Butler Memorial Gymnasium

 

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Butler Gym circa 1940s.

    The Butler Memorial Gymnasium is Saint Bonaventure University's oldest existing building. Opened in 1918, the Gym has served several functions in its eighty-three years, primarily operating as a center of intramural athletic activity. Newly renovated in 1999-2000, the gym has been brought back from the brink of destruction and now is an area for campus intramural games, as well a practice center for our various Division I athletic teams (Zekan). The basement houses an art studio/classroom for student art classes, including pottery and ceramics. The recent renovations have brought the original luster back to the building that was considered one of the finest athletic centers in the Western New York region at the time of its opening. The history of the Gym does not begin with its construction, however. Its history begins with its namesake, Father Joseph Butler.

    Father Joseph Butler was a purebred Irishman, born in Galbally, Tipperary on August 13, 1838 (Hammon 162). He received a full education before moving to New York City to make his fortune in the business world. Butler heard a stronger calling, however, and joined the Franciscan Brothers in Brooklyn on March 26, 1863 (Hammon 162). In 1874, Fr. Butler came to Saint Bonaventure to teach. "Father Joe" soon became one of, if not the most, respected and well-liked members of the faculty. He seemed to have time for every student, remembering each of them by name, and encouraging them to grow in spirit and become good men. Fr. Joe was remembered as being "young in spirit, young in heart, young in his world philosophy" (Williams 2).

     Fr. Joe became College Vice President (St. Bonaventure had not yet achieved University status) and went on to assume the role of College President in 1887. During his twenty-four year term as President, Fr. Joe focused on expanding the campus and building community spirit. His first building project was the construction of Alumni Hall (1887). The Hall was built with donations received from St. Bonaventure alumni. Fr. Joe had established the Alumni Association in 1880 (Williams 4). Construction was completed in 1888 and the building soon became the center of student activities.  

    During his term, Fr. Joe had the St. Bonaventure Monastery renovated and enlarged. The Friary was also tripled from its original size (Williams 4). On June 30, 1908, the New College Building, the main classroom building that Fr. Joe also had constructed, burned to the ground. By the fall of 1908, a new building was completed to replace the New College Building, Lynch Hall. 

    In 1911, Fr. Joe began feel the effects of age and illness. He regretfully resigned his position as College President and prepared for his imminent passing. Fr. Joe, beloved by every student who knew him, died on July 25, 1911 at the age of seventy-two (Williams 6). 

    The college decided it wanted to construct a building that would be a "fitting memorial" to Father Joe's educational efforts and achievements ("The Joseph" 113). A gymnasium was decided upon because of Fr. Joe's encouragement of the young men's physical activity and sports. On June 6, 1915, ground was broken for the Butler Memorial Gymnasium. The site the building stands on was an apple orchard and the trees had to be cut down in order to begin construction ("The Joseph" 114). 

The groundbreaking for Butler Gym (June 6, 1915)

By June of 1916, the concrete walls and foundation were in place. On June 21st, the cornerstone was laid and by Rt. Rev. Dennis J. Dougherty, D. D., Bishop of Buffalo and later Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia. Students greatly anticipated the new building as progress became visible. However, due to labor disputes and to the World War in Europe, embargoes on necessary materials such as steel brought construction to a virtual halt in 1916 ("The Joseph" 114). 

    By February 1918, the red brick Butler Memorial Gymnasium was ready for opening. The formal opening took place on Tuesday February 12th. Two evening basketball games were staged for the event ("The Joseph" 115). Five days later, the building was blessed by His Excellency, Bishop John Mark Gannon of Erie, PA, president of the St . Bonaventure Alumni Association at the time ("The Joseph" 115). The Gym was a state of the art recreation center for its day. It housed a full sized basketball court, a swimming pool in the basement, a suspended running track on the second floor that wrapped around the building's inner perimeter, the college store, and was equipped with various sports equipment, locker rooms, and showers. The students finally had the recreation center they had long waited for. They made immediate use of its facilities--especially the swimming pool. The College also made use of the new building. The 1918 commencement exercises were held in the Gym, a tradition that would continue for years to come. 

