Fair Play

The Old Gymnasium and the early history of women’s athletics at UBC

When UBC moved to Point Grey in 1925, the facility most obviously lacking from the new campus was a gymnasium. A gym had been included in the initial plans, but the unexpectedly large costs of other construction had forced its cancellation. Varsity basketball and other teams had to hold practices and play “home” games at Vancouver school gyms, church halls, or YMCA/YWCA facilities.

There was also a distinct inequality between men’s and women’s sports in this era, and the lack of facilities made this even more obvious. Women’s teams had to schedule their practices around those for the men, usually very early or very late in the day, and Women’s Gymnasium Club sessions were limited to an hour a week.

It was not until 1929 that a workable scheme to pay for a gymnasium was approved. The Alma Mater Society was legally incorporated under British Columbia’s Societies Act, enabling it to float a bond issue of $35,000. Students then committed the refundable portion of their Caution Money (a $10 fee deposited as security for good conduct and against possible damages) towards repaying the loan.

The gymnasium was built over the summer of 1929, and officially opened on November 9. 
The main playing floor was 6,000 square feet and surrounded by seating for up to 1,400 spectators. 
As impressive as it looked, however, the building was practically an empty shell; there was no money left to pay for furnishings or athletic equipment. To cover this shortfall, the Alumni Association organized its own campaign to raise $3,000 for equipment and furniture.

Members of the Women’s Basketball Senior A team on their way to Prague.

The new building soon became a centre of student activity. UBC varsity basketball teams played there – not only against local teams, but against touring squads such as the Harlem Globetrotters. Women’s basketball was particularly successful; in 1930 the Senior A team won the opportunity to compete at the Women’s International Games. Unfortunately, women’s sports were still treated like an afterthought. While the university gave the team permission to go, it refused to provide financial support. It took another student campaign to earn the team enough money to travel to Prague that September, where they eventually won the world championship.

The gym also hosted team practices, intramural sports events, and athletic club sessions, as well as pep rallies and post-game dances. Until Brock Hall was built in 1940, it was one of the few places on campus where clubs could meet and students could socialize. According to legend it was a favourite haunt of former UBC Chancellor and BC Chief Justice Nathan Nemetz during his undergraduate days. “Sonny” Nemetz supposedly spent so much time playing chess and blackjack in one of the gym’s meeting rooms that he almost flunked out of first year. Only the intervention of History Department head Walter Sage saved him – he promised to recommend Nemetz for the history honours program, but only if he would stop missing so many lectures.

The gymnasium campaign – the first such student-led fundraising initiative – had set an important precedent for the further development of the UBC campus. It was followed several years later by the funding and construction of the first stadium and playing fields; the campaign to build Brock Hall in 1940; and the War Memorial Gymnasium campaign of the late 1940s.

Initial plans for Brock Hall included a “women’s gymnasium,” as by the mid-1930s the increasing student population was driving a growing demand for recreational space. Although the gym never materialized, and women’s programs were still given low priority, funds left over after the construction of Brock Hall were at least earmarked for women’s sports equipment.

The T-birds take on the Harlem Globetrotters in the Old Gym, 1946. Pictured left is student Patrick McGeer, now a leading authority on Alzheimer’s disease.

The need for expanded facilities continued to grow over the following decade – even during the Second World War, when extra-curricular activities were supposedly curtailed. While women’s use of the gym was restricted in favour of military requirements, however, time was still found for men’s programs. The disparity was also illustrated by the relative lack of women’s sports coverage in The Ubyssey. This was addressed only when women reporters joined the publication’s staff.

The space shortage was not rectified until the opening of War Memorial Gymnasium in 1951. The older building came to be used largely for women’s sports and recreation, and became known as the Women’s Gymnasium. While women now had their own space for athletics (although some men’s activities continued there), it was arguably a “hand‑me‑down” facility compared with the brand‑new War Memorial gym.

“We would have liked more opportunities to use War Memorial,” recalls Marilyn Pomfret, BPE’54, a physical education student during the 1950s, “but we still liked the old gym.” Pomfret, who was later a UBC professor, coach, and women’s athletic director, remembers the Women’s Gymnasium well. “The floor was just big enough for a regulation-size basketball court, or two non-regulation volleyball courts. The volleyball courts were small – to serve, you had to stand on the bottom row of the bleachers!

“We would have liked more opportunities to use War Memorial,” recalls Marilyn Pomfret, a physical education student during the 1950s, “but we still liked the old gym.”

“The Women’s Athletic Directorate, a student leadership group made up of sport managers and an elected executive, had an office at the south-east corner. It was very small, with a low, sloped ceiling that the taller girls had to be careful about. But it had its own door to the outside – a small side-door hidden behind some bushes – and we had a key, so we could come and go as we pleased, even after hours.”

Students could sneak in through the office for late-night pick-up games, according to Pomfret and her friend, Thelma Sharp Cook, BEd’58, another student athlete from the same period and later UBC professor of education. “The basement also became a popular place to study or even sleep, especially during exam time,” recalls Cook. “Sometimes the janitor or night‑watchman would catch us, but they knew we were good students, so we weren’t kicked out. There was another small room in the northwest corner of the building – there were always girls there playing bridge. The gym was like an unofficial clubhouse for women students in those days. Most were involved in athletics, but all were welcome.”

