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Amid Modern Arenas, Hinkle Fieldhouse Holds Fast to Historic Charm

With its soaring rafters and stately brick exterior, Hinkle Fieldhouse, on the campus of Butler University, in Indianapolis, has long represented a golden era in Midwest hoops: When it was built, in 1928, Hinkle was the largest basketball facility in the country, and remained so for two decades. Its greatest claim to fame—cinematically, at least—is the climactic championship-game scene of Hoosiers, which was filmed there. In 1983, Hinkle was named a National Historic Landmark.

But even an icon needs a facelift every now and then. Butler officials are in the early stages of fund raising to install more chair-back seats in the arena, modernize the concession stands and restrooms, and perform some structural tune-ups. At an estimated cost of about $12-million, it would be the arena’s first renovation in more than two decades: The lower section, close to the court, has had chair-back seats since Hinkle’s last makeover, in 1989, but the upper sections still feature the bleacher-style seating of yesteryear. The proposed renovations to the seating area would reduce the arena’s capacity from an intimate 10,000 to an even cozier 9,000. (The athletic director Barry Collier, a Butler alum, says he isn’t concerned, because tickets for the newer seats could be sold at higher prices.)

The installation of more chair-back seats is hardly an epic renovation in the annals of the facilities arms race. But at a time when other universities are taking on significant debt and tapping their donors to build expansive new arenas and practice facilities, Butler is happily sticking with its retro look. It’s not as though the program is struggling, either: The Bulldogs have played in the NCAA tournament seven times in the past decade, and earlier this year came within two points of defeating Duke for the national title.

I toured Hinkle for the first time in April, just a few hours before Butler faced Michigan State in the Final Four. On that day, the fieldhouse was bustling with hundreds of children participating in a basketball clinic. An English Bulldog—not Blue II, the Butler Bulldog, but a snorting, brindle-colored lookalike—soaked up the attention of admirers near the main entrance. Visitors milled about, snapping photos and leaning in to read the fine print on plaques and black-and-white photos that line the corridor.

As I walked around the empty upper perimeter of the arena, treading on small, dark circles of chewing gum that had fossilized on the concrete floor, I thought about other old arenas that have been superseded by flashier structures. Cole Field House, on the campus of the University of Maryland at College Park, is the one I know best.  As a kid, I squirmed in Cole’s seats during more than one commencement ceremony, and as a teenager, I watched my high-school basketball team vie for the Maryland state title on its court.

Cole wasn’t the fanciest place, but—and maybe this recollection is skewed by childhood nostalgia coupled with my general fondness for old buildings—it seemed to have a palpable charm. The Terrapins played their last game in Cole in 2002. These days, Maryland’s basketball teams compete in the Comcast Center, a sparkling new arena perched atop a hill in a section of the campus that was barely developed when I was young.

This season, one of Butler’s early opponents is another program accustomed to competing on a court with a history. For 54 seasons, the University of Louisville played in Freedom Hall, a beloved but somewhat worn arena on the grounds of the Kentucky Exposition Center that is also home to tractor pulls and horse shows. This season marks a new chapter for the Cardinals: Last week, Louisville officials cut the ribbon of a brand-new downtown arena on the banks of the Ohio River that will be home to the university’s men’s and women’s basketball programs. The KFC Yum! Center, as the 22,000-seat facility is known, was built at a cost of $238-million and is owned and operated by the city.

Butler travels to the riverside city next month, for Louisville’s opening game on November 15. The sight lines in the new arena are sure to be great, and the luxury suites promise to be swanky. But there won’t be any chewing gum from the 1970s pressed into the floor. Where’s the fun in that?

(Photo courtesy of Butler U.)

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