This is the first in a five-part series on the historic home courts of the Indiana University basketball program. Today we take a look at the first home of the Hoosiers — the “original” Assembly Hall.
From Humble Beginnings…
The game of basketball was invented in 1891, and it didn’t take long for the sport to establish roots in Bloomington, Indiana. The first gymnasium constructed on the Indiana University campus was in 1892 — in a structure that could easily be confused for a barn today.
The above image shows that first gymnasium. According to the IU Libraries, this building was located four feet west and seventy-one feet north of Owen Hall. That location would have put it roughly on the doorstep of the south side of where the Indiana Memorial Union stands today. While the IU men’s basketball program never officially played here, the first organized basketball played on the campus almost certainly occurred in this building.
With organized sports gaining popularity, IU soon realized it would need a larger facility to house indoor athletics and other university events such as commencement and other ceremonies. After the first Assembly Hall was completed, this first gymnasium was used as a carpenter shop.
In 1896, Indiana University’s ninth president, Joseph Swain, dedicated the school’s first Assembly Hall—a wooden building that served as a general assembly hall, in which a wide variety of university gatherings were held. At the time it was referred to simply as the Men’s Gymnasium. This image was taken at around the time it was completed.
At roughly 9,000 square feet, today it could be easily confused for a small church or even a house. According to IU records, the wood frame structure was built in 1896 at a cost of $12,000, or probably more like $500,000 in today’s dollars. Despite its seemingly modest stature, it was an impressive facility in its day, and one of the first pillars of the game of basketball in Indiana.
The Men’s Gymasium could seat up to 1,600 for non athletic related purposes such as commencement. For basketball, it had a seating capacity of approximately 600. While such limited seating might make an Indiana elementary school blush today, it was an appropriate facility in its era. It was even worthy of a post card.
The Men’s Gymnasium featured balconies along the sidelines, with views surely much better than the balconies in today’s Assembly Hall. There was also a balcony on the west end and a stage on the east end.
The first IU men’s basketball game was played on February 21, 1901, featuring a contest between teams that still play today. Indiana lost that day to Butler 24–20. Indiana would win its first home game a few weeks later, defeating Wabash 26-17.
The gym has other claims to fame beyond being the original home to IU basketball. In March of 1911, the structure hosted the first ever Indiana state high school basketball tournament. Twelve teams from all over the state convened in Bloomington, and Crawfordsville emerged as the state’s first high school champion. The gym would later be referred to as the “Cradle of Indiana Basketball Tournaments”.
An Indianapolis Star report from 2009 indicated that 1,200 people managed to squeeze into the gym to watch that 1911 state championship game. Much like the IU basketball program, the state’s high school tournament was destined for bigger and better things.
The facility also hosted several dignitaries that were visiting the IU campus including two U.S. Presidents. William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt both spoke there. Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan spoke there as well, and many famous actors and actresses appeared on its stage.
On January 13, 1917, Indiana played its final game in the gym with a win over Iowa State 29–13. In 17 seasons in the building, IU compiled a record of 61-43. Perhaps foretelling things to come, they were a perfect 5-0 there in the final 1916-17 season.
Fourteen different coaches would lead the program during the 17 seasons at the original Assembly Hall.. James Horne was the first coach. Zora Clevenger coached two seasons and would later become the IU Athletic Director for 23 years.
The Men’s Gymnasium became known as the “Assembly Hall” around 1917 once the men’s basketball team and other programs moved on to the newly constructed Men’s Gymnasium on 7th Street. The original Assembly Hall would continue to be a gathering place for various IU events for another 20 years.
The building was torn down in 1938. To the best of our knowledge there was no auctioning of turnstiles or commemorative plaques sold to the public with the original basketball floor. To the contrary, several authors have reported that the students viewed it as an eyesore, with the Columbus Republic reporting in 1938 that the “ugly duckling” of the campus would be razed and turned into a parking lot.
Little did anyone know at the time that people would still be writing about it today — 80 years later — giving the structure much greater reverence than was the case at the time.
Surrounded by classical limestone architectural treasures in every direction, it is understandable how the humble wooden frame first home of the Hoosiers fell out of favor.
Despite its shortcoming in appearances, the original Assembly Hall was not lacking in historical significance. It lives on to today as part of the bedrock of the Indiana University men’s basketball program and the game of basketball itself.
Today, the land where the building once stood serves a much more modest purpose, continuing on as a parking lot.
There is a plaque commemorating the site at the northeast corner of the lot putting everyone on notice — IU basketball was born here.
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