Remembering the First Harmon Gym

Cal basketball fans who are, shall we say, slightly older, like to wax nostalgic about old Harmon Gym, as it was before the expansion and modernization turned it into Haas Pavilion. Those fans talk about how small Harmon Gym was, with only 6,500 seats, how close to the action the Cal student section was, and how precious the student tickets were. In fact, California Golden Blogs' own LeonPowe has written a great piece about the outrageousness and charm of watching basketball at Harmon Gym. But many Cal fans do not realize that long before games were played at old Harmon Gym, there was an even older Harmon Gym, which was even smaller, and where the fans were even closer to the action. It was this original Harmon Gym where the Cal women played the first women's college basketball game in history in 1892, where Cal men's basketball was first played in 1907, where the Bears played while winning eight Men's Pacific Coast Conference Championships between 1916 and 1932, and where the sport became increasingly popular, until a larger facility was needed and finally built in 1933.


California basketball fans pack old, old Harmon Gym for a 1927 non-conference game.

Harmon Gymnasium was the fourth building built on the Berkeley campus, following South Hall, North Hall, and Bacon Hall (which was the original University Library). It was also the first building built courtesy of a private gift to the University. In 1878, Oakland businessman Albion Keith Paris Harmon donated $15,000 to the University of California for the construction of a gymnasium and assembly hall, which was to be named in his honor. The original Harmon Gymnasium, completed in 1879, was a wooden octagon, built next to Strawberry Creek, on the site where the south wing of Dwinelle Hall is now located. In addition to being used as a gym, it also saw service as a theater for plays and concerts, a hall for dances and rallies, and an assembly hall for large campus meetings. And it served as the headquarters for the University's military cadet corps.


Members of the University's cadet corps stand in front of the original old Harmon Gym in the 1880s.


The University of California campus in 1885. This photograph shows Bacon Hall at left, the flagpole which is the present site of the Campanile, and at right, South Hall and North Hall (foreground). The original octagon of Old Harmon Gymnasium can be seen in the distance on the far right, partially obscured by North Hall. Of all these buildings, only South Hall is still standing.

In 1892, Harmon Gym had the distinction of being the location of the first competitive women's college basketball game ever played. On November 18, 1892, a team of California women students took on a team from a local prep school, Miss Head's School, at Old Harmon, marking the first time a women's team had ever played the sport as representatives of their college or university. (For more on the remarkable history of Cal women's basketball in the 1890s, click here.)

By 1900, the University had outgrown Harmon Gym, and needed a larger assembly space. It was decided to preserve the original Harmon by splitting the octagon, moving a portion of it, and adding a connecting area in between the two sections of the old octagon.


Old Harmon Gym after its 1900 expansion.

Harmon Gym took on its most famous role once the Cal men began playing basketball in 1907. Harmon could hold 1,400 fans for a basketball game, which was ample in a time when total university enrollment was less than 5,000.

The expanded Harmon Gym also continued to be the headquarters of the University's military cadets, including the new U.S. School of Military Aeronautics where, among others, future World War II hero and Congressional Medal of Honor winner General Jimmy Doolittle (Class of 1922) learned his profession. Doolittle and other cadets lived at a boarding house nicknamed "The Hanger," that was just across Strawberry Creek from Old Harmon, in what is now Sproul Plaza. These cadets and their guests took to signing the wallpaper at The Hanger, and the boarding house eventually became a virtual museum of early aviation memorabilia, including numerous photographs, propellers, and other artifacts which were presented to its owner, Mary Elizabeth Tusch, by returning servicemen. Jimmy Doolittle called The Hanger, "the first U.S.O." When the house was torn down in 1950, its artifacts, including the wallpaper signed by the likes of Doolittle, General Billy Mitchell, Amelia Earhart, and by generations of Cal aviation cadets who had been headquartered at Old Harmon Gym, were sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where they are now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum.

Around the same time that Old Harmon was expanded, Cal got a second gymnasium, this one courtesy of the University's patron, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Mrs. Hearst was a great advocate for Cal's women students, and believed that they ought to have the same access to a gym as the men. Accordingly, in 1901 Mrs. Hearst donated to the University a reception hall which she had had built next to her home. Mrs. Hearst paid to have the hall disassembled, moved to the campus, and reassembled on the spot where the south portion of Wurster Hall now stands. She later paid for a swimming pool and basketball courts to be built next to it. The new, and rather exotic, Hearst Hall was designated as a gymnasium and "a general rendezvous for the women students."


Hearst Hall in 1901. The chimney next to the gym was later removed and replaced with a building for showers and dressing rooms.


Women students in a physical education class in the large interior of Mrs. Hearst's former reception hall, Hearst Hall, around 1920.

