Hall of Memories

Hall of Memories

When the University of Virginia unveiled University Hall in 1965, it was not only the new home of the Cavalier men’s basketball team. (There would not be a women’s team until 1974, after the University went fully coeducational). It was also the largest indoor gathering space in Charlottesville.

With its unusual circular design – visually echoing the nearby Rotunda – and gleaming, scalloped roof, it was an instant Central Virginia landmark, recognizable from aircraft and nearby mountaintops and pretty useful for giving driving directions in the pre-GPS era.

Its architects envisioned all sorts of uses, including as a concert hall – the first major event ever held there was a performance by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra – and as a movie theater. Over the years, it hosted an astounding variety of events beyond basketball, from class registration to graduation ceremonies, from anti-Vietnam War speeches to national governors’ conferences, from mass swine flu vaccination clinics to professional wrestling matches. And concerts – lots and lots of concerts.

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Of course, basketball took center court. An irreverent nickname, “The Pregnant Clam,” gave way to “Ralph’s House,” in honor of graceful, 7-foot-4 giant Ralph Sampson, the most prominent of many players who helped lead the Cavalier men’s team from mediocrity to the national spotlight. The Wahoo women, too, rose from an upstart program to national title contenders under Hall-of-Fame head coach Debbie Ryan.

In fact, basketball success eventually contributed to U-Hall’s demise, as demand for seats outstripped the supply, and the economics of big-time college athletics required more capacity and improved facilities. University Hall hosted its last basketball games in 2007, before the excitement moved across the street to the brand-new John Paul Jones Arena. It hosted a few more small events before increasing safety concerns forced its closure to the public.

Today, after months of demolition work, U-Hall is literally a shell of its former self, little more than a faded, stained roof and some massive supporting ribs. Even that will come down Saturday morning, when the remainder of the building is imploded. Once the rubble is cleared, the land it stood upon will become the site of grass practice fields – part of a major new vision that will transform the UVA athletics precinct.

All that will remain – besides some cool virtual recreations – are memories. Here are a few.

The ‘BP’ Era

Truth be told, the men’s basketball team that moved from Memorial Gymnasium to University Hall in 1965 was not very competitive. The Cavaliers had not posted a winning season since 1954.

That all began to change in the fall of 1970, with the arrival of a second-year student, Barry Parkhill, on the Cavalier varsity (first-years were ineligible at the time). A sharpshooting guard, “BP” would lead the team in scoring in all three of his varsity seasons; he once dropped 51 points on a Division III team, Baldwin-Wallace, which still stands as the program’s single-game record.

Dan Plecker was a first-year student at the time. “We heard about a guy named Barry Parkhill who was supposed to be pretty good, so we started going to games,” he said.

Plecker and his friends were certainly not alone. The Parkhill-led Hoos were drawing some notice.

On Jan. 11, 1971, UVA celebrated its first-ever appearance in the Associated Press Top 20 rankings by upsetting the No. 2-ranked University of South Carolina, 50-49, on Parkhill’s buzzer-beating jumper – “a fade-away from the right baseline,” Plecker, now a Harrisonburg resident retired from the printing industry, said with assurance. “I can still see that shot. I had a piece of the net from that game.”

The stunning upset was the second of four wins in a span of eight days – all in a jam-packed University Hall – that pushed the Cavaliers’ record to 11-2.

“That place was loud,” said Parkhill, now an associate athletics director at UVA. “When we were there, winning was a novelty. It was new.”

Student seating at the time was first-come, first-served, and the student section would fill in the afternoon for an 8 o’clock tipoff, Parkhill recalled.

“I can remember waiting in line to get tickets,” Plecker said. “Then I remember they went to a lottery system because they didn’t have enough student seats.”

Parkhill’s favorite place in U-Hall? The playing floor – in the dark of night, honing his shooting stroke. “I spent many hours there at night. I just went in there all the time – I was just a typical gym rat.”

Though the 1970-71 season sputtered to a disappointing end, the program continued on its upward arc the following season, going 21-7 – the first 20-win season in 44 years. It all set the stage for the arrival of head coach Terry Holland, UVA’s first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament championship in 1976, and the debut of a certain 7-foot-4 phenomenon from Harrisonburg.

‘Ralph’s House’

As Tom Hicks remembers it, the scheme was hatched in the Charlottesville home of Landon Birckhead, where Hicks was living after finishing his last season of basketball at UVA in the spring of 1979.

