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History of VCU’s Franklin Street Gym still remembered as building closes

Fred Jeter | 7/12/2019, 6 a.m.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s Franklin Street Gymnasium has a date with the wrecking ball.
Entrance to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Franklin Street Gymnasium has a date with the wrecking ball.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s Franklin Street Gymnasium has a date with the wrecking ball.

The Rams’ (and Green Devils’) long-time basketball home will be leveled next spring and replaced by a six-story STEM academic building.

A construction company can knock down buildings, but it can’t erase the history. Archives are built to be sledgehammer proof.

In the beginning ...

The original Franklin Street Gym at 805 W. Franklin St. opened prior to the 1952-53 season, and Willis McCauley was there.

The school was known as Richmond Professional Institute at that time, prior to its 1968 merger with the Medical College of Virginia to form Virginia Commonwealth University.

Ed Allen served as a one-man coaching staff, as well as the baseball coach and athletic director.

“When we started practice that fall (in 1952), the gym hadn’t been completed,” recalled McCauley, who was captain of the basketball team. “We practiced a few weeks with no backboards or rims. We just ran through drills.”

Before that, the Rams, then known as the Green Devils, practiced and played most games at the Downtown YMCA. The team’s nickname changed from the Green Devils to the Rams in 1963, in part, because Allen was an alumnus of the University of Rhode Island that had the nickname Rams. He preferred the name Rams to the Green Devils.

With little fanfare, Bill Woodson joined the program in 1960.

“I went to Coach Allen’s office in August and asked if I could play,” Woodson recalled. “He asked me where I’d played in high school. I told him Hermitage, and he said, ‘Fine, you’re on the team.’ ”

Woodson has remained with the program as the game night clock keeper since the 1980s.

The gym was expanded with an addition that opened in December 1970. The new building was immediately adjacent to the east of the old building, with the old and new gym facilities separated by double doors.

“When someone asks me about Franklin Street Gym, I asked them, ‘Which one? The one on the alley or the one on Franklin Street?’ ” McCauley said.

Spectators entered the “old” gym through a side door between Franklin Street and a cobblestone alley. The entrance to the “new” gym was right on Franklin Street.

During the 1950s, RPI had many veterans on the team and played against numerous military installations.

“We played against (baseball star) Willie Mays when he was at Fort Eustis and Don Newcombe when he was at Fort Pickett,” McCauley said.

Here is a sampling of highlights from the Franklin Street Gym:

The original gymnasium was the home court for the Rams’ all-time scorer, Len Creech, and all-time single-game scorer, Don Ross. That’s also where Charles McLeod, a transfer student from Virginia State University, became the program’s first African-American player.

It’s also where VCU defeated the College of Charleston 142-83, a one-game record that still stands.

The last game ever played at the “old” Franklin Street Gym was the Rams’ 87-81 win over Hampden-Sydney College on Feb. 19, 1970. Benny Dees coached VCU the final two years at the old facility.