Lasell Gym: They don't make them like they used to

The original Lasell Gym
The original Lasell Gym

Replacement floor coming to one of nation’s oldest
collegiate gymnasiums still used for Varsity competition

WILLIAMSTOWN, MA – They don’t make them like they used to.

A scant 83 years after the first renovation to the floor in Lasell Gym, one of the nation’s oldest collegiate gymnasiums still in use for Varsity competition, will have a total floor replacement beginning Aug. 9th. It’s expected to take about a month to replace the floor, but there’s no way to replace the memories and history of the grand building that sits atop Spring Street in the heart of Williamstown.

Built in 1886, a full five years before the invention of basketball, Lasell had to be modified early in the 20th century to safely accommodate its most prominent occupant – Williams basketball. Lasell opened on May 26, 1886 with a 2:30 PM exhibition of boxing, wrestling, rings, horizontal bar, tumbling, and more.

Captain George Steinbrenner '52, who
owned the NY Yankees, practices hurdling

Built for athletic training, fitness, track, and gymnastics Lasell had support poles in much of the floor area where the basketball court was laid, requiring first padding and then removal for safety. Eph players, of course, used the poles to their advantage in the early years, especially while defending along the sidelines. The pillars were removed in 1928 when the roof was raised, and a new floor more suitable for basketball was installed along with an addition that included 75-foot by 25-foot pool that replaced the original 60-foot swimming tank.

At its peak, Lasell Gym could accommodate 1,200 spectators for basketball, with about 800 downstairs and 400 standing on the running track above, but as fire laws were continually revised in the latter half of the 20th century the accepted attendance total began to drop under 1,000, when enrollment at Williams was climbing towards 2,000.

For games against archrival Amherst no one is really sure how many fans were inside and no one really wanted to know… there were just too many street level windows that could be popped allowing easy access and making it nearly impossible to control the crowd’s size.

In the early years, fans seated courtside would find the heels of their shoes or boots inside the lines of play. Many a time an opposing player trying to inbound the ball would suffer the indignity of having the hairs on his legs pulled or his shorts held or tugged or his feet impeded.

All-American Bob Mahland ’62, the only Eph ever drafted by the NBA, has related often the story of a “hand of God play" when a helpful Williams fan sitting along the sidelines was gracious enough to reach out a hand and redirect a ball and help him re-gain control of a dribble he’d lost, enabling him to continue on to make a break away layup against Amherst.

The court is encircled by an elevated running track (16.66 laps to the mile) much the same as the gym at Springfield College where Dr. James Naismith created basketball as a winter diversion in 1891. The track doesn’t affect shots taken from the corners, but it does serve as a great vantage point for viewing competitions on the floor below or disrupting the opposing team’s huddles. Ask the coaches who visited Lasell for a list of items that appeared in or were dropped into their huddles during timeouts to accurately gauge the creativity and ingenuity of Eph students. Hot dogs, water balloons, risqué photos, dead fish, under garments are sure to top many of those lists.

100th anniversary in 1986
It was always SRO vs. Amherst
 2-time All-American Ryan Malo '11
is quite comfortable in Lasell

 President Adam Falk creating energy in
Upper Fitness Center 2010/photo by
Stephanie Boyd

Picture this. It’s the 1940-41 season and the horn on the basketball scoreboard is just not loud enough, especially with Amherst in town. Beloved history professor Charlie Keller, the timer, decides he’ll use a starter’s pistol to signify the end of the half and the end of the game. Cue creative Williams students.

E. Wayne Wilkins ’41 tells what transpired as Keller fired off the starter’s pistol to mark the end of the half.

“On this occasion when the shot was heard, a dead duck dropped from the rafters,” says Wilkins. “From a corner of the gym a figure strode forth, dressed in full hunter's gear with a shotgun over his shoulder, the gun literally still smoking. He picked up the duck and carried it to the timer's bench and presented it to Charlie. I was sitting two rows behind Professor Keller."

"The "hunter" was the late John W. T. Webb '41, better known as Spanky. The perpetrator of the idea/prank is believed to have been Craigin Lewis '41, later the director of alumni relations -- a marvelous jokester. We think the ‘smoke’ from the gun was made by dry ice.”

In the early 1960s when Dartmouth came to Lasell with Alvin “Doggie” Julian as its head coach, the Eph fans had a special greeting in store for Julian. The accomplished Julian who had coached Holy Cross to the 1947 NCAA title was “warmly” serenaded every time he stood to shout out instructions to his team. On cue the male portion of the Williams crowd, which was pretty much the entire crowd, barked and barked until Julian was forced to sit down in frustration.

Also in the mid ‘60s, an Amherst player stole the ball and drove the length of the court to lay it in the basket closest to Spring Street. His momentum carried him into a large group of Eph fans sitting on the floor in front of the bleachers. Noting the smirk on the Amherst player’s face, a group of Eph fans reached up and yanked the Amherst’s player’s shorts down below his knees, prompting a stoppage of play and an admonishment from the referee.