“After my senior season, we were sitting around the table one night, brainstorming about crazy things to do before we graduated,” Hicks said, naming as his accomplices Birckhead and fraternity brothers Bobby Edwards and Rusty Cleveland.

What they came up with was “a little outside the box,” Hicks admitted, and would live on in Cavalier lore.

Hicks came clean in a phone call this week. “I think the statute of limitations has expired,” he quipped.

The group was aware that Cavalier head basketball coach Terry Holland was in a fierce recruiting battle for Ralph Sampson, a gifted 7-foot-4 center from across the Blue Ridge Mountains in Harrisonburg. They also knew that Holland had arranged to helicopter Sampson in for his official recruiting visit.

Hicks was familiar with the innards of University Hall, including the catwalk under the giant roof, having explored it after practice one day. At the center of the roof, there was a padlocked hatch that led outside – key elements of the plan born around the Birckheads’ table.

Around 2:30 a.m. on the day of Sampson’s visit, Hicks, Edwards and Cleveland parked across Emmet Street from U-Hall and stole across the grass practice fields, carrying two backpacks filled with 30 to 35 cans of spray paint (paid for by Birckhead, Hicks recalled) and some tools, plus a key to the arena that Hicks had secured.

When they reached the door, they found it unlocked. “That set off some alarms with us, that people might have gotten wind of it,” Hicks said. They debated whether to continue before deciding to go ahead.

The catwalk swayed as they made their way to the center of the roof, Hicks said. Then they managed to defeat the padlock. “Like a submarine, we just popped the hatch, climbed out, and there we were, with a great view of Charlottesville,” he said.

The roof’s slope was gentler near the center, but got more precipitous toward the edges, so they stayed close to the hatch. They divided up the spray paint and the letters of their planned message, and went to work.

There was one close call. Just as a security truck rolled into the arena’s parking lots, one of the spray paint cans fell out of a backpack and clattered down the roof before clanging loudly against the concrete sidewalk below. Remarkably, the security guards never saw or heard it, Hicks said.

By dawn, the “artists” were done and retraced their steps back to the car. When they got home, they made one phone call, to alert the Charlottesville Daily Progress. (What good was a caper if no one knew about it?)

Hours later, when Sampson and Holland flew over University Hall, there were two words spray-painted boldly in black against the shining white roof:

Ralph's House
Ralph Sampson received a most unusual welcome as he arrived at the University via helicopter. (Submitted photo)

“He did see it,” said Hicks, an English major on a pre-med track who eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where he has worked in finance and coached high school basketball for 39 years. “I don’t know that it changed the course of history, as far as his decision.”

Sampson, of course, chose UVA, and went on to become a three-time national player of the year, leading the Cavaliers to a National Invitational Tournament championship and an NCAA Final Four. Fans packed “Ralph’s House”; the national sports media set up shop along the press table, and Cavalier basketball was the hottest ticket in town.

 “Every game was an event,” said Albert Keatts, a 1983 alumnus who wrestled for the Cavaliers. “You never thought you’d see it again.”

Perhaps the peak of Sampson’s years in U-Hall came on Jan. 25, 1981, in an afternoon clash against The Ohio State University that served as a nationally televised preliminary to the Super Bowl that evening. The Buckeyes came into the matchup against the unbeaten Cavaliers boasting a vaunted frontline of forward Clark Kellogg and center Herb Williams.

Sampson was more than up to the challenge; he scored 40 points, pulled down 16 rebounds and blocked three shots. Kellogg and Williams combined for 22 points and 16 rebounds before both fouled out. Virginia rolled, 89-73.

“That was probably the most dominating game [Sampson] had at UVA,” Keatts said. “It was supposed to have been a competitive game, but it ended up being not competitive at all.”

Ralph’s House, indeed.

Hot Dog Night

While the men’s team thrived, the Cavalier women’s team may have been even better under Hall of Fame coach Debbie Ryan. In her 34 seasons at the helm of the program, UVA won 739 games and had only two losing campaigns. They went to Final Fours in 1990, ’91 and ’92. The team went three full years, from 1992 to 1995, without losing a game at U-Hall.

Despite all their success, attendance at women’s games consistently lagged well behind the men’s team’s crowds.

In 1986, Kim Record, the UVA associate athletic director who oversaw women’s hoops, had an idea to change that, targeting a Feb. 5 showdown with rival North Carolina.

