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Tech History: The Heisman Gym

With little sports going on thanks to finals week, we take a Tech basketball’s first permanent home on campus.

Present-day Callaway Plaza and Upper North stands, the former site of the Heisman Gym.

With finals week this week, and, therefore, not much live basketball going on, we here at From the Rumble Seat decided to take a look at past Yellow Jacket basketball history. In what became a much more exhausting search than initially expected, we found some interesting information on the home of Tech basketball for more than two decades. Hopefully, with winter break coming up, this continues on to other history, but, for now, here’s what we got on the original Thriller Cube. Just kidding, obviously no one called it that, because that would be dumb.

Tech basketball suffered through many years of fits and starts. Tracing its roots back to an impromptu game against Auburn in 1906, a riveting 26-6 contest, Tech basketball was more conditioning for athletes to stay in shape for baseball and football. Understandably, because basketball was a minor sport at the time, especially in the southeast, Tech didn’t field varsity teams for several years at a time. In 1913, athletic czar John Heisman decided to have a second go at coaching basketball, after his 1909 team was vastly outmatched by rivals like Auburn and Georgia. The Georgia Tech Athletic Association (GTAA) did its part by converting the campus foundry into the grandiosely named Crystal Palace, near the top of Freshman Hill. Tech played two seasons at the top of the hill before the team was disbanded yet again.

It is only fitting the longest lasting permanent home of Tech basketball bore William Alexander’s name, since he brought the team back for good in 1919. Tech was again nomadic, wandering from venue to venue as the whims of local outfits saw fit, without a home on campus. In 1924, they finally got their answer, sort of.

Deemed the “Temporary Gym” from the start, the GTAA’s new building sat 2,500 spectators until it, somewhat appropriately for a temporary structure, burnt to the ground in 1931. Tech went 30-14 at home in their seven seasons where the Edge Building now stands. Once again, they were wanderers, while the burnt shell of their home sat unused at the corner of Techwood and Third.

In 1935, as a part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Civil Works Administration repurposed the old gym site into a naval armory. The Reserve Officer Training Corps would prove very fruitful to Tech in countless other ways, from federal funding and resources, to keeping the school thriving through multiple foreign wars, and providing a steady stream of bright young minds to the Institute. As a happy coincidence of the Armory construction, Tech basketball once again had a temporary home on campus. The Naval Armory sat under half as many spectators as the building it replaced, meaning the crowds were almost all students and staff.

The Works Progress Administration gifted Tech another venue in 1938. The Heisman Gym, as the combination auditorium, gymnasium, and swimming pool became known, was built next to the Armory on Third Street. The first phase of construction included the 1,800 seat gym that hosted Tech games from 1938 to 1956, and was later joined by the swimming pool where coach Freddie Lanoue taught his legendary “drownproofing” class. An Athletic Association office building farther to the west later completed the trio of New Deal-era structures.

Tech closed the Armory on a string of dominating seasons, peaking with a Southeastern Conference championship in 1938, but found themselves in the doldrums of mediocrity under several different coaches for most of their tenure in the old gym. In 1951, John “Whack” Hyder, captain of one of one of the great Tech Armory teams, was hired as the varsity basketball coach. Hyder led the team for 22 seasons, long into their time at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Around the same time, former head football coach William Alexander had assumed the position of Athletic Director. Coach Alex had designs on a brilliant new field house to house Tech’s indoor sports, which, in its final form, was eventually built as the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The Heisman Gym was outmoded by 1956. In their 18 seasons in the gym, the Jackets were a ghastly 72-151 on the road, but 98-61 at home. Notably, the 1948 matchup between UT-Chattanooga and Georgia Tech was the first televised basketball game in the south.

The gym loomed over the north bleachers at Grant Field for almost four decades after Tech basketball moved to Tenth and Fowler. Its many functions were slowly moved to newer state-of-the-art buildings like the Ferst Center for the Arts, a much larger auditorium, and the Fuller E. Callaway Student Activities Complex, which, in turn, was superseded by the Campus Recreation Center and McAuley Aquatic Center. The neighboring Athletic Association offices also grew outdated, and they were replaced by the current Edge Building where the Naval Armory once stood. The increased footprint of the new offices also called for the demolition of the gym. This freed up space for the eventual construction of the hulking steel superstructure of the Upper North end zone seating and the plaza outside, now the hub for pregame football activities.

Site of many prominent speakers and home to the vast majority of Tech’s special events in its day, and, of course, the game that made television history, the brainchild of Tech’s own Architecture Department was a structural and architectural pioneer as well. Though Tech’s seasons were never stellar in the Heisman Gym, a quickly-outdated facility incapable of expansion, smaller than the temporary facility it replaced, the gym was still a landmark.

Tech’s tradition of exceptionally-named basketball venues, from the Crystal Palace, the Armory, and the Alexander Memorial Coliseum, to McCamish Pavilion skipped the blandly-appended “Gym.” The football seating that replaced it undoubtably makes more money, the offices fit more people, and the support facilities better house our student-athletes, but one glaring absence remains from the demolition of the old building: a memorial structure worthy of one of the greatest coaches in college football history, John William Heisman.

Thoughts on the old gym? Any other Tech history you want to see checked out? Have memories of drownproofing? Let us know in the comments below!