The University of Virginia opened University Hall, its first basketball arena, in 1965, a state-of-the-art facility that heralded some of the first televised games and the rise of a new women’s basketball program.
In those early years, recalled Leonard W. Sandridge, who served UVa in various roles from 1967 to 2011, event organizers often would hand fans free tickets if they agreed to sit on a certain side of the arena to make it look full for the cameras.
After John T. Casteen III received his Ph.D. diploma inside U-Hall, he picnicked outside with his family.
“I just recall my grandfather looking up at the concrete top and saying, ‘wow, what a wonderful building,’” said Casteen, who later became president of the university.
Soon, though, fans packed the seats for basketball games and had to sit on waitlists for tickets as the men’s and women’s teams rocketed to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Summer events were sweltering without an HVAC system.
During decades of a tug-of-war over whether to renovate University Hall or pick a new site, though, players, fans and officials understood the clamshell’s importance in forming the Virginia program.
“I think it’s really important to recognize that University Hall was built in 1965, and into the 1970s, it was really a model of what arenas should look like, and it was a model for putting UVa basketball on the map and for starting a women’s team once women were allowed into UVa,” Sandridge said.
By the early 1980s, UVa officials began exploring their options, with many coaches asking to expand seating at the existing building, which had a capacity of 8,457.
But Sandridge, who at the time was in the university’s budget office, said officials soon realized that any expansion essentially would require demolishing and rebuilding.
By 1988, chances were “pretty good” of building a new field house, according to Daily Progress archives. A location on Fontaine Avenue was nixed due to traffic concerns and its distance from town. Officials surveyed Massie Road near the Barracks Road Shopping Center, but a proposed $40 million project stagnated.
When Casteen became president in 1990, he appointed Sandridge senior vice president and chief financial officer. Among large construction projects — the two also wanted to renovate Scott Stadium and build an aquatic center and a new concert hall — was the problem of U-Hall.
“I will tell you, after 25 years, by the 1990s, it was quite apparent — basketball had become so successful that we didn’t have enough seats at U-Hall,” Sandridge said.
Casteen suggested a new arena and convention center in downtown Charlottesville, between the Jefferson School and the Omni Hotel. If the city agreed to be a parking vendor, he said, the project could link UVa, West Main Street and the Downtown Mall.
“We thought that could be a profitable development for local businesses,” Casteen said.
But that idea never gained traction or reached a formal planning process, mostly because of questions about parking and transportation.
In the meantime, officials raised millions of dollars for renovations and cosmetic updates.
“The seats are nice, but it’s like putting earrings on a pig,” one person told The Progress after seeing the new blue and orange seats that were installed.
But the problem was becoming more and more acute. In 1998, U-Hall was evacuated and closed when maintenance checks revealed that wires and cables holding the roof up had rusted.
“We knew then that we didn’t have a choice; we had to find a solution and find it fast,” Sandridge said, describing initial conversations that eventually would lead to construction of the John Paul Jones Arena. “And we started talking about how, wouldn’t it be great if this led to a national championship.”
Finally, in 2001, momentum picked up to put a new arena across Massie Road, and an initial anonymous $20 million pledge ended nearly 20 years of debate. The gift showed “focus and seriousness,” Dirk Katstra, executive director of the Virginia Athletics Foundation, told The Progress at the time, and kickstarted the future build of JPJ.
“I’ve been on a lot of committees over the years regarding a new arena,” then-women’s basketball coach Debbie Ryan said at the time. “I can remember when we discussed potential sites and then possible renovations. This time, I’m very confident. We’ve taken a huge step forward with the $20 million gift and it gives credence to the project.”
UVa broke ground on JPJ in 2003 and finished the $140 million project in 2006.
“I think all of us have an attachment to [University Hall], but I don’t think anyone has gone to JPJ and said they wish we were still across the street,” said Casteen, who said that while UVa’s first basketball facility, Memorial Gym, remains open, making U-Hall a useful, safe place would have been too much of a lift.
U-Hall lived a useful life during that transition and in the decade since, Sandridge said, but he supports the decision to bring it down. Its memorial is JPJ and the recent men’s basketball team’s national championship trophy, among others teams won.
“The program that built JPJ was built at U-Hall, there’s no other way to put it,” he said.