For the past 88 years the red brick Palestra has been at the heart of Philadelphia’s pulsating sports scene.
Located on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, just west of the Schuylkill River and downtown Philly, the Palestra hosts Penn basketball, volleyball, wrestling and gymnastics teams, Big 5 and city high school championships, and has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other venue in the country.
The Palestra’s symmetrical, brick exterior, efficient bleacher-style seating and large, cathedral-style windows create a cozy, church-like setting appropriate for a building dubbed, “the Cathedral of College Basketball”. And although it’s hosted the biggest of games and the best of athletes, the Palestra’s homey, old-school vibe evokes the feel of a local weeknight church league, only with a bigger crowd.
I’ve wanted to visit the Palestra for so long, and finally got the chance to see a vintage Big 5 battle between Penn and Villanova last week. Armed with my press pass, at the entry lobby a fellow writer – a Palestra regular – took me under his wing and gave me a quick tour. Like something out of a movie, we ducked and dived our way through the growing crowd. Taking a quick right, he stepped over a chain-link barrier onto a ramp leading down to the courtside media room. Inexplicably, as often the case with aged sport buildings, a bright red concrete beam bisected the ramp at forehead level, almost making me a pregame casualty. Luckily, my reflexes are still good and having avoided disaster, I continued on to the cathedral of college basketball.
So, what makes the Palestra special? It is the same difficult question as, “What makes Wrigley Field or Fenway Park special”? The sheer age of these venerable sporting venues puts them in a different category to modern ballparks. The Palestra is as much a part of its hometown as Fenway and Wrigley are to theirs. And yet, there is something uniquely special about the Palestra.
When it opened January 1, 1927 its 10,000-seat capacity made the Palestra one of the biggest college basketball arenas in the country. With the same management company as Madison Square Garden in New York, teams were required to play at both famous buildings, bringing big teams to the Palestra and establishing it on the basketball map. Since its opening, the Palestra has hosted more NCAA Tournament games than any other building, it has hosted Atlantic-10 tournament games, NBA games and most importantly is the historic home to the Big 5.
The Big 5 is the famous consortium of five college basketball teams located in or around Philadelphia – the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova, Temple, St. Joseph’s and La Salle – that has been battling for the unofficial title of city champ since its formation in 1955. No other city in the country has this concentration of major college basketball programs playing each other on an annual basis, let alone at the same historic arena.
Each school now has its own arena to call home, but occasionally, as on the night I saw Villanova, Penn hosts an old Big 5 matchup at the Palestra, and the city’s eyes once again focus on 235 South 33rd Street.
Although Penn were heavy underdogs, they hung close throughout with Villanova only pulling away in the final 10 minutes. The closely contested battle allowed the Palestra to do its thing. It’s not an accident that so many games have been played here, as it is a wonderful venue to watch a game. Fans sit in either the North, South, East or West stands and the lack of interior columns or seating breaks make sightlines not a problem even if your seat is off in one of the corners. I’ve been to other venues – Autzen Stadium and McArthur Court in Eugene, Madison Square Garden in New York – and the atmosphere feels similarly charged, like a powder keg ready and eager to explode at any moment.
This electrified atmosphere is something the designers at Populous and HOK spend a lot of time studying; my theory is it’s the lack of disruptions in the seating bowl, proximity to court and – most importantly – a communal desire to make an atmosphere charged that makes the atmosphere, well, charged. One could say then, the Palestra is special because it is special.
We returned Sunday afternoon for the UPenn Gymnastics meet versus highly ranked Stanford. The crowd was significantly smaller than for the previous night’s basketball, probably in the range of 50-100, but the building didn’t feel empty or the competition insignificant in any way. The Palestra’s intimacy was incredible and it was phenomenal watching Olympic-calibre gymnastics talent this close-up.
I have a theory of architecture that all great buildings, the Palestra being one, are at once small and big. The Palestra’s efficient, single bowl provides a sense of community, its elegant windows illuminate the building and reference a larger world beyond, and the energy created by devoted fans and players create a dynamic, charged environment unique to this place. Regardless of the sport, you all should find your way there.
Home of the University of Pennsylvania Quakers and Big 5 Basketball