s calls for a new gymnasium. Even then, it only acquiesced after repeated requests from KU Chancellor Frank Strong. James Naismith was also instrumental in the legislature’s decision, and it is difficult to imagine it granting the funds for a new gymnasium without his tireless advocacy. Once approved, Naismith even submitted rough architectural plans to the project’s architect and consulted with him as the building progressed.
Thus, with $100,000 appropriated from the legislature, the first question the Regents faced was where to locate the facility. They decided to use the land recently acquired by the University from Frank B. Lawrence, a 51-acre parcel on the west side of campus. Lawrence, a native of Boston, happened to be the nephew of former Kansas Governor Charles Robinson and his wife, Sara, both of whom had a long, though often turbulent, history with the University.
The second question facing the Regents thus dovetailed with the first: What would the new gymnasium be called? “Even before construction of the gymnasium began,” according to KU historian Clifford Griffin, “the regents decided to name it for Charles and Sara Robinson, partly to commemorate their past services, and partly to soothe Sara’s indignation at what she conceived to be undue pressure by Chancellor Strong on [her nephew] to sell his land cheaply.” (Previously, Charles Robinson had sold another parcel of land to KU on favorable terms for McCook Field, site of present-day Memorial Stadium.)
This decision managed to dissolve whatever ill feelings remained in Sara Robinson. On April 29, 1905, she told Chancellor Strong that all the “simplicity and humility born in me, comes to the front.” Her husband had died in 1894 and the gymnasium, she believed, was a “fitting acknowledgement for his work for Kansas – for the great school as well, for his bravery, patience, calm endurance, courtesy and unselfishness.”
The University had originally planned to unveil the new Gymnasium on the evening of May 3, 1907, in time for the Junior Prom. Nine days before the grand opening, though, The Kansan reported that a “large amount of work … still remained to be done to put the new ‘gym’ in fine shape for the party.” Students could still expect “the most brilliant affair ever given at the University" in a facility that was “beautifully decorated for the occasion with bunting and electric lights.” They would, however, have to wait until May 6. But that day, too, came and went “due to the impossibility of getting the new gymnasium” ready in time. The Prom was postponed again.
Finally, on May 17, 1907, the doors of the new Robinson Gymnasium opened to host its first formal event. According to the Kansan, 475 students (members of both the junior and senior classes) were in attendance and, by far, the highlight of the evening was a performance known as the “musical farce, … a clever comedy of many catchy and enjoyable ‘take-offs’” that apparently garnered good-natured laughs at the faculty’s expense. “If any one has had any ideas of the infallibility of faculty members, such ideas were surely dispelled by the junior farce last night.”
As for the new building itself, the Kansan wrote that the “Robinson Gymnasium fills a long felt need. The University now has a place where there is room for all in social and athletic circles.” And a few weeks later, Robinson would host the first of many Commencement ceremonies, though the building’s formal dedication would not take place until 1908.
Upon completion, Robinson Gymnasium featured a basement swimming pool, separate men’s and women’s locker rooms, a large 107 by 70-foot main-floor gymnasium, a 2,500-seat, second-floor auditorium and many other smaller classrooms and office facilities. Also inside were a one-sixteenth-of-a-mile running track, a baseball batting cage, and a full range of gymnastic equipment.
Over its 60-year history at the University of Kansas, Robinson Gymnasium, according to the KU News Bureau, “was the scene of enrollments, commencements, concerts, lectures, swimming meets [and] dances,” and even served as emergency housing during the immediate post-World War II period when KU had more students than places to put them. Robinson was also the spot where “the foundations of KU’s great basketball tradition were formed.”
Like many other campus buildings, though, Robinson Gymnasium was simply not adequate to the needs of a rapidly growing student body. In November 1967, the wrecking ball finally put an end to a true University landmark. Upon its location rose a new classroom building, the oft-maligned Wescoe Hall. Yet even before “Old” Robinson came down, the new Robinson Athletic Center was going up on the campus’ south side, preserving the memory of the indomitable athletic spirit and sweetheart land deal that together ensured the construction of its turn-of-the-century predecessor.
John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas