The story of Graland’s first gymnasium to its current Fieldhouse is one of notable history and reveals how the school campus came to house such a versatile structure. In addition to its primary function of nurturing young athletes, the spacious Graland Fieldhouse also unites the entire Graland family with many special events throughout the year.
Older alumni and I remember the first Graland gymnasium as a relatively small space on the second floor of the original Georgia Nelson Building that was built in 1927 by prominent local architect and parent Jacques Benedict. The gym had a shiny, varnished wood floor with basketball hoops at each end and climbing ropes with giant knots at the bottom hanging from the ceiling. Scattered around the floor were mats and different pieces of gymnastics equipment, including parallel bars, a pommel horse, and a trampoline. This was Graland’s only gym for approximately twenty-seven years; the building was torn down in 1994.
Chester Preisser, for whom the large sports field in front of the Fieldhouse is named, was the school’s first physical education teacher, and he taught generations of students from 1928 to 1971. Mr. Preisser emphasized fitness, sportsmanship, gymnastics, and fun. One of his memorable annual events was a gym show and circus.
The current mission statement of Graland, “Achieve intellectual excellence, build strong character, enrich learning through the arts and athletics, and prepare our students to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders,” demonstrates the importance placed on athletics, which has existed since the school’s founding.
With a growing student population in the 1950s, and to ensure that students could attend physical education classes every day, a larger gym was built in 1955 at a cost of $77,000. The new building, which adjoined the junior high classroom building, became the “Elmer Nelson Gymnasium” in honor of Georgia Nelson’s brother, who helped with some of the daily operations. Located in the same proximity as the current Fieldhouse near the corner of First Ave. and Bellaire St., the gym was a much smaller version of the current structure.
During a busy academic day, hurrying down the steps from the adjacent classroom building into the wide-open space of the Elmer Nelson Gymnasium, was a memorable experience for me and others in my generation. We had outstanding gym teachers; Chester Preisser and Dave Rice for the boys and Joy Archer for the girls. Since then, Graland has continued a tradition of esteemed physical education teachers, too numerous to mention.
For almost fifty years, the Elmer Nelson Gymnasium served as the venue for indoor physical education classes, basketball and volleyball games, and important school events such as holiday programs and all-school assemblies. With a growing student population, in 1996, the Fieldhouse evolved when the “Graland Strategic Plan 1999-2005” was being developed to prepare for the 21st Century. A top priority was to construct a Fieldhouse with understructure parking.
Two of the major driving forces for the new Fieldhouse were the need for more gym space due to the importance of having daily PE classes, and to provide understructure parking for faculty and staff. Graland had been operating under a temporary city variance because the available parking was insufficient. The new underground structure would provide 82 parking spaces, eliminate the need for a city variance, reduce traffic on nearby streets, and improve campus safety. Other factors were the legal requirements for handicap accessibility as well as the need for regulation height ceilings and floor space for certain sports, large assembly seating for athletic and non-athletic events, and better locker rooms for home, visitors, and coaches/officials.
The architectural firm of Clip Colussy Jenks DuBois Architects, P.C. was selected, and their design’s exterior “matched the beauty and grace of Jacques J. Benedict’s original architectural vision.” After an extensive and successful capital campaign in which over
$9.8 million was raised under the leadership of Ellie Caulkins, Ted White, and Marshall Wallach; the ceremonial groundbreaking took place on November 1, 2002.
During Fieldhouse construction, a temporary structure known as “The Bubble” was set up on the southern part of Preisser Field near E. Ellsworth Ave. With a rubberized floor and some loud fans, this served as the setting for physical education classes and other events for about a year until the new building was completed. Gerald H. Phipps Company, which had built other campus buildings, was again hired as the general contractor and finished the project on time and on budget.
Twenty years after its dedication in early November 2003, the Fieldhouse has been used extensively, and it has met and exceeded expectations. With a large curtain that divides the space in half and others that divide each half again, the Hamilton Gymnasium accommodates four classes at once or several when classes are combined. There is also a climbing wall, spacious locker rooms, a large equipment room, and office space.
The large seating capacity facilitates large gatherings for sporting contests in addition to Kindergarten Rodeos, Winter Wishes holiday programs, Permanent Art assemblies, Master Teacher Ceremonies, commencements, and many other events. The second floor of the Fieldhouse is also widely used. In addition to the fitness center, utilized by both students during PE class and educators, the multi-purpose room is aptly named, and some of the main events held inside are Grade 5 Knighting and the Gates Invention & Innovation Expo.
Buildings are often considered as “bricks and mortar,” but the Fieldhouse has transcended that over the past twenty years. Just as older alumni and I have special memories of Graland’s first two gyms, those who now benefit by going to the Fieldhouse for gym classes, assemblies, and special events are building their own, which they, too, can share in future years. The Graland experience is everlasting.