Long time Eph basketball coach Al Shaw, a member of the New England Basketball Hall of Fame, used two small rooms off the stairwell leading to the second floor that now serve as offices for the Eph ski team to prep his boys for the evening’s game. Shaw didn’t use the area to impart basketball knowledge or display his grasp of X’s and O’s, but rather he placed cots there and had the Ephs get off their feet and lie in the dark so they would be rested, relaxed, and focused for the task that lay ahead.

The Ephs would then enter the court from the door under the clock tower, usually to the strains of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and do their warm-up layups with a purple and gold basketball.

Lasell Gym has served as the home court for the Eph men’s and women’s basketball teams, men's and women's swimming & diving, women’s volleyball, track, and wrestling. Today only wrestling is a regular occupant, with the others having moved to the plush confines of the Chandler Athletic Center in 1987, or in the case of track, the Towne Field House.

The last Williams men’s basketball game was an ECAC New England Tournament contest versus Babson, won by the Ephs 92-82 on March 7, 1987. Following the Babson win, the Ephs won at Amherst and at Framingham State to capture the ECAC New England Championship. Dave Paulsen ‘87 netted the final point in the 10-point defeat of Babson on a free throw. Paulsen later coached the 2003 Ephs to the NCAA Division III title.

Williams defeated Middlebury 72-59 in the last women’s basketball contest on February 17, 2001, the use of Lasell was necessitated due to the Ephs hosting the New England Wrestling Championships in Chandler Gym that weekend.

Lasell Gym July 2010
Lisa Pepe '83 (13) delivers a kill
Lasell all decked out for
Class of 1913
Junior Prom
Freshman Gym 1973, which
later became the Dance Studio
before becoming the Upper
Fitness Center in 2007

There was only one electric scoreboard and clock in Lasell for its entire basketball career, but for a number of years there was a hand-operated scoreboard at the Goodrich Hall end of the gym up on the running track. It was not unusual for Amherst, in particular, to be taunted with double zeroes showing even when they had a total much higher and were leading the Ephs. The hand operated scoreboard did not like to see Amherst leading its beloved Ephs.

After a particularly nice Eph hoop it was common to see the numbers on the Eph side spun furiously before stopping at the correct number.

While Lasell Gym provided the Ephs with a nice home court advantage for the hoop teams (the men won 72% of their games), Chandler Gym has not been a detriment, with all of its space and bright lighting. The Eph men set the NCAA Division III record for home court wins by notching 64 in a row from 2001 to 2005.

At the top of Spring Street, Lasell Gym has always occupied a prime location in the town and on the campus. The bells in the clock tower can be heard for miles around as they ring once for 15 minutes past the hour, twice for the half hour, three times at 45 past the hour and then a complete roll on the hour followed by the striking of the bells to indicate the hour.

Among the legends to visit Lasell Gym are the famous bandleader Tommy Dorsey and Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse actually made two appearances, but not in Lasell. Mickey twice appeared on the Lasell clock face. The early ‘70s found the hands of the clock tower of Lasell festooned with the body, head, arms, and gloved hands of the legendary cartoon character. It was pretty near an exact replica of the classic Mickey Mouse watch face. This 1970s' effort was nearly duplicated in 1984 when the head and gloved hands of the world’s most famous mouse were again found adorning the clock face.

Lasell has also served as the host of holiday craft fairs, dinners, concerts, athletic department sales, youth center tournaments, physical education classes, numerous fundraisers, ergathons, crew team dry land training, lunch time pickup hoop games, intramural games, yoga, tai ji, aerobics, CPR courses, promenades, junior and senior balls, smokers, alumni luncheons, summer camps, and still hosts intramural games and JV practices.

The prime tenants of the main floor of Lasell Gym, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball, left in 1987 to open their new quarters in Chandler, but wrestling has remained, along with any other function that can use a large space dripping in nostalgia.

Boston Globe sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy on a tour of the sports facilities the day of his speech on campus was awestruck when he entered Lasell from the hallway area near the wrestling room.  Standing under the basket closest to Goodrich Hall, Shaughnessy after giving Lasell a 360-degree once-over said, “This is the greatest gym in America.” His statement went unchallenged.

In January of 1992 Shaughnessy wrote in the Globe, “The best old-timey gym in New England is Williams College’s Lasell Gym.” Again there was no argument.

Many Williamstown residents, faculty, staff, and students served as members of a basketball crowd in the basketball scene in the 1980 movie “A Change of Seasons” that starred Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Hopkins, and Bo Derek.  Converse, the basketball shoe company that made the famous the “Chuck Taylor” brand, filmed an advertisement in Lasell in the 1990s.

Bob Behr, an alum and longtime employee in the College'a Alumni Office, recalls another famous Hollywood legend also made an appearance in Lasell Gym. "In the 1990s I would have a weekly squash game in the summer with James Naughton, WTF actor and director," said Behr. "One day in late June he called for the opening game of our annual competition.  "Sorry, Jimmy," I said. "The squash courts are being reconstructed to meet the international standards."

