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Official Review by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
It does not get much more historic than the North Walnut Street Fieldhouse, also known as the Muncie Fieldhouse, home of the Muncie Central High School Bearcats basketball programs. The team has been playing basketball inside the building since 1928 and over the years it has produced eight state boy’s basketball titles. It is among the oldest facilities in the state still being utilized for high school hoops and one that is lush with history.
Basketball was first played in 1901, but was not a hit, as ice polo was regarded as Muncie’s favorite sport. The school was void of basketball between 1902-1904 and 1909-1911. However, the sport soon quickly gained popularity with the rest of the state, and Muncie produced a strong 14-3 season and sectional victories in 1916. The team also had their first official home gymnasium at the newly built high school, but the capacity crowds created a public spirit that prevailed towards building a bigger, better, and more modern facility. The team was quickly outgrowing its current gym, Campbell’s Auditorium. It was even attracting capacity crowds at its other home venue where it had played games, Ball Gymnasium, located at Ball State Teacher’s College (today Ball State University). The Cats captured their first state championship in 1928 only furthering the civic pride for a new facility.
The Public School Extension Division was created, and construction costs were financed by local banks and bonds were sold to citizens which would eventually be paid off as scheduled with the title being turned over to the school district less than 15 years later.
The fieldhouse was completed at rapid pace and dedicated on December 7, 1928. The cost was $407,429.89. The seating capacity was 7,600 at its opening and a sold-out crowd witnessed a Bearcat win over the Anderson Indians 35-24.
The fieldhouse has been renovated on three occasions that saw the capacity lowered to 6,600 people in 1983. The last major renovations took place in 1988 when $1.5 million was spent to replace lighting, locker rooms, coaches office, exit ramps, and modernize restrooms.
The Muncie Fieldhouse has served the community in many capacities since its inception. The facility has been home to circuses, boxing matches, dog shows, sale of war bonds by Abbott and Costello, Harlem Globetrotter basketball, a Billy Graham Crusade, and concerts featuring legends from a wide variety of musical genres including Neil Diamond, Roy Rogers, and The Supremes.
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There are two concession booths located in the main hallway on opposite sides of each other. The food selection is on par with other basketball fieldhouses in the state, but I would recommend grabbing a bite to eat from the various restaurants in town. Hot dogs, popcorn, peanuts, and nachos are all offered at the concession booth. The price range for products range from $1.50 for a hot dog to $2.50 for nachos. Pepsi products are sold for $2.
The walk up to the gymnasium sends a somewhat warm chill down the back of your spine. The venerable old building has a presence all its own to the first time visitor and commands your attention. This is one of the definitions of high school basketball.
Visitors enter the building through the atrium that displays large photos above the doorways of state championship teams and the dedication to the game. The atrium also has two old-fashioned ticket booths, hallways to the upper deck, and signage. The interior main lobby wraps around the the perimeter of the playing court and the walls display modern font, a slight dismay, that direct patrons to the washroom, concession stands, hospitality room, exits and entrances, and the museum.
Once inside the court the majority of the silver painted wooden bleacher style seats are above the court and extend all the way up towards the ceiling near the old SRO section that was once heavily populated. The crowds are thin near the top and there is enough leg room to sprawl out over two or three rows of seats. The view from the game is iconic at this level as hanging banners provide a somewhat obstructed view of the action on the wooden floor.
The atmosphere is similar to many other great basketball games in the state. There is the student section heckling opponents at the free throw line, cheerleaders performing during breaks and intermissions, a mascot making his way through the stands, and a band busting out a collection of today's popular hits. Then there are the eight state championship banners that wave majestically from the top of the ceiling that also includes eight more from the volleyball team.
There are not many options to choose from within walking distance, but Muncie is a small town and your best choices for nightlife or dining would be downtown or near the shopping center to the north.
A few downtown options include Scotty's Brewhouse, Savage's Ale House, and Cleo's Bourbon Bar. Amazing Joe's offers giant tenderloins and steak dishes. Savage's Ale House is your typical brewpub that features juicy burgers, chicken wings, and a bevy of fried appetizers - try the aloha burger.
Downtown Muncie features Scotty's Brewhouse, Heorot Pub and Draught House, and the Fickle Peach. You will find great beers, pub food, and college atmosphere during your visit.
Muncie is a nice sized college town home to Ball State University. There are more than enough hotel options, including the Hampton Inn, Fairfield Inn, Courtyard, Best Western, and Holiday Inn & Suites.
The crowd is boisterous during a Bearcats game and if they are winning, the decibel levels only increase.This is a high school basketball town and the history speaks for itself. There are also a lot of fans who have been attending games for close to 70 years. They have great stories about the championship seasons of the 1950's, 1960's, and late 1970's. A few of them can be found in the fieldhouse museum and they do not mind sharing a few stories about what makes this facility so special.
Muncie is one of those towns that seems to have many different ways to enter the city. There is not a major interstate that goes directly into town, and the closest I-69 exit is about 12 miles away from the gym.
Access into the fieldhouse is a different story. It is quite easy to walk from the lower section to the upper section, along with access from the main lobby to the upper section. The walls are printed with bold letters directing patrons to bathrooms, hallways, and concession booths. The easy access is impressive due to the age of the building.
The price of admission is $5 and that includes free parking and entrance to the Bearcat Museum which is chock-full of history from the school. Concession prices are also very low and who would not enjoy a night of basketball in a historic venue for under 10 bucks?
The Bearcat Museum is phenomenal and should be visited well before the basketball game begins. There are yearbooks dating back to 1912, old championship banners, photos, trophies, musical notes, desks, chairs, pins, and random paraphernalia. Many other schools have a section dedicated to its history, but it is at a higher level here in Muncie.
The museum workers all seem to be alumni from Muncie Central and have a few stories to tell about the good old days. One worker shared a story about how students, staff, and townspeople had to pull tickets out of a box for sectionals; she was lucky enough to pull tickets three years in a row. She also had stories about the many characters who had attended games and worked at the fieldhouse.
The fieldhouse itself is a true legend. If the walls could talk, there would be a lot about the history of the program that began winning championships in 1928. The building might even feel a little aching from the wear and tear of the old fieldhouse, and it would definitely smile after each and every Bearcat victory.
There is a lot of history in the building and it begins with the multiple championship banners hanging from the ceiling, large team photographs hanging on the walls in the atrium, and other areas that harken back to another time of basketball in the state. The stadium is also quite cranky in other areas that includes it still operating with its original air handling units and 1950's era steam boiler units.
There are copious amounts of history and nostalgia at Indiana basketball gymnasiums and fieldhouse, and North Walnut Street Fieldhouse is no different. This is the home to nine state basketball championships, nine state finalists, and eight volleyball state championships. It is a facility that still operates in the same manner as it has for close to 90 years of operation. The centerpiece for a town is still quite an experience.
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