After World War I, the University's enrollment grew rapidly, from 6,000 students in 1918 to 11,000 in 1928. At the same time, basketball was increasing in popularity. In the Blue and Gold Yearbooks from the 1910s, basketball is listed as a "minor sport," in the same category as sports like fencing, soccer, and swimming, worthy of only a page or two of discussion. In contrast, many pages were devoted to the "major sports" of football, baseball, track, crew, and tennis. But by the mid-1920s, basketball was firmly established as a "major" sport, with as much space devoted to it in the Blue and Gold as to any sport except football. Thus, throughout the 1920s, as both the student body and the popularity of basketball grew, Harmon Gym became less and less satisfactory both as a basketball venue and as the main large assembly hall on campus. Hearst Hall was able to fill some of the need for another assembly hall for a time, but it burned down in 1922, and was not replaced until the present Hearst Women's Gymnasium was completed in 1927. And the new Women's Gymnasium, while much superior to Hearst Hall as a gym, had no space appropriate for large meetings or assemblies.

By the mid-1920s, the Bears had become the dominant basketball team on the west coast. Under Clarence "Nibs" Price, who became the head coach in 1924, the Bears won the Pacific Coast Conference championship six times in nine seasons between 1924 and 1932, while the team was still playing at Old Harmon. (Nibs Price would win a total of eight PCC championships in his 30 years as Cal's head basketball coach, and would also take Cal to the Rose Bowl while serving as the Bears' head football coach from 1926 to 1930. For more on the career of Nibs Price, click here.) Because of the tremendous success of Cal basketball in the 1920s, the demand for basketball tickets far exceeded the capacity of Old Harmon. By 1925, only non-conference games (then referred to as "the Preliminary Season") were played on campus at Harmon Gym. All conference games were played at the 5,500-seat Oakland Auditorium near Lake Merritt (now known as the Kaiser Convention Center).


Old Harmon Gym sold out for a 1925 Preliminary Season (i.e., non-conference) game between the University of California and the team from its Southern Branch (later to be known as UCLA). The Blue and Gold yearbook gave this description: "Three days before the start of the Stanford Conference series the Bruin team ["Bruins" here refers to Cal, since the Southern Branch had not yet copied the nickname "Bruins" from Cal in 1925] met the Southern Branch five in Harmon Gymnasium, handing their lighter southern cousins a 33-24 defeat. California took the lead early and maintained it throughout the game. By this time the Bears' offense was working smoothly. The passing game had been worked up to perfection in this last preliminary game."


For a more important 1927 game against Stanford, the Bears had to play at the Oakland Auditorium, which was much larger than old Harmon. Before a sell-out crowd in excess of 5,500, the Bears came back from a 12-9 halftime deficit to beat Stanford 26-23, securing the Pacific Coast Conference southern division title, setting up a best two-out-of-three championship series against the northern division champion Washington Huskies. The Bears beat the Huskies two straight, 32-31 and 28-25, to win the 1927 Pacific Coast Conference Championship.

After Hearst Hall burned down in 1922, Old Harmon had the only large hall on campus. It was thus the only site available for dances, musical and dramatic performances, and a host of other activities.


Students line up to register for classes in Old Harmon Gym in 1929.



Old Harmon decorated for the Junior Prom in 1928.

By the early 1930s the time had finally come to replace Old Harmon with a new facility. Construction was begun on the new gymnasium in 1931 and completed in 1933. The new facility could hold more than 6,500 fans for basketball, 1,000 more than the Oakland Auditorium, and nearly five times as many as Old Harmon. This new, state-of-the-art facility was originally called simply, The Gymnasium for Men. It was not until 1959 that the University decided to honor A.K.P. Harmon, the donor of the funds which built the school's original gymnasium, by renaming the new facility "Harmon Gymnasium." And, of course, in the late 1990s, it was extensively renovated, in part through a large gift from the Walter Haas family, and the basketball arena was renamed Haas Pavilion.

Old Harmon was torn down in 1933, as the wooden structure was regarded as a fire hazard. In 1950, Dwinelle Hall was built on the spot where it stood. The 1933 Blue and Gold yearbook contains this epitaph for the old building:

In 1879, soon after the College of California became the University of California, A.K.P Harmon donated the little octagonal structure destined to be the center around which the University was to develop. The campus circle included North Hall, Harmon Gymnasium, and the Civil Engineering and Mechanics buildings. North Hall was the seat of faculty administration and Harmon was the student center. For a quarter of a century, the building served not only as a gymnasium but as the sole auditorium for symphonies, dramatic productions, and University meetings, where the spirit of student life and government evolved. . . . Through the years the University grew scholastically, spiritually, and materially, until it outgrew the facilities of the old gymnasium. The Gymnasium for Men has now replaced the athletic use of Harmon. Although it has passed the days of battles with poor equipment, it still stands as an impetus to University advancement and achievement. Harmon Gym will always live on in spirit.


Old old Harmon Gymnasium.




Anonymous, Blue and Gold (1920-1933 editions), Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley, CA (1920-1933)

California Golden Bears' Official Website, "Harmon Gym"

Dornin, May and Pickerell, Albert G., The University of California A Pictorial History, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA (1968)

Helfand, Harvey, The Campus Guide, University of California, Berkeley, Princeton Architectural Press, New York (2002)

Sibley, Carol and Sibley, Robert, California Pilgrimage, Lederer, Street & Zeus Co, Inc., Berkeley, CA (1952)

Sibley, Robert (ed.), The Golden Book of California, The California Alumni Association, Berkeley, CA (1937)

Woodbridge, Sally B., John Galen Howard and the University of California: The Design of a Great Public University Campus, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA (2002)

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