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  • Writer's pictureMarc Viquez

Ralph Legeman - A Forgotten Man, but not his Basketball Gyms




On July 3, 1974, Ralph Legeman passed away a day after he turned 70 years old. The Evansville-based architect had designed general buildings since 1922 but would later innovate a new direction of building basketball gymnasiums throughout Indiana and Southern Illinois. His contributions to the high school basketball game go unnoticed, but the facilities thankfully do not.


If you ever attended a high school basketball game at New Castle, Jacksonville, Boonville, Connorsville, Center Grove, Loogootee, or Connersville, you are sitting in one of the 37 Legeman gymnasiums. A design that was implemented in many small-town high schools that were revolutionary at the time of their construction.


We call them the sunken gym design today, back then, they were called 'underground bowl gyms' or, as a few school officials referred, "wing-dings". However, after initial hesitation by school officials, Legeman was able to convince schools that his innovative basketball gym would be the way to go in basketball-starved towns of Indiana and Illinois.


Three-fourths of a century later, it's not hard to find them. I never met Legeman, nor has there been an array of articles honoring his dedication to the game of basketball, but when you sit in one of his designed structures, it's easy to see why they became popular. They were inexpensive, provided unobstructed views, the main concourse allowed additional seating and a running track during school hours, plus multiple exits through the various doors after the game.



His concept was used first in Herrin, Illinois, where school officials were looking for a cost-effective gym to hold a high capacity of fans to replace its aging gymnasium. In 1946, Legeman woke up in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm and copied down his thoughts on a piece of paper. The next day, staff at his architectural firm came up with the blueprint that would soon be tested at the high school.


His design would allow fans to enter at street level, not interrupt the action on the court below, players entered through a tunnel at courtside from an adjoining building not to run into people. In case of an emergency, fans walk up the aisle through copious exit doors - much more efficiently than hurrying down aisles to the exits. A 6,000-seat building could be emptied within 7 minutes


The president of the Herrin school board was a civil engineer, saw the possibilities that the gym could have on his school, and agreed to have the radical new gym built. The gymnasium opened in November 1949 with 10- rows of bleacher seating in an octagon pattern; soon, other school officials began asking Legeman to consult and design a similar venue. By next year, four more would be constructed in Owensville, Indiana; Norris City and Murphysboro, Illinois; and an additional gym for Herrin Junior High School.


"It's something that we're really proud of," said Herrin basketball coach Sayler Shurtz on a podcast for Clubhouse Athletics. "When they built the new school, the gym was so important that they built the schoola round it.

The Owensboro Bowl was the first in Indiana, with a capacity for 2,000 people. The venue helped the school wrangle the sectionals away from other schools and attracted 12,228 fans for five games in 1951. The gym would be the host site for the tournament for five seasons before the games moved to Princeton in 1955.


Huntington Memorial Fieldhouse still houses the Southridge Raiders, Photo by Marc Viquez, Stadium Journey


His second gym in Indiana would be the Huntingburg Memorial Fieldhouse, dedicated in November 1951. It is the largest of its kind, with a capacity of 6,002 and 17 rows of seating. The cost was between $250,000 to $350,000 to build. In comparison, the Kokomo Memorial Gymnasium cost $680,000 in 1949.


“Without a doubt, this new Memorial Gymnasium is the latest thing in modern design and is the most outstanding building in this area. It must be seen to be fully appreciated,” a local sports writer stated at the time.

“Without a doubt, this new Memorial Gymnasium is the latest thing in modern design and is the most outstanding building in this area. It must be seen to be fully appreciated,” a local sports writer stated at the time.


The in-the-ground design allowed the bleacher seating to be built directly onto the sloping dirt side of the excavation, saving money on building stands for the bleachers and making them impossible to collapse because they rest on the ground. 


The new gyms were also a source of pride within their community. Many high schools were moving away from the “cracker box” style of gyms that would overflow with people during the basketball season. New Castle moved from the tiny Church Street Gym that held 1,800, built in 1924, to the New Castle Fieldhouse that sat 9,352 people, making it the largest high school basketball gym in the world.



Orleans High School was proud of its new building that opened on Valentine's Day in 1958. A description of the gym is as follows from that year’s yearbook. 


“Comfortable bleachers provided seats for 2,000 persons in the 130 by 154 room. Above them, temporary bleachers can be set on the broad concrete walkway. Vision obstructed by a post is a thing of the past as the view of the floor is completely unobstructed. A good P.A. system, tiled dressing room, attractive public restrooms, concession booths, and the tunnel ramp, which ends the need for players or officials to mingle with spectators--all these and much more-- add up a gym that should be adequate for years to come.”


Legeman patented his stadium construction design in 1956, and by the end of the decade, 28 gymnasiums would be constructed using his blueprint. The majority of the designs were from schools in Southern Illinois from east to west in Indianapolis and south in Indiana. 



A new court for the JHS Bowl, Photo Courtesy of Jacksonville High School


The JHS Bowl in Jacksonville, Illinois, continues to be used with pride for the Jacksonville Crimson. It was funded through $188,00 in public funds and opened in November 1952. It is considered one of the most prominent buildings and one of the most distinguished in the Midwest.  It has hosted a myriad of events, from professional wrestling and boxing matches to MMA fights, and is home to the Class 1A Super-Sectional tournament.


