By Brad Weltmer – Associate Director of Athletic Communications
More than a half-century of activity in Franklin & Marshall's Mayser Gymnasium has led to a rich and storied history, but if its walls could talk, they would likely ask to be painted.
The gymnasium of the Mayser Physical Education Center has been one of the most-used spaces on the F&M campus for 57 years. It not only hosts numerous varsity athletic events, including volleyball, wrestling and men's and women's basketball; it also is the site of the College's weekly Common Hour, in which prominent speakers address important issues.
"Mayser Gymnasium is the physical and spiritual center of Franklin & Marshall and the most visited building on campus," said Director of Athletics & Recreation Patricia S.W. Epps. "F&M's weekly Common Hour and the Junior Declaration Dinner are among the events hosted in the gym as well as the countless sporting events that occur there every year. That is a lot of wear and tear on the facility, especially the bleachers, and because of safety concerns, they needed to be updated."
Dirt and old age have caused Mayser's once-pristine white walls to become discolored over time. The banners hanging in the rafters and the plaques announcing team championships and individual accolades haven't fared much better. The two scoreboards on the far ends of the gym are temperamental and are reliant on old technology and even older wiring.
Then there are the wooden bleachers – the same ones that were installed at the building's dedication back in 1962. Generations of F&M students recall their most-cherished College memories from the views of those well-used seats, but time has not been kind, as broken-down sections of seating have led to spectator safety concerns.
The wheel of time, however, is often cyclical. Today's problems with the outdated gym in Mayser closely mirror the same issues that led to the building's construction.
Outgrowing Biesecker Gymnasium
By the early 1950s, Franklin & Marshall College had outgrown the small red brick building on the lower end of campus known as Biesecker Gymnasium.
Erected in the mid-1920s, the home of F&M intramurals was once considered the crown jewel of the College. But throughout the next three decades, problems with the space began to take shape. Spectator seating for wrestling matches and men's basketball games was extremely limited. The court was considered too short for basketball, and opposing schools began strongly objecting to varsity contests.
As early as the 1930s, both teams began seeking a solution by alternating practices and varsity games between Biesecker and the National Guard Armory on North Queen Street. The Armory, which was converted into a boutique bowling alley and retro arcade in 2018, provided a larger playing surface, better seating, and a central location that drew paying attendance.
However, relying on a local Armory for varsity contests came with obvious challenges. War efforts in the 1940s and 1950s led to limited use of the gym and meant several home contests were moved to the road on late notice. Relations with the Armory grew tense at times, as the two sides often quarreled over scheduling and the price of rent.
Safety was an issue. The nine-block trek from campus during the winter months was less than ideal for student-athletes, whose long walk was followed by dressing in the cold and drafty hallways of the Armory. The heating unit of the building had a propensity to go out, and the facility was described as having a faulty electrical system, cold showers, and inadequate parking for spectators.
On Jan. 4, 1956, the problem reached a tipping point as 16 of 28 overhead lights extinguished in the middle of an F&M-Muhlenberg men's basketball game. Both coaches mutually agreed to call off the contest, which would serve as a rallying cry for the construction of a new gymnasium on campus.
An eight-page article followed in the College's student-run newspaper, the Student Weekly, offering up a plea for a new field house. Not only was there limited space on campus for intramural athletics and physical education classes, the paper argued, but dances and other social functions required students to drive more than 20 miles away from campus.
Sports editor J.W. Smith summed the situation up best with a poem he penned in the Student Weekly.
We had our gym in which to play;
But now lead thou us on.
In 'twenty-five it was the pride of all,
But now for checkers, it would be too small.
Filling a Void on Campus and in the Community
Plans were officially announced by the Board of Trustees in early 1959 to construct a new building that joined the north side of the already-present Biesecker Gymnasium with the Fackenthal Swimming Pool. Each structure would be completely integrated with the other to form the "center," which would eventually become the Mayser Physical Education Center. The College broke ground on Nov. 5, 1960, during a halftime ceremony of the Parents Day football game against Hampden-Sydney.
"The new building will give a tremendous boost to the morale of the school," former professor and legendary wrestling coach Roy Phillips '34 said at the time. "Students will no longer be discouraged by an over-crowded gym."
Frederick deWolfe Bolman Jr., Franklin & Marshall president from 1956 to 1962, added, "The gymnasium will be built primarily to meet College needs, but it will also fill a void long felt in Lancaster."
The new space, which was constructed for approximately $1.25 million- or around $11 million if built today - quickly lived up to that promise made by Bolman.
On Feb. 21, 1962, the new physical education center officially opened with a doubleheader that featured men's basketball against Haverford at 3 p.m. and wrestling against Lehigh at 7 p.m. Seating for 4,000 in an auditorium style, 3,800 for wrestling, and 3,000 for basketball, along with the newly constructed, 435-car Williamson parking lot, helped solve two critical problems that had plagued the athletic program for the previous 30 years. In June 1962, the building was dedicated and named after Charles W. Mayser, a longtime coach and beloved athletic director.
Putting the Mayser Gym to Good Use
F&M students and the surrounding Lancaster City community quickly rallied around the new gym, which provided a safe, functional location for a wide array of events, and served as a source of pride for the College. Lancaster County immediately began seeing the benefits of the new space as Mayser functioned as a polio immunization center open to all residents in the later stages of the year.
The Student Union Board wasted no time in booking several of the decade's top musical groups, during an era in which the biggest bands toured college campuses on Friday and Saturday nights.
Concerts featuring James Brown, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Hall and Oates, and Billy Joel were remembered fondly due to the intimacy of the gymnasium and the closeness of the stage to the capacity crowds. Perhaps most famously, the Grateful Dead played in front of thousands on April 10, 1971, as guitarist Jerry Garcia and crew ended their set with the classic, "Uncle John's Band."
