80 years after original construction, Williams Arena still going strong

James Schlemmer

Many legends played on the hardwood at Williams Arena, but perhaps none of them are as legendary as the hardwood itself.

Construction on what was originally known as the University of Minnesota Field House began 80 years ago in January 1927.

The Barn is currently the fourth oldest Division I basketball venue in the nation behind Fordham, Harvard and Oregon, which appears to be headed for a new arena.

In 1949, the entire arena was remodeled and renamed Williams Arena in honor of former Gopher Football Coach Dr. Henry L. Williams. The arena is affectionately known as “the Barn” for its barn-like structure.

The feature that makes the Barn most unique is the raised floors. Michael Dale, a facility manager for Williams Arena, said having a raised court provides for a better view of the action.

“The floor was raised to increase sightlines in the arena,” he said. “Naturally, it also creates a buffer zone between fans and court.”

One person who never was a big fan of the raised floors was long-time Gopher broadcaster Ray Christensen. Christensen was the lead play-by-play man for Gopher hoops from 1956 to 2001, and he said he always thought the floors weren’t safe.

“It seemed like an accident waiting to happen,” he said.

Christensen also said he announced the games from the upper-deck because the floors impaired his view as an announcer of the action.

“From an announcer’s perspective I could see things better from the upper-deck,” he said.

Paul Presthus, a forward on the basketball team from 1964 to 1967, said he never saw a player seriously hurt from falling off the court.

“I never thought about falling off,” he said. “It was almost as if we had a guardian angel watching over the court.”

Dale said the raised floors also add to the home-court advantage at the Barn.

“To see a team that’s never been here before and stare at it,” he said, “it can be an intimidating experience. The fans are right on top of you.”

After the 1949 renovation, Williams Arena was not renovated again until 1980 when the fire marshal deemed the building unsafe for large crowds because of fire and safety code violations. The building lacked fire alarms, a sprinkler system and emergency lighting above the exits.

Small renovations enabled the Barn to stay open, but it was still considered a gymnasium in dire need of major updates.

If the renovations weren’t made, the basketball team would have had to find a new place to play, most likely the Met Center in Bloomington or the St. Paul Civic Center.

Jim Dutcher, Gopher basketball coach from 1975 to 1986 said he remembers the pressures that former Men’s Athletic Director Rick Bay had in the early ’90s to either renovate Williams Arena or get a new arena.

“The University had some fundraisers for a potential arena,” he said. “But the fans were so strong against leaving Williams Arena, so Bay just got (the renovations) done.”

Dale admitted the Barn has had its fair share of rat and cockroach problems, and occasionally still does to this day.

“A few creatures are spotted here and there, but our pest control services do a good job keeping the population manageable,” he said. “We need to share our space a bit.”

The floor at the Barn is the original from 1928. Dale said facilities officials at Williams Arena assumed the floor had been renovated in 1980 with other parts of the arena or when the scoreboard fell on the court in the ’80s.

But they recently made a discovery when looking into purchasing a new floor that could be installed in the next year.

“We saw under the tiles that it was made by a company that has ceased to exist since the 1940s,” he said. “We had 80 years of history on one court.”

Marketing junior Amanda Mrotek said the concourses could use an update, but there isn’t a better atmosphere in the nation.

“I like it the way it is,” she said. “The history and the way it is designed is what creates the atmosphere.”

Dutcher said the crowd at the Barn gives the Gophers the best home-court advantage.

“The greatest part was the size of the crowds,” he said. “The crowds thought they could change the outcome of the game.”