"Shucks," he said. "Well, perhaps we can get a badminton game going.  My doubles partner is coming to town soon."

"I'll look into it.  I know they play badminton for phys ed classes in Lasell.  By the way, who is your doubles partner?"

"Paul Newman."
"Gulp. I'll see if we can get the nets set up." Newman and his wife Joanne Woodward were frequent summer visitors to Williamstown, appearing often in plays at the famed Williamstown Theatre Festival.

"I called around and found out that the nets were available. But who could play against this pair of actors who had lots of experience?  Not I. I called Dave Johnson (Eph alum who coached Eph squash and tennis), and he said he and his wife Cherie played some badminton and would welcome the opportunity."  And so it came to pass.          

"Naughton and Newman were very good," said Behr.  "They toyed with the Johnsons.  I stepped in for one quick game, just to say I had played against Paul Newman.  My backyard skills of childhood were an embarrassment."

 Anne Dancewicz '82  drains a free throw

Without a doubt Williams College has gotten its money’s worth out of Lasell Gym.  The $50,000 required to build the College’s fifth gymnasium has provided a valued and cherished venue for competition and camaraderie for over 124 years, and with the new floor there is no telling how long Lasell will keep giving back to Williams.

The building is dedicated to Edward Lasell, valedictorian of the Class of 1828, who later taught chemistry at the college, and Josiah Lasell, who graduated in 1844. The original Lasell Gym contained a baseball cage, bowling alleys, lockers, a running track, and plenty of space for exercise. Lasell was everything the first four Williams gymnasiums weren’t -- a showpiece.

Now home to the Ephs nationally ranked wrestling program, Lasell provides an equally intimidating home “mat” advantage for the Ephs, with the close proximity of the fans and the continued ability of the treasured facility to amplify sound. The first varsity event to be held on the newly installed floor will be the wrestling match between Williams and Springfield at 7:00 PM on January 19, 2011.

Lasell was the site of the first known bout between female Varsity college wrestlers when Deb Hsu '00 of Williams defeated Springfield's Stacy Kirschbaum at 118 pounds on January 29, 1996.  Hsu pinned Kirschbaum at 1:45.  Springfield won the match, however, 25-19.

Lasell Gym still standing tall and
proud at the top of Spring Street

The upper gym in Lasell, for many years called the Freshman Gym, and later serving as the Dance Studio was reformed into a gleaming workout facility in 2007, home to numerous treadmills, elliptical machines, and other aerobic workout equipment, and is now one of the most frequented locations on campus by students, staff, faculty, and town residents.  There is even a separate room off the Upper Fitness Center just for spinning (stationary bicycling).

The 18 elliptical trainers in the Upper Lasell Fitness Center have been retrofitted so that they can convert workout energy into usable electrical power.

Liz Jex '83 Won 7 NCAA
Indiviudal Titles in 2 yrs.

The Lower Lasell Fitness Center occupies much of the space that used to be the swimming pool that later was dedicated to Robert B. Muir, a longtime Eph coach who also coached the U.S. Olympic Team as an assistant in 1948 and the head coach in 1956. The lone U.S. gold medalist in 1956 for the U.S. was Bill Yorzyk from Springfield College. His roommate at Springfield wrote a masters thesis about his training. His roommate's name was Carl Samuelson, who later succeeded Muir as the ephs head coach.

Prior to coaching at Williams, Muir was an assistant coach at Harvard where he taught future U.S. President John F. Kennedy to swim.

The cozy 25-yard, four-lane pool was home to the Eph women's swimming & diving team when they won the first two NCAA Division III Swimming & Diving Championships offered in 1982 and 1983 under the direction of Carl Samuelson. Liz Jex '83 won seven NCAA individual titles in those two years to lead the Ephs.

The Lower Lasell Fitness Center (LLFC) now houses weights and equipment used for strength development. One floor below LLFC is a rowing tank that both the men's and women's crew teams benefit from during the months they are not in competition.

In June of 2001, when Spring Street was refurbished, the U.S. Postal Service featured Lasell Gym in a special month-long cancellation adding to the great history of the historic facility.

The third new floor in the main gym of Lasell is sure to add many more years of use and memories for Ephs and Eph alums and it will retain the classic look of the top of the town’s business district. The replacemtn of the floor is a win-win, which is what the Ephs have done with great regularity in Lasell Gym for the past 124 years.

 Mickey Mouse comes to Lasell as seen in 1972 Gul



Gift of Mrs. J. Lasell and Josiah Manning Lasell (W.C. 1886)
in memory of brothers Edward Lasell (W.C. 1828)
and Josiah Lasell (W.C. 1844). Edward was valedictorian
of his class, Professor of Chemistry and
established a female seminary in
Auburndale, Mass. in 1851.

Architect:  J. Cleveland Cady.

Built by:  H. Dodge Mason & Builders of Pittsfield, Mass.

The makeover of historic Lasell Gym

was completed in mid October

and you can see the new look here.