     US involvement in the first World War led Bonaventure to establish its own chapter of the Students Army Training Corps. The Students Army Training Corps is similar to the current ROTC program at St. Bonaventure. Headquarters were in Butler Gym under Colonel H.J. Goldman ("The Joseph" 116). Col. Goldman acted as commandant of the unit. Rooms on the first and second floors were used as offices by Col. Goldman and other officers. The basketball court was used as a drill floor and for lectures. Butler Gym soon acquired the nickname the "Armory" because of its use as a soldier training ground. 

    For many years, Butler Gym was Bonaventure's primary sports center. It was the home of boxing matches, track meets, and the men's basketball team's home games. The Gym could seat 400-500 people. When Bonaventure's basketball team began to receive nationwide recognition home games were moved to the Olean Armory in 1946 to accommodate more people. Women's basketball teams used Butler Gym until 1973.  A professional football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, trained in the Gym during the summer from 1952-1957 (Collins). The Gym floor was used for lectures and the rooms on the first and second floors were used as offices for Johnny Unitas and his staff in the summer of 1955.

The interior of Butler Gym (1942).

When the Reilly Center opened in 1967, Butler Gym was no longer the primary sports center on campus. The Reilly Center far exceeded the Gym in its facilities which include a basketball court, an Olympic sized swimming pool, and offices for Bonaventure's many sports teams. Due to the fact that Butler Gym was not the main sports center, it was used less often by students and proper maintenance was not kept up on its facilities.

    By 1974, the building had been used to house the campus police, a linen dispatch, and for women's recreation (Collins). University Vice President at the time, Dr. Nothem, considered turning the Gym into a professional building for business and education or faculty offices. The pool had been drained and its floor had a large crack four inches in width. One room had been used for theology and art classes and the sorority rooms on the second floor were empty. Other rooms were used to store old gym equipment and the basketball court was warped and thin (Collins). In 1977, Bonaventure received a grant of $125,000 to convert Butler Gym into a mass communications center. It was determined that it would take a total of $1million and two years to convert the Gym (Rucci). In September 1978, no definite plans had been set for the Gym yet although Habiterra Associates, contractors from Jamestown, agreed to do the renovations (Scotto). Offices were to be installed in the basement, a 360 seat auditorium added on the second floor, and communication laboratories on the third floor. By May 1979, the renovations were still not underway and money was still needed to go through with the plans (Donahue 3).

    In September 1979, plans to convert the Gym into a mass communications center were thrown out after a two year battle. It was decided in October 1979 to renovate Butler Gym only for athletic use for three to five years. All of the windows except those in the front of the building on the north side were bricked up to prevent heat loss (Paria). Other minor changes were made to make the building suitable for use. Serious renovations would not be made on the Gym for another twenty years.

    By 1995, Butler Gym had become an eyesore to the campus. Many plans for the building were made and thrown away repeatedly and no major renovations were performed. The building was used mainly for intramural and pick-up games, and its running track (Cassara). Razing the building had been considered, but no real plans were in the works for it. The future of Butler Gym was uncertain.

    Finally, in May of 1999, eighty-one years after its opening, extensive renovations began on Butler Gym. It had been decided to salvage the building and intensive work went into restoring and improving it. $294,000 was spent on the renovations. This includes exterior masonry and front step repair, window replacement, painting the interior and steel work, roof repairs, a new gym floor, general floor repairs, a new running track floor, track railing improvements, restrooms, and electrical improvements (Zekan). The renovations were complete in the summer of 2000.

    Instead of being bricked up, Butler Gym now has large clear glass windows on every side that let in large amounts of natural light. The interior window trim is a shade of hunter green that matches the color of the steel support structure of the ceiling. The running track is covered with a burgundy carpet with a burgundy color railing surrounding the outside. The walls upstairs and down have been painted a soft cream color. The new gym floor and the new lighting make the entire building appear brand new. Intramural offices are now on the first floor. The other rooms are used primarily for storing gym equipment. The former pool in the basement is now filled in with gravel and cement. A wooden floor was laid and covered with a carpet. The former pool area is now an dance studio. The remaining area in the basement is used for student art classes.

    Butler Memorial Gymnasium is once more a fitting memorial to Fr. Joe. The recent renovations have put life back into Bonaventure's oldest building and have proven that Butler Gym has withstood the test of time.

There are more pictures of Butler Gym on the Thomas Merton site.

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Last updated:  07/01/10    --Fr. Butler picture added