Musicians were not the only celebrated individuals to step through the doors of Mayser. On Dec. 12, 1963, The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed an estimated crowd of between 4,000 and 5,000 with his 45-minute speech titled "Facing the Challenge of the New Age."
He spoke without notes on the topic of racial integration, the independence of African nations, and the virtues of nonviolence. King gave only two speeches on college campuses that year.
His message to F&M students was the first he had offered since President John F. Kennedy's assassination in November, as he closed with the same line as his famous "I Have a Dream" speech that was delivered at the Lincoln Memorial… "Free at last, free at last, thank God, we are free at last."
From 1978 to 1994, Mayser was the site of the NBA Philadelphia 76ers' training camp as legendary basketball Hall of Famers Julius "Dr. J." Erving, Moses Malone, and Charles Barkley practiced on the same hardwood as Diplomat student-athletes. Training camp in Lancaster featured free open sessions for the public in the afternoon, and there was often time for autographs after practice.
Bobby Jones, a 2019 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee, credited the work put in at Mayser with helping to propel the team to its third NBA championship in 1983.
"We did a lot of work up there," Jones was quoted as saying for the book "100 Things 76ers Fans Should Know Before They Die," by local sportswriter Gordie Jones.
"I remember it was so hot in that gym," Bobby Jones said. "After practice, Julius [Erving] and I would sit out on the back stoop, and we'd watch sweat go down every step. It was about 10 minutes before it got to the very bottom. It paid off. The chemistry was there. When you have the chemistry, it really makes it easier."
The team's popularity among Lancaster residents was never more evident than on the October 4, 1990 "Meet the Team" day. Charles Barkley was a runner-up in the Most Valuable Player race the previous year and headlined the annual preseason event for season-ticket holders. On a bright and sunny Sunday afternoon, more than 7,000 fans attempted to squeeze into the Mayser Center. City police were called to keep the situation under control.
An attempt was made to accommodate the large crowd by asking fans to leave at halftime of the scrimmage so that those in line could see the second half, but nearly 1,000 fans still left without gaining entrance to the gym.
The building's partnership with the team ended four years later when the Sixers moved their camp to the University of Delaware.
A Winning Tradition on the Mayser Hardwood
F&M's athletic teams finally had the space for their own marquee events as well. In 1964, the wrestling program hosted its first Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Association (EIWA) Championship event in front of a sold-out crowd.
The Diplomats went on to host the United States' oldest tournament three additional times (1976, 1985, and 2008) and in 2001, a maximum capacity crowd of 2,800 spectators packed into Mayser for the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) All-Star Classic to witness the best collegiate competitors in the nation.
Men's basketball won a combined 10 Middle Atlantic Conference (MAC) and Centennial Conference (CC) Championships on the Mayser hardwood while hosting numerous NCAA Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games.
The women's side captured three consecutive MAC Southern Division Championships on its home court during the late 1980s, while volleyball won the 2000 Centennial Championship in Mayser by downing rival Johns Hopkins by a 3-1 score.
The Evolution of Mayser and the Need for Change
Change has played its own unique role in the storyline of Mayser. The four original squash courts that sat on the old Biesecker Gymnasium floor and adjacent to the current gymnasium were converted into offices, a film room, and a Hall of Fame Suite when five new courts were constructed on the lower level of the building.
Due to the construction of the Alumni Sports and Fitness Center on the other side of Harrisburg Avenue, Fackenthal Pool hosted its final swimming meet in January 1995 and has since been incorporated into the Roschel Performing Arts Center. The locker rooms, which had one section built in 1930 and another added in 1959, were completely renovated in August 2014.
However, the Mayser gymnasium, one of the most-frequented places on campus and home to so many weekly sporting and Collegewide events, has mostly gone untouched since 1962.
The space was in pressing need of an update.
Updating a Historic Space
This summer, work began to breathe new life into F&M's historic gym. A modern telescoping bleacher system with an electrical power-operated steel frame was installed to replace the wooden seating.
A fresh coat of paint brightened up the walls. New championship and individual accolade banners will be installed in early October to highlight the contemporary look of the space. The main entrance lobby of the building through the Williamson Parking Lot entrance will feature graphics of the all-time great volleyball, wrestling, men's and women's basketball players who imprinted their legacy on the Mayser floor.
A pair of 6-feet-by-10-feet, state-of-the-art Daktronics scoreboards with electronic captions are replacing the outdated units that had proudly displayed so many Diplomat wins, while new game-clock/shot-clock timers were hung above each basket.
"The new bleachers will allow us to better accommodate all visitors in a safer manner and provides appropriate seating for all spectators," said Epps. "The bleachers, combined with the two new scoreboards and state-of-the-art sound system that were installed last year, have transformed a once outdated facility into a modern one. All of the enhancements will elevate the spectator and student-athlete experience and is a space that all students, alumni, and fans should be proud to call their own."
Solving Problems, Moving Forward
The upgrade from Biesecker to Mayser was made with the best intentions in mind for the Franklin & Marshall College community as a whole. The safety of students and fans was in jeopardy by not having an easily accessible space on campus. F&M was desperately in need of a building that the College could display as a source of pride to the outside world.
Mayser solved those problems 57 years ago.
Now history repeats itself. Today's problems are not as comprehensive as the ones that led to the construction of a new building. However, the replacement of those broken-down wooden bleachers will improve the safety of students and fans. A fresh coat of paint on the walls, updated banners, and modern scoreboards will once again instill pride for the space in the F&M community.
And the current renovation means that the gymnasium in Mayser will be dressed up and ready to write the next chapter in its rich and storied history.