On the evening of February 23, 1951, a “useful and living memorial” came to life when, for the first time, the doors of War Memorial Gym opened to an eager throng of Thunderbird supporters. For the 50-plus years following that first game and the ensuing sock-hop held on the newly varnished floor, War Memorial has been this province’s tribute to those British Columbians, particularly those who attended UBC, who died during the two World Wars. The plaque inscribed with the names of UBC war casualties can be found on the east wall of the foyer where each November 11th the University’s Remembrance Day service is held. While serving to commemorate, this building was also considered a monument to the initiative and determination of both students and the community who together raised the necessary funds for this ambitious project.
In November 1945, the UBC Student Council along with those in athletics desiring a new and larger gymnasium found that a tie-in with a memorial to those students who gave their lives in both wars would be the perfect vehicle by which this dream of a new facility could become a reality. The fundraising campaign commenced with the provincial government pledging $275 000. The students then took over, raising $175 000 through radio appeals, parades, campus fundraising activities and personal pledges. The required balance was taken care of by additions to students’ AMS fees and by local community sport organizations, which donated proceeds from their games. Construction started in 1949 and the new gym opened a year and a half later. It was announced as Canada’s largest and most modern gymnasium and winner of the Massey Silver Medal design award. Still considered ultra modern by many, the original plans included a steam room, sunroom, physiotherapy facilities, message room, six bowling alleys, a restaurant and alumni lounge. Playing sports in this facility was unique because of the floor’s special spring. Folklore has it that horsehair had been inserted beneath the wood surface. “It was definitely springy, you knew you were on something softer,” recalls former UBC basketball star Ken Winslade. The gym, whose architects included former UBC Olympic medal-winning rower Ned Pratt, is still considered “a classic basketball gym” with seats above, the players below and an open space around the court – a treat for both the shooter and spectator.
In addition, War Memorial was one of the very first gyms to have glass backboards and have its games broadcast on radio, most notably by a young play-by-play announcer named Jim Robson. War Memorial has over the years been the venue for many events and activities beyond Thunderbird basketball, volleyball, etc. During the 1950s and 1960s it was often filled to capacity for the B.C. high school basketball championships and for regular appearances by the famed Harlem Globe Trotters. It also saw large crowds during these years that came to enjoy pep rallies and dances, groove to musical groups and be entertained by campus personalities, such as the legendary Frank Gnup. The gym was also the home for many intramural sport competitions as well as physical education classes, which were once mandatory for all first-year students. But most of all it is home, giving us that special feeling when rival players claim how difficult it is to beat the T-Birds when in the confines of our War Memorial. A tribute to those who gave their lives serving Canada, an example of what community initiative and participation can produce, the “palace of sweat” has been home to numerous heroes and champions for more than half a century.