“She put together this idea where everybody that came to the game would get a free hot dog and a Coke,” Ryan recalled for a VirginiaSportsTV video commemorating the event. The announced goal: set a new national attendance record for a women’s basketball game.

The promotion created a buzz. “We went to all the movers and shakers,” Record said in the video, “and made it that if you weren’t in University Hall that night, there was something wrong with you.”

Adding to the appeal: The Cavaliers came into the game 20-0, while the Tar Heels were ranked No. 15 in the country.

In the video, ticket manager Dick Mathias recalled asking another associate athletic director, Jim West, what would happen if more people showed up than there were seats; U-Hall’s official capacity was then 9,000.

West “turned around and looked at me and said, ‘Just let ’em in, brother,’” Mathias said.

Keatts, the former wrestler, was living in Fluvanna County at the time. He read about the promotion in the paper and decided to take his wife and children to the game.

“I thought they might have five or six thousand people there,” he said.

Wrong. People had begun lining up outside in the morning, hours before tipoff. “It was the craziest thing,” Ryan said. “You couldn’t get into the parking lot.”

By game time, “It was like deafening noise from the minute you walked in,” Ryan said. “There were people in every single aisle; there were people hanging over the sideline. They were in every nook and cranny you could think of.”

“It was a madhouse, an absolute madhouse,” said Keatts, who nonetheless managed to brave the long lines at the concession stands and get his hot dog and soda.

Kevin Grierson, a cheerleader at the game, agreed. “It was nuts.”

He recalled cheering at a men’s game at U-Hall when UVA knocked off No. 1 North Carolina. “That was the only crowd that was comparable, in terms of how loud it was,” said Grierson, who earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University and now practices law in the Williamsburg area. “It was one of those nights when you went home and your ears were ringing. That crowd was into that game. It was shaking.”

Officially, the attendance was 11,174, a record for a UVA women’s game that stood until 2009, when a similar hot dog-and-soda promotion drew 11,895 people to the new John Paul Jones Arena for a game against Tennessee.

Alas, UNC ended up winning the “Hot Dog Night” game, 60-58. Even worse, the massive crowd drew the ire of the local fire marshal, who subsequently lowered U-Hall’s official seating capacity to 8,200 – a reduction that cost the University thousands of dollars in ticket sales and concessions for sold-out men’s games.

“I guess you could say it was the costliest promotion that was ever done,” Record said.

A Long Way Down

For some ROTC cadets, University Hall was more of a jungle gym than a basketball gym.

Rappelling – lowering one’s self down a steep slope, or through the air from a high place, on a rope – is a standard element of military training. ROTC cadets are often introduced to it in the weeks before their first year. Some from UVA’s Cavalier Battalion recall learning it at Fort A.P. Hill; others recall rappelling down Raven’s Roost, off the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“It’s one of the more fun things you can do in ROTC,” said Mark White, a 1993 foreign affairs alumnus and former member of the Cavalier Battalion.

By the mid-1990s, the Army ROTC cadets were also practicing their free rappelling from the catwalk along the roof of University Hall.

The catwalk beneath the roof of University Hall was narrow and a little shaky – and a long way above the floor. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“The hardest thing was always walking from the wall out to the catwalk to the middle” of the arena, high above the floor, said Tina Blain, a 1997 alumna, who now teaches middle school civics in Fairfax County. “Once you got out there and got over the railing, it was fun.”

White, now a criminal defense lawyer in Houston, was selected to rappel to the floor with the American flag before a home basketball game. He remembers the catwalk as being “kind of narrow.”

“We practiced the day before,” he said. “The hard part was climbing over the railing.

“I remember the crowd really cheering when we came down. It was really exciting. It went by in such a flash.”

He doesn’t recall how the game ended; he didn’t stick around to watch.

“I grew up in Texas, so I was a football fan, not really a basketball fan,” he said.

Musical Interludes

Kit Schumaker loved going to concerts as she grew up in Northern New Jersey, close to the New York music scene. She was pretty sure she was going to have to leave live music behind when she left to enroll at UVA.

She was delighted to be proven wrong. “UVA was on the circuit for a lot of good concerts,” said Schumaker, a 1980 alumna of the School of Nursing now living in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

She remembers heading to University Hall for a string of national acts, including Dan Fogelberg, Jackson Browne, Pure Prairie League and Little Feat.

“I was pretty psyched, because I was able to get my music fix when I was there,” she said. “I was always [seated] on the floor. I was Johnny-on-the-spot when they announced it.”

