DES MOINES – It was built in 1932 as Iowa's first roundhouse of rebounds. Today, it's one of the state's most treasured historic buildings.
The Yale High School Gymnasium, with its distinctive round architectural design, is now listed on the the National Register of Historic Places. In its heyday, it was home to the Yale Bulldogs boys and girls basketball teams and hosted band concerts, commencements, plays and banquets – even the Harlem Globetrotters – until 1961.
“Congratulations to all who worked so hard to successfully nominate the Yale High School Gymnasium to the National Register of Historic Places,” State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. “This recognition marks an important milestone for Yale as it continues to preserve its history for future generations of Iowans to enjoy.”
Located in Guthrie County, the gymnasium's historic significance is tied to its use for team sports (1932-1961) and its association with Halver R. Straight, who received a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Illinois in 1907 and spent his career in the ceramics industry. An inventor as well as an engineer, he held 87 patents for tools and instruments used in clay manufacturing. His collection of 1,500 minerals and 600 fossils and artifacts is on permanent loan to Drake University.
"The Yale round gym is an excellent example of Straight’s foray into architecture and reflects his experience with clay tile construction," according the gymnasium's National Register nomination form. "That the building is, in many ways, designed like a very large silo also reflects Straight’s experience in silo construction. The building is a well-preserved example of round brick/block public buildings in the state of Iowa."
The curving clay tile block used to build the gymnasium is the same type used in silo construction, and it was a major product of the Adel Clay Products Company that Straight purchased in 1907 and sold in 1926. Smooth, slightly-curving blocks were used in silos because they eliminated angled corners that caught and held silage. The glazed tiles also helped keep silage from sticking and reduced moisture absorption.
The city of Yale selected the gymnasium's unique design as a way to raise the town's status in regional sports and as a source of community pride, the nomination form said. But Halver most likely pitched the design to give him an opportunity to stretch his engineering design skills.
When it was finished, the gymnasium included a stage and bleachers in addition to the small court that measured about 65-by-30 feet – NBA courts measure 94-by-50 feet. Its corners were rounded off and the walls were considered out-of-bounds.
"That few round gymnasiums were built after the 1930s in Iowa may speak to the impracticalities of its design for actual basketball games since the courts literally abutted the block walls and the stage on three sides and the bleachers on the fourth, limiting space for game play and for spectators," according to the nomination form.
The gymnasium was the first building of its kind in the state, but some people have claimed the Dexter Community House came first because it was built in 1916-17. The Dexter structure, however, was not built as a gymnasium and has an elliptical ground plan with a dome-shaped roof. Another contender, the New Providence School Gymnasium, closely resembles the Yale gymnasium but it has a rectangular pavilion entrance and was built in 1935-36.
With its first-in-the-state status firmly secured, the Yale gymnasium hosted its inaugural basketball games on March 24, 1932, a boys-girls doubleheader between Yale and Panora. Later, the Harlem Globetrotters came to town and played in the tiny, intimate space, according to the nomination form.
"The court must have been a particular challenge for the Globetrotters’ style of play and entertainment but would certainly have enhanced the audience participation portion of their typical exhibitions," the nomination form said. "The players had to be aware of the limitations of space, which would have been a particular challenge."
The gymnasium hosted its last basketball game in 1961 when Yale merged with schools in Jamaica and Bagley to form the Yale-Jamaica-Bagley Raiders. The new consolidated school existed from 1961 until 1989 when it merged with Panora-Linden to form the Panorama Panthers.
After 1961, the gymnasium continued to be used for elementary school physical education classes until 1989. After 1990, the city of Yale would open it up on weekends for families to play basketball. In 2000, the community received a grant from the Revitalization Assistance for Community Improvement program to repair and/or replace the roof and the windows. It was used for the last time for a school reunion in 2009.
The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.