The Women’s Athletic Directorate in 1954. Marilyn Pomfret (L) is conducting the meeting. Photo courtesy AMS Archives.

Despite its small size and obscure location, the women’s athletic office regularly received at least one prominent visitor. “Norman MacKenzie heard about it from his daughter – he must have figured that since he liked her friends, he would like us,” laughs Pomfret. “If he was out walking his dog on Sunday he would stop by to visit – he’d just knock on the little door. He’d sit down, put up his feet, and chat with whoever was there. It was a way for him to get inside information, from the students’ point of view that, as university president, he might not otherwise hear.”

During the 1950s and 60s the campus landscape around the Women’s Gymnasium changed radically. What was originally open space was taken up by the Buchanan Building in 1958. As the Faculty of Arts continued to expand, Buchanan became too small to hold all its departments and programs. By 1969 it was obvious that the gym’s days were numbered. “The choice [for an extension of Buchanan] is between a high‑rise type semi-office establishment on the present site of the women’s gym and a large horizontal expansion down East Mall,” UBC president Doug Kenny told The Ubyssey that September. “In any case the women’s gym will have to go.”

In response, the AMS Student Council passed a resolution calling on the Board of Governors to provide “an adequate replacement” for all students to share fairly. The resolution appeared to have no effect, and Pomfret, by then director of Women’s Athletics, remembers a further student initiative in response to this lack of action.

“As plans for [the gym’s] destruction moved ahead, there was no talk of an intended replacement,” she recalls. “Well, this rather riled the girls.” After all, UBC’s women athletes and managers were directly involved in the operations of the Women’s Athletic Directorate and over the years had contributed significantly to the development of organized sport for both men and women across the province.

UBC’s women athletes had contributed significantly to the development of organized sport for both men and women across the province.

The students prepared a report outlining their position on the need for adequate sports facilities and equitable access. Pomfret remembers it getting backing from many prominent people on campus. A request was made to present it to the Board of Governors, which was finally granted. “Two students spoke,” says Pomfret, who was in attendance, “and we were told they were the first students ever to present to the (rather secretive) board... Nathan Nemetz was board chair and, as the girls paused [during their presentation], he asked several times: ‘So you want a new Women’s Gym?’ The response: ‘No, Sir. We want a new Gym where everyone can play – women, girls, men, boys.’ And a little later: ‘So you want a new Women’s Gym?’ Same answer: ‘No, Sir...’ The point was well made.”

Cook and Pomfret remember plans to form a human chain around the gym, to prevent or at least delay its demolition until a replacement facility was approved. Students discussed it over the spring and early summer of 1970, assuming that the demolition would not occur until the fall. However, work crews arrived in August, and by the time students returned from summer vacation the site of the Women’s Gymnasium was a vacant lot.

“The only thing that survived from the gym were the floorboards,” remembers Pomfret. “They were salvaged and re-sold by the university because they were still in such good condition.”

Old gym demo

Fortunately, the pressure exerted by women athletes and their supporters did have an effect. According to Pomfret, it was one of the factors behind the board’s later approval of the Bob Osborne Centre, planning for which got underway in 1970. Opportunities for women would flourish under Pomfret’s tenure as Women’s Athletic Director. Inducted into UBC’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994, she is credited with developing athletic opportunities for women at UBC and across Canada, in particular by initiating the establishment of national championships for university women.

All but forgotten today, the first UBC gymnasium, initiated and funded by students, was a milestone in the development of the university. In its later incarnation as the Women’s Gymnasium, it offered women opportunities for athletic accomplishment. And even in its demise, the gym became the focus of a concerted team effort to save it that typifies the spirit of Athletics at UBC today.

Hidden Treasure

Just before the old gym was pulled down, it divulged one more story to add to the history of women’s athletics at UBC.

“In the Women’s Athletic Directorate office,” remembers Marilyn Pomfret, “there was a file cabinet containing the teams’ files. When it became obvious in 1970 that the gym was going, the students came to get the cabinet and rescue the files. As it was pulled aside, underneath it they found three gold pendants with the UBC Big Block symbol.”

Whom the pendants belonged to is forgotten. They were originally thought to have been awarded at the inauguration of the Women’s Big Block Club in 1931. The club had been organized in part to recognize the Senior A women’s basketball world championship the previous year. It was also intended to raise the status of women’s sports by including them in the Big Block program, initiated the year before.

Further research, however, revealed that the pendants had been commissioned from Birks Jewellers at least a decade earlier. Most likely they were awarded in conjunction with UBC’s first Presentation Day in March 1921. This predecessor of the Big Block Club awarded letters to outstanding athletes (both male and female), as well as participants in Literary and Scientific Department activities.

“The girls from the directorate presented two of them to Marilyn and me,” says Thelma Cook. “The third one had a little different design – a ‘U’ around the ‘BC’ surrounded by blue enamel. That one was supposed to go to Brenda Chinn, who was president of the Women’s Athletic Association at the time and is now with BC School Sports. Unfortunately it was stolen before it could be gifted to Brenda – so she’ll inherit mine.”