March 18, 2014

The Palestra: College Hoops' Most Storied Arena

Credit: Ed B, Flickr
The Palestra is famous its raucous atmosphere and for its seating that reaches right to the floor.

There’s a reason why they refer to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament as March Madness: On top of the fact that the games themselves are crazy, basically the whole country goes wild over it. (When else do you see grown men and women biting their nails and sweating in their offices cubicles over whether to scribble “Dayton” or “Ohio State” on a piece of paper?)

But even with the onset of live-streaming five-game simulcasts and billion-dollar bracket giveaways, the game still has plenty of history to celebrate. Case in point: Philadelphia’s 1927 hoops arena known as the Palestra.

Its accolades are impressive -- host to the most visiting teams, host of the most NCAA tournament games, host of the most NCAA games in general, oldest major college arena still in use, etc.  -- but they still don’t come close to telling the truth about why the Palestra is one of the most significant places in American sports. The brick and steel structure just minutes from Center City is hallowed ground for hoops fans, and it’s all about its unique, irreplaceable character and storied history.

Credit: The West End, Flickr
The Palestra was once the home court for Philadelphia’s Big 5: Penn, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s, Villanova, and Temple. St. Joe’s and ‘Nova are both in this year’s Men’s NCAA Tournament, and may meet in the third round.

Though it had already been the home court for University of Pennsylvania, the city’s Big 5 League -- Temple University, La Salle University, Villanova University, Saint Joseph’s University, and Penn -- began their season series there when the league formed in 1955. Back then, the arena held 10,000, and the fans would pack into the bleachers that ran right down to the floor, putting them virtually on top of the players and right in the action.

But beyond the building itself, the hyper-local rivalries, the close quarters inside, and the passion of the knowledgeable fan bases led to some unforgettable traditions.

There were the streamers that fans would throw onto the court from the bleachers after their team’s first field goal; the reference to games as having “corners,” meaning that they were so full even the seats on the edges of the arena would fill up; and the younger generation’s (usually successful) attempts to sneak into the games.

And, of course, there is also Palestra Dan, the arena’s beloved custodian who would sweep the court at halftime in his blue gym shorts and high white socks. (He even did it once during halftime of an away game that was being shown on big screens.)

Credit: Amanda Rykoff, Flickr
The Palestra was originally the home court of the University of Pennsylvania.

“There’s just no place where they play that looks like this,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright once told a Press Pass TV special.

“When it’s filled and there’s a crazy atmosphere in there, it’s kind of indescribable. I don’t think you could ever pinpoint in words what it’s like,” Temple men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy echoed.

He’s right. So I’ll stop trying.

I will quickly point out though, that the concourses of the arena have been turned into a museum for the history of the building, including specific displays for each Big 5 school and for the other events that took place there.

And though the official Big 5 is now defunct and the majority of its former teams’ games are played elsewhere, the halls and court still echo with the roars of lifelong fans and the squeaking of old-school tennis shoes. There are still Big 5 games played here on occasion -- La Salle played Temple there in January 2014 on ESPN, and will do so again next year -- but not as often as nearly everyone would like.

Still, when it does happen, the games have corners and the place still rocks. May it always be that way.

David Weible was the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

We’re spotlighting 12 of our proudest preservation moments from the last year, and they’re all made possible by your support.

Show Me!