Photos by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey
The first game played at the Crawfordsville gym was on January 31, 1940, in front of a sold-out crowd of around 2,673 that witnessed the Athenians defeat the Clinton Wildcats 46-33. All seats were reserved and had been sold out by noon of the first game. Even a few days earlier the visiting Clinton newspaper urged its fans to purchase tickets before arriving at the arena before making the journey to Crawfordsville.
The new quarter of a million-dollar “temple to Indiana high school basketball” was a beautiful building and a much-needed gym for the Athenians. The team had played at the old YMCA gym, the Crawfordsville Auditorium, the Wabash College gym, and the Armory since beginning its program in 1911.
The gym offered seating all the way around with four corner entrances that kissed the corner of each foul line. The crowds were close to the action on the court but were both courteous to the opposing players and supportive of its home club.
Former school athletic director Bruce Whitehead mentioned at the time of its closing to the Indianapolis Star that “there was not a bad seat in the house – no matter whether you are in the top row, the end for the side. It was compact, cozy, and great.” The size of the gym did get a bit cozier towards the end of its timeline from 2,673 to 2,100.
The gym was both modern and state-of-the-art when it opened and was one of the earliest places to feature electronic scoreboards. In its 53-year history, a total of 600 games were played at the old gym, including being the home for sectional games from 1940 to 1971. Crawfordsville High would capture 40 regional championships and earn one trip to the state title game in 1958 during that span.
The last game that took place was on February 26, 1993, in a 75-67 overtime loss to Greencastle. Crawfordsville had tied it up at 61 on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to provide a little extra time to the historic facility. After the game, the crowd said goodbye to the memories and the basketball.
After the game, a section of the bleachers was donated to the Basketball Hall of Fame in New Castle, and all fans in attendance who purchased a $3 seat took home a souvenir keychain with an etching of the gym on one side and the history of Crawfordsville basketball on the opposite side.
The game ball that was used for the final game was used one more time at the school’s new gym when it opened later that year. It now resides in a trophy case at the new high school’s gymnasium.
“It was a great place to play,” said former player McCarty at the time of the gym’s closing. “It’s dark in there, and I kind of like the dark background. The only time it’s hard to shoot is when you get all the fans packed in there behind the basket.”
The town has honored the game ever since the first basketball game was played in March of 1894 between the YMCA of Crawfordsville and the YMCA of Lafayette. During the dedication services in 1940, the state champions of 1911 were invited back to the building for a pre-game ceremony. A total of six members made the trip back into town to acknowledge the state’s first hardwood champions.
“Maybe approved basketball isn’t such a killer after all,” quipped head coach and future Indiana High School Hall of Famer H.T. McCullough to a stunned audience. He must have been amazed at the physical appearance of the former players who were close to 30 years removed from their high school championship.
After the new high school gym was built, the facility was dormant and reopened in 1999 as the Athena Fitness Center. For the next 20 years, it was maintained and used for various sports and events in town. However, in the spring of 2019, the building closed, and its future is in some question as of this writing.
Construction was taking place in the gym as a large crane was outside one of its entrances, while bags of materials were stacked up on the court. Workers were visible moving material inside the interior hallways of the venue. There didn’t appear to be any damages or work being done to the gym or the court during our visit.
The residents that now live in The Lofts apartment complex that once housed classrooms next to the gym didn’t seem to know what was taking place with the former basketball cathedral. There was no one in the building to answer any questions, and phone calls have yet to be returned.
The gym appears to be a sound condition and ideal for a pickup game of basketball. However, what does one do with an old gym that hasn’t housed a high school game in almost 28 years? Has it outlived its usefulness, and can it find new life as other gyms in Peru and Lebanon? One can only hope.