“Our guys love playing at The Bowl,” said former head coach J.R. Dugan. “The history of the teams that have played here and all the different events that have gone on here has always made the place exciting. I feel like we have one of the best gyms in the state, not a bad seat.” 

Legeman’s last gym in Illinois was the Duff-Kingston Gym in Eldorado. The 4,850-capacity facility opened on February 15, 1958, and was later renamed in honor of basketball standouts Mike Duff and Kevin Kingston. They were members of the Evansville basketball team tragically killed in a plane crash on December 13, 1977.


The annual Eldorado Holiday Tournament has taken place since 1964. The influx of people is an economic boom to the town that, in three days, becomes the center of basketball in southeastern Illinois. A total of 26 games are held during the tournament, featuring 16 teams with crowds of up to 4,000 for the championship tilt.


“Duff-Kingston Gymnasium is a proud focal point of our town,” stated school AD Greg Goodley, who added that the tournament is a must to attend every year. “It is one of a kind in high school sports, with the ability to allow 5,000 people to view a game and for everyone to have a great seat or even have a great view standing round the top of the gym.”


Warm-ups at the Duff-Kingston Gymnasium, Photo Courtesy of Eldorado High School


Booneville Stadium in Indiana has become a mainstay in the community since its construction in 1958. The 5,650-seat gym pried away sectional games from Lynnville High School, which had its sunken gym constructed in February 1952. Booneville attracted 8,255 people to sectional games in 1959, while Lynville attracted 6,822 to the same amount of games the year before. 


High School Athletic Director Kevin Davis said the building is a community icon. It has hosted the Harlem Globetrotters, and President Bill Clinton; it is a great place for shooting baskets. However, its sunken court design does lead to some fine tutelage when it comes to the maintenance of the gym, like screwing in a light bulb.



“We can't easily get a lift or equipment down on the floor to fix lights or redo the floor. The gym is shut down for a couple of days if we want to do any bulb replacement or fix a light fixture. People do not realize how much manpower and work it is to fix a bulb.”


Sadly, Loogootee, now known as the Jack Butcher Sports Arena, would be the final facility designed after Legeman's vision in 1968. A new kind of gym would become the rage heading into the 1970s called the “box gym” that would feature two levels of seating with roll-out bleachers and stair-cases allowing fans to move to the upper level from an exterior concourse.


Many of these gyms still hold a lot of passion for people years after they stopped operating. The old North High School Gym in Evansville was dedicated in 1957 and would be home to the Huskies until the new school opened 9 miles north in 2012. The move also included a new gymnasium with a capacity of 3,457. The Academy for Innovation Studies Diamond Branch would move into the old campus and use the gym for storage. 


The former Owensville Bowl is now a museum of sorts, Photo Courtesy of the REH Center


The Owensville Bowl would host basketball until 1974 after the school merged with three others to form Southern Gibson. The building was saved from the wrecking ball in 1992 and turned into the REH Center a year later. It is the oldest of its kind in Indiana and is busy from November 1 to the end of March hosting church basketball leagues, pick-up games, senior walkers, sale auctions, town meetings, volleyball, and parties.


The gym is also a museum, and its walls are plastered with a collection of memories from the old high school. It includes old varsity jackets hanging on the walls, photographs, game day programs, yearbooks, newspaper clippers, and trophies. For a gym that is no longer in use, it still provides a service to its community. 


The West Gym at Center Grove High School is almost 70-years-old and was replaced by the Vandermeer Gym in January 1996. The gym was constructed along with a new school in 1956 and held 4,000 people in a community, which at the time had a population of 5,000.


The West Gym was saved as an auxiliary gym and is used for volleyball and freshman basketball games. Occasionally, it returns as the home of the varsity team when scheduling conflicts or during county tournament games.


Photo Courtesy of CG Sports Network


The gyms sold themselves due to low cost and it allowed many small communities the opportunity to afford them for civic pride, to attract more players to basketball, and to host sectional and regional tournaments. Many of the gymnasiums were larger than the communities they were built in according to L.V. Phillips, Indiana High School Athletic Director in 1956.


"Indiana basketball didn't need a shot inthe arm, but these fine new gyms in communities that have been able to afford them have done it anyway. Basketball all over the state alread feels like a stimuating affect. We thought that nothing new could be added, but it has been.

Many are still in use, and only two have been razed: Roberts Stadium, the former home of the University of Evansville basketball program, and Ridgway, Illinois. The gym in Lynnville, Indiana appears to have been turned into apartments or storage as of this writing. The Racer Arena on the campus of Murray State has been the home to its volleyball team and the second-largest volleyball arena in college sports.


He must have been proud of his design since in 1965 he similarly designed his home in Evansville. The house is still standing and has the trademark trusses on the exterior of the structure. An image exists through Google.


Ralph Legeman passed away almost 50 years ago, and he is somewhat of an unknown man, but his buildings are not. It is hard to tell the story of high school basketball in both states without mentioning his sunken gym courts. How many folks know they are a result of one man's dream?


They are his legacy to many basketball communities in Indiana and Illinois and his basketball palaces. His first innovative gym design will celebrate 75 years of celebration next November, and even if you don’t remember his name, you won’t forget his basketball gyms.


Not bad for his 'wing-dings'.


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Follow all of Marc’s stadium journeys on Twitter @ballparkhunter and his YouTube channel.  Email at Marc.Viquez@stadiumjourney.com






















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