A 2019 survey of the gymnasium’s exterior revealed water damage and cracks in its masonry, cast stone and stucco elements. The renovation project, which has wrapped the building in scaffolding, is repairing the damage, including replacing the pedestals on top of the east-west façade capitals, replacing roof capstones and flashing, repointing masonry and patching stucco and concrete bands.
The modern touch-up on an old building presented UVA Today with an opportunity to glance through the storied history of the structure, much of it catalogued in decades of intriguing photographs.
Memorial Gymnasium, or “Mem Gym” to students and decades of alumni, opened in 1924. It was proposed as a memorial to the 80 students and alumni who died in World War I.
Modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla and Baths of Diocletian, Memorial Gymnasium was designed by an architectural commission led by Fiske Kimball, the first head of UVA’s Department of Art and Architecture, forerunner of both the Art Department and the School of Architecture.
“The gymnasium drew inspiration from the architecture of ancient Rome as much as from Jefferson’s Academic Village,” noted a Historic Preservation Framing Report prepared for the University in 2007. “Indeed, the Diocletian reference of the great windows and the very term ‘gymnasium’ evoked ancient associations consonant with the classical vision of University Beautiful proponents.”
The main floor of the building measures 180 by 96 feet, with a 10-foot-wide, banked running track suspended above the playing surface, and lockers and quarters for home and visiting teams. The original structure had a 30-by-75-foot swimming pool, which was removed in 2007. The initial design had lecture rooms, a trophy room, boxing, fencing and wrestling rooms.
While designed as an athletic venue, it was also a social hall, hosting dances, dinners, concerts, class registrations and a variety of other functions, including graduations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at graduation there on June 10, 1940, a talk that became known as the “Stab in the Back” speech, in which he announced that Italy had allied itself with Germany in the European war.