Sly and the Family Stone was one of the dozens of national acts that made its way to University Hall over the years. (Photo courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

A particular favorite show was Jimmy Buffett. “That was when I became a ‘Parrothead’ – at Virginia,” she said. “People went through with shark hats and stuff. He was not a huge national guy then, but I became a big fan.”

Marcy McHenry, who graduated in 1981 from the McIntire School of Commerce, may have been at the same Buffett show, which she remembers as taking place in February 1980. “It was a cold, dark winter day. I think it was a Friday night,” she said from Greensboro, North Carolina, where she now works for a leading manufacturer of gasoline pumps.

McHenry recalled fans clad in Hawaiian shirts and white painter’s caps, and standing on seats with a friend from home and singing along. “For that moment in time, it felt like a total escape. … It was a tropical escape in the dark days of February from the dreariness of the third year of Comm School.”

Some of the other acts that Facebook users recall having seen at University Hall over the years (in no particular order, and without vouching for the accuracy of their memories): The Grateful Dead; Talking Heads and REM; Squeeze; Sam and Dave, and Wilson Pickett; A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul; The Roots; The Pretenders and Iggy Pop; Joe Jackson; The Four Tops; Peter, Paul & Mary; The Band; the Temptations; Janis Joplin; Glen Campbell; the London Symphony; the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra; Sly and the Family Stone; Stevie Wonder; Paul Simon; Bruce Hornsby and the Range; Bonnie Raitt; B.B. King; Faces (with Rod Stewart); Fleetwood Mac; UB40; Modern English; Boston; Bob Dylan; The Robert Cray Band; Blues Traveler; The Byrds; The Beach Boys; Mitch Ryder; Smokey Robinson; Phish; Steppenwolf; James Taylor; The Spinners; Tom Tom Club; Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, with The Fabulous Thunderbirds; The Doobie Brothers; Southside Johnny; Fishbone, the Violent Femmes and the Indigo Girls; Elvis Costello; NRBQ, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Molly Hatchet; Chuck Mangione; James Brown; Chuck Berry; Ike and Tina Turner; Chicago; Alice Cooper; Ludacris and Wu Tang Clan; and Al Di Meola.

Even after discounting for possibly faulty memories, that’s a lot of music.

50 Governors and a President

Deborah Della Rosa said she never missed a basketball game at U-Hall when she was a student (she graduated in 1991). But one of her best memories of the building had nothing to do with sports.

In September 1989, President George H. W. Bush convened an unprecedented – and since unmatched – summit of the nation’s 50 governors in Charlottesville to discuss national education policy. That in itself was enough to thrill Della Rosa, a government major who later went on to work on Capitol Hill. (She’s now working in wealth management in Moorestown, New Jersey.)

But beyond that, she was one of the lucky members of the public to receive a ticket to Bush’s keynote address to the conference, delivered in a filled University Hall.

President George H.W. Bush addresses the nation’s 50 governors and members of the public at the 1989 education summit. (Photo courtesy Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library)

“We got to hear him address his stance on education” and suggest national goals, she said. “As students, this was something beyond this school, and something to be a part of.”

(By all accounts, Bush’s U-Hall address went smoother than his 1981 address on Finals Weekend on the Lawn, when the then-vice president’s remarks were marred by technical difficulties with the sound system, which returned to life just in time to capture Bush dropping a mild oath.)

Also among those in the audience at U-Hall that day: a lesser-known governor of Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton, who led the education task force of the National Governors Association.

A Different Kind of Shots

In February of 1976, U.S. Army Pvt. David Lewis died after a five-mile march at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Testing revealed that he and another soldier, who recovered, were both infected with a strain of influenza called “swine flu,” similar to one that caused a pandemic in 1918 that claimed as many as 100 million lives worldwide.

U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, fearing a similar outbreak when the flu season returned in the fall, ordered a vaccination program to inoculate every man, woman and child in the U.S. against the swine flu.

By October, the first doses of the vaccine were beginning to reach the public, but were not yet widely available. A Nov. 9 article in the Cavalier Daily announced that vaccinations were underway locally for people at highest risk, with a “second priority” wave for first responders and hospital employees to follow.

A week later, mass vaccinations for students were announced, to be held Nov. 21 and 22 at University Hall. For two evenings, flu shots would replace jumpshots.

“You forget that U-Hall is basically the only big place in Charlottesville where you can get everything done – basketball, concerts and flu vaccinations,” said Nancy Borges Barnes, who graduated in 1978 with a degree in government and foreign affairs.

