Rose Hill Gym: Fordham’s (little) icon

On the former Rose Hill Estate, in the Fordham section of the Bronx, just north of that well-known ‘House that Ruth Built’, sits one of America’s oldest and most picturesque sport venues you may never have heard of.

Beautiful lines abound (photo: Stadiafile)
Beautiful lines abound (Photo: Stadiafile)

Stadiafile has been on a Northeast Classics kick lately, visiting Michie Stadium in the Fall and Penn’s Palestra in January. We continued the trend last weekend, leaving our Brooklyn confines for a snowy drive along the Mosholu Parkway to visit the historic Rose Hill Gymnasium on the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx, NY.

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I had heard Rose Hill Gym described as small, and arriving at the beautiful, neo-gothic Fordham campus with its gabled buildings towering overhead, it’s easy to miss the low-slung arena whose facade is no more than 20 feet tall at its apex.

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Cold, sunny skies provide a crisp backdrop for Rose Hill’s neo-Gothic stone facade (Photo: Stadiafile)

When built in 1925, Rose Hill Gym was one of the largest on-campus arenas in the country, then nicknamed “The Prairie”. A fieldhouse in the truest sense, the white-painted, vaulted roof soars high above the court. The height difference between the stone entry facade and the roof inside creates Rose Hill Gym’s most significant feature – the windows. The large windows at both southwest and northeast ends allow daylight to pour into the cozy gym. This wonderful natural lighting was on display at the 2:30 PM tip-off between the Rams and the visiting Hawks of St. Joe’s of Philadelphia. Naturally-lit fieldhouses like Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indiana and the Palestra, are the rare endangered species of modern sport facilities and should be cherished and enjoyed.

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Fans enter Rose Hill through the modern McGinley Center, housing a student cafeteria and recreation facilities. Once inside the gym you are, well, in the gym – no concourse here. Rose Hill is literally one big room with four sets of concrete bleachers accessed directly from court level. A minimal, two-row mezzanine flanks each side, at the spring line of the white-painted steel girders. There is zero lost space in the efficient Rose Hill, which is refreshing in the modern era of sport facilities where fluff space is all too prevalent. And yet, Fordham’s institutional desire to have a newer, bigger arena is evident. There is no sign welcoming you to, “HISTORIC ROSE HILL GYM, EST. 1925”, as you might expect from such a venerable building. Other than understated Fordham Athletic Hall of Fame plaques in the narrow corridor beside the stands, the historic, celebratory feel you get at Philadelphia’s Palestra is puzzlingly absent. If it weren’t for the halftime honoring of the 1970-71 26-3 NCAA Tournament Fordham team, you might have wondered whether Fordham had much of a basketball tradition at all.

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As puzzling as the lack of historical display is the lack of concessions. A long line extended from the single food area beneath the baseline bleachers. Granted, there is minimal space available, but a modern food court is just next door in the McGinley Center and significant space on the opposite side of the bleachers was dedicated to a free haircut barber station. I could have done with at least a second food stand, and couldn’t help but imagine a role for students in 1930s newsie outfits walking the gym slinging popcorn and cotton candy.

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New, courtside padded seating and video boards above each baseline seating area help give the building a comfortable feel, but a visit from the Fenway Group would help remind college basketball fans, Fordhamites and New Yorkers of Rose Hill’s title as THE oldest Division 1 basketball arena in the country.

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The Rams were inspired on the day I visited. For a team notching only its 7th win of the season, they played with an admirable passion and energy and the crowd followed suit. Clearly Fordham’s 14,000 student population has no problem filling its 3,400-seat gym, and where else would anyone interested in Fordham or basketball rather be than Rose Hill on a February Sunday afternoon? Making their presence felt was a small – yet vociferous – student section and there was even an unforgettable Irish dancing display by the Fordham Ram mascot. I didn’t have to squint too hard to see Rose Hill as one of the country’s truly special college venues.

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Fordham competes in the Atlantic 10 Conference, against universities with buildings double, even triple, their student population. Saint Louis’ 10,600-seat Billiken Center and University of Dayton’s 13,000-seat UD Arena are larger, more modern buildings where apparently high school kids would prefer to play. A New York Times article reported Fordham Coach Tom Pecora as explaining that, “‘a good number’ of recruiting targets had reacted negatively to Rose Hill Gym, so he has used Fordham’s academic strength in his pitches instead.” This may be true, but I grew up in South Orange, NJ where Seton Hall played in the 20,000-seat Meadowlands Arena (admittedly half-full), and now at Prudential Center in Newark, which I would argue has done little to help improve the program. One only has to look at this year’s success of Brooklyn’s St. Francis men’s basketball team which plays in the 1,200-seat Pope Phys Ed Center to see that building size does not always matter. More creative gameday management and inspired thinking would go a long way to turning Rose Hill Gym into the asset it should be for Fordham.

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Last week Stadiafile had a Twitter debate with an out-of-town sport columnist questioning Madison Square Garden’s title as the “Mecca of Basketball”. Titles are often self-proclaimed, as any visit to MSG will confirm, where it’s pumped repeatedly over James Dolan’s expensive sound system. Like many inane sport debates – the Hall of Fame, Best CF in New York history, “Is he great or good?” – such claims are in the eye of the beholder. Confidence goes a long way in sport, and Fordham and the Rose Hill Gym should display more belief in their wonderful basketball arena, because it is a gem.

ROSE HILL GYMNASIUM
Bronx, NY
Home of the Fordham University Rams
Opened: 1925
Capacity: 3,400