UF women's gym turns academic

The Women's Gymnasium is shown shortly after the gymnasium was built in 1919.

University of Florida Archives
Published: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
At a time when female students had 10:30 p.m. curfews most days of the week, no cars and needed parental permission to leave campus, one building stood out as the center of female activity.
The Women's Gymnasium, built in 1919 as a basketball arena and assembly hall, was used for women's exercise classes when the University of Florida became co-ed in 1948.
The 87-year-old structure is undergoing a much-needed $3.6 million facelift. Last week, a thick layer of dust covered everything in the building even as workers updated wiring and worked to preserve the original stairs.
Renovations are expected to be complete in May and the building will reopen soon after as Ustler Hall, home to the Center for Women's Studies and Gender Research.
Named for Kathryn Chicone Ustler, who donated much of the money for the reconstruction, it will be the first UF academic building named solely for a woman.
"We're changing a women's gym into a campus gem," Ustler said recently.
Ustler, 66, graduated from UF in 1961 with a sociology degree. Her substantial donation, matched by state funds, led to the restoration of Ustler Hall.
"School and education are really important to me," she said. "My family and I have always been interested in preserving historical buildings. We would much rather see them put to a new use than torn down."
Ustler has remained active in Orlando, volunteering with young people and focusing on education.
The Women's Gym was a popular place in 1954, when Sharon Connell, now Florida Blue Key office administrator, came to UF, she said. Connell was a member of Swim Fins, the synchronized swimming club, which practiced in the outdoor pool (now part of the Racquet Club next door) every day after class.
She was one of about 2,000 women on a campus with a total of about 15,000 students, so the Women's Gym was one place they could hang out, Connell said.
"It seemed like a big building that was a gym. It wasn't particularly outstanding," she said. "They had to change it to make it more efficient, but I'm glad they are trying to preserve (the shell of the building). It brings back memories."
On a wall near the front of the first floor, Ustler Hall will showcase the rectangular dedication plaque from the 1918 State Board surrounded by the original red brick. That floor, which was home to one classroom and the locker rooms, will house classrooms, seminar rooms and a bathroom. The construction company is preserving as much of the original Tudor Gothic architecture as possible.
The second floor - the old basketball arena/aerobics room -will be converted into faculty offices and conference rooms, while the third-floor balcony and mezzanine-feel will remain much as it was in the old days, said Mary Thompson, project manager for the AJAX Building Corp.
A salon area, rising up to the low trapezoidal windows and high ceilings of the third floor, are to house art exhibits and receptions. Where the bleachers once stood will be a reading room, and outside, a garden will replace the parking lot, providing a place for students to congregate and relax.
"My major goal was to restore the building and have it take on a new purpose," Ustler said. "The building was in such a state of disrepair. They've been performing miracles up there."
Ruth Alexander, sports management distinguished professor emeritus, came to UF in 1969, and her office was on the second floor of the Women's Gym for about 20 years.
"It was totally inadequate in terms of equipment, age and size," she said. "But it was all we had to so we had to like it."
Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paula Welch also worked in the Women's Gym for about 20 years, beginning in 1974. She remembers it smelled and sounded like a locker room with students meeting and greeting each other, running in and out between classes.
"It was called 'The Cage,' lively and vibrant with so much activity," she said, a note of wistfulness in her voice. "One time the epicenter of women's activities on campus. Now that's changed dramatically. It's a different world today."
Indeed, Ustler Hall will be the only freestanding campus building devoted solely to women's studies in the United States.
"It will be wonderful to have a space dedicated to women's studies, to have all the faculty in one place and to have space for students to meet," said Angel Kwolek-Folland, former director of UF's women's studies program. "These are things that help build a community."

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