“It was one of those things where your mother calls and says, ‘I hear they’re giving vaccinations. Go get one,’” she said.

In the days before the flu shot clinic, the Cavalier Daily reported that five state medical technicians would administer the vaccine. George Mayo, the director of the Albemarle County Health Department, predicted that 75% and 80% of students would be inoculated.

Mayo’s estimate was a tad optimistic. In the end, only about a third of the students showed up – but that still amounted to 5,500 students receiving the shots during the two three-hour clinics. That kind of flow might have been difficult to handle, even in, say, Newcomb Hall.

Now a retired computer programmer living outside Dallas, Barnes doesn’t remember many details about the experience, just lining up outside, then being given the shot in the main lobby.

In 1976, 5,500 UVA students entered through the main lobby to receive their swine flu shots. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Subsequently, the Cavalier Daily reported the vaccinated students would require a booster shot at least four weeks after the first dose, after the end of the fall semester. But in the meantime, the nationwide vaccination campaign was suspended (and later cancelled altogether); there was no evidence of a swine flu outbreak, and the vaccine itself was linked to an increased risk for Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can cause paralysis, respiratory arrest and even death.

Rasslin’

When second-year architecture student Steven Jakub and some of his former first-year suitemates learned that a pro wrestling show was coming to U-Hall in March 1998, their curiosity was piqued.

“I wasn’t a huge wrestling fan growing up,” said Jakub, who grew up in Dale City and is now an architect in Phoenix. “I watched a little on TV.”

They decided to give it a try. What they found was a bit of a revelation.

“It was a full house, and it was a rockin’ crowd,” he said. There may have been six or seven preliminary matches, he recalled, before the finale. (Indeed, an online history of pro wrestling cards shows seven matches in all, capped by Ric Flair’s defeat of Curt Hennig.) The action was non-stop; “It went by pretty fast,” Jakub said.

Jakub and his friends sat in the upper level, but had no trouble following the action. “It was a pretty small venue, pretty intimate,” he said.

While he did not become a lifelong pro wrestling devotee, he still recalls the event fondly.

“I don’t know how much we paid for the tickets,” he said, “but we got our money’s worth.”

‘Moooooo’

In those dark days before registering for UVA courses was all done online, from the comfort of wherever one happens to be, students endured the annual cattle call at U-Hall.

Notified by snail mail of when to show up, herds of students arrived at University Hall at their appointed times to formally enroll in the semester’s courses.

“I remember the first time being completely overwhelmed,” said Jennifer Gibert Mencarini, now director of career development at the Elon University School of Law, but back in August 1990 a callow first-year student from Arlington.

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Students queued up at the main entrance, then slowly shuffled down the arena’s stairs to the floor level. There, they verified that they had paid their tuition, had their pictures taken for their IDs, registered for classes, then picked up the IDs on the way out of the opposite end of the arena – only to be confronted by representatives of dozens of student organizations seeking new members (a precursor to today’s Student Activities Fair).

Some students mooed as they made their way through the process. “I do remember it being a maze,” Mencarini said, “about like a cattle chute. You followed where everybody else was going.”

By the time her next registration rolled around, it was more of a chore than an adventure. “I remember going back the next year and wondering why I had been so freaked out,” she said.

The Last Word

University Hall held a kind of magic for generations of alumni and local residents. Kids grew up watching basketball games there, got married and had children of their own, and took them to games there. Music fans saw their first rock concerts there. Fans screamed themselves hoarse cheering on their Cavalier heroes. Local high school students graduated there, as did a few unlucky UVA classes who were rained out of their beloved walk down the Lawn.

At big games, “you could feel the energy in the floor,” Kevin Grierson, the former cheerleader, said. “You could almost feel the floor moving a little.”

But it was also clear that for most who made their way through U-Hall’s glass doors, the building itself was not the magic; instead, the magic came from the events held there, and the people they shared them with.

“Even back when I was there, people were thinking it was past its prime,” said Steven Jakub, the Phoenix architect who graduated in 2000.

“I hate to see the building go,” said Albert Keats, the former wrestler, before acknowledging “the building wasn’t in the best of shape these days.”

Though U-Hall’s bricks and concrete soon will be gone, the magic that transpired there will bring smiles for decades to come.

The dome of University Hall is now held up by just the skeleton of the building. The structure will be demolished Saturday. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

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