On this drafting table, a structural engineer designed two fieldhouses that could withstand a nuclear war, or a really heated basketball rivalry.
In the 1930s and 1940s, basketball became one of the most popular sports on the university campuses of Kansas. Teams at Kansas State University (K-State) and the University of Kansas (KU) were so successful their gymnasiums could not contain the crowds. Playing and attending games became a safety hazard.
At K-State, the basketball team played in Nichols Gymnasium with a seating capacity of 2800. Students sat precariously in the rafters during games to avoid missing a single play. Courtside seats were nearly as dangerous, as they were literally right next to the hardwood, with some rounding off the court's corners. It was not uncommon for players to land in the crowd.
KU's Hoch Auditorium was no better. As demand for tickets to the 3800-seat facility grew, fans could only purchase tickets for half a game. Many bought tickets from scalpers to see the other half. Because Hoch was actually a performing arts center, the basketball court was squeezed between the stage and the seats. While the tapered walls near the stage provided great acoustics, they did not allow for an out-of-bounds area. They also created an optical illusion that frustrated players when they shot the ball. The wooden court sat directly on concrete, leading players to complain of shin splints and tired legs. They nicknamed the facility "Horrible Hoch" and "House of Horrors."
The universities needed new arenas to remain athletically competitive and accommodate the fans. Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, KU's basketball coach, began a construction campaign in 1927. Michael Ahearn, K-State's athletic director, voiced the same need for his university in 1935. Each proposed constructing a fieldhouse. More than just a basketball court, fieldhouses had a multi-sport function. They were large enough to host football or baseball practice as well as field events such as javelin and discus throwing. Runners practiced their events on a dirt track that surrounded the basketball court. Utilitarian in their design, fieldhouses focused on sport and competition.
Over the next decade, school officials, students, alumni, and fans lobbied the Kansas legislature for funds. Legislators encouraged the universities to conduct cost and site analyses. Architects and engineers drew up plans calling for steel and native Kansas stone. The aesthetics were minimal, as each fieldhouse was rectangular in shape with a moderately pitched roof. The facades, punctuated with windows and pilasters, more closely resembled a medieval basilica than a modern coliseum. Like a basilica, the fieldhouses would be sturdy. They would also be expensive.
Legislators recognized the universities' needs, but moving ahead with construction proved difficult. Funding was delayed during the Great Depression, and increased enrollment meant that classroom space was a higher priority. World War II caused further delays. Students at K-State signed petitions and held parades to ensure that the issue remained at the forefront. During a game against KU in the early 1940s, students seated in the rafters dropped a dummy covered in fake blood to the floor of Nichols to illustrate how dangerous their seats were to state officials in attendance. Finally, in 1945, legislators allocated $750,000 for the construction of a fieldhouse at K-State. The team played its first game in the new facility in 1950, defeating Utah State by twelve points.
While the Wildcats were winning their first game in Ahearn Fieldhouse, the Jayhawks waited. It now became an issue of rivalry. Not to be outdone by his in-state foe, Phog Allen told the legislature, "I'm delighted, gentlemen, that Kansas State College got a fieldhouse, but we'd like some consideration, too." The legislature passed partial funding in 1949, but the tension of the Korean War made some fear the reduced availability of steel. University officials lobbied the National Production Authority (NPA), a federal wartime regulatory agency with the power to divert materials needed by the military. They suggested that a fieldhouse constructed of stone and steel would be sound enough to withstand anything but a direct bomb strike. In case of an attack, the fieldhouse could function as an armory. The NPA allocated the steel, and the state passed the final funding in 1951. In 1955, KU christened Allen Fieldhouse by defeating K-State by ten.
Although neither building was put to the test of a nuclear war, both withstood highly competitive, physical basketball games and fans cheering at decibel levels higher than a rock concert. They became known as two of the most difficult places for opposing teams to win a game. Nearly sixty years later, both facilities are still used for athletics. Though the Wildcats play basketball in Bramlage Coliseum, Ahearn Fieldhouse is used for volleyball, track, and tennis. Allen Fieldhouse continues to be the home of KU basketball. Mention of building a new facility raises an outcry among fans.
The drafting table shown here belonged to Donald Gentry, one of the structural engineers who designed the fieldhouses. He worked for Finney and Turnipseed P.A., an engineering firm in Topeka, from 1946 to 1983. Upon his retirement, Gentry purchased the table from the firm for $125 and installed it in his home. Gentry donated the table to the Kansas Museum of History in 1996.
Entry: Drafting Table
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2007
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.