By Robert Mann
Today, it’s an outdated, dilapidated building beset with a multitude of maintenance problems. But it was once among the grandest spots on LSU’s campus. Built in 1932 at a cost of $1 million (more than $17 million in today’s dollars), the Huey P. Long Field House was the social center of the campus with a barbershop, a soda fountain and a ballroom. It had what school officials touted as the longest university swimming pool in the country.
As described by Professor Chad Siefried of LSU’s School of Kinesiology in a 2014 paper in the journal Louisiana History:
The Field House did not suffer from inadequacies of amenities or opulence. Specifically, decorative tiles, columns, and ceiling reliefs, ornamental chandeliers, and arched windows were incorporated into the grand ballroom and various parts of the student union that overlooked the pool. A prime example of this decorative spirit surfaced with floor tiles that featured the Tiger emblem and the Latin insignia of “a sound mind in a sound body” near the main entrance. Fancy equipment, including radios and pianos in the music room, modern desks and furniture in the lounge, and the best kitchen amenities, serviced the thousands of users each day that occupied the building as visitors or tenants who might have lived on the second or third floors. Within the union portion of the building, a soda fountain, dormitories, and a plush student lounge joined a post office, barber shop, beauty parlor, and cafeteria to benefit LSU campus stakeholders and community residents. Overall, the Field House exceeded other well-known and newly established campus recreation and social centers, just as Huey P. Long desired. Furthermore, it emerged as an anchor point for the campus’s regional and national reputation because of the many great activities it would eventually host or service through other parts of the venue.
As Seifried noted in his paper, the enormous building (it boasts almost 140,000 square feet of space; only 38,000 is now habitable) began its sad decline after the construction of the Student Union in 1964. That was followed by the opening of the nearby Maddox Field House in 1974 and the Student Recreation Center (UREC) in 1992. The Field House, Seifried observed,
lost its appeal for organized campus social activities and as a result received inadequate regular maintenance. A lack of modern conveniences such as air conditioning increased the deterioration of the venue. The LSU Natatorium and UREC pool also supplanted the services provided by the Huey P. Long Pool, which was drained and closed in 2003 following the reemergence of severe leaks that imposed significant repair costs.
Despite its worsening deterioration, the Field House today is home to LSU’s School of Social Work and the School of Kinesiology, the largest major on the LSU Baton Rouge camps. Since 2009, undergraduate enrollment in Kinesiology has grown from 1,044 majors to more than 2,200 in the fall of 2015.
Despite previous plans to abandon the building altogether, LSU officials want to save the historic building. They are hoping to get the Field House on the state’s Capital Outlay budget (the funds would not come from operating expenses dedicated to the university) during this spring’s regular legislative session.
The plan is to spend $19.5 million to restore the building and increase classroom seating from the current 350 to more than 1,000. Doing so, said Dean Damon Andrew of the LSU College of Human Sciences and Education, would decrease LSU’s deferred maintenance on the building by $10.2 million. It would also free up much-needed classroom space around the campus and allow Kinesiology to largely consolidate its classes into the Field House complex.
But until the state dedicates the money to restore the building, its inexorable decline will continue. One consequence of the building’s appalling disrepair is that it has become a magnet for vandal and vagrants, Melinda Solmon, director of the School of Kinesiology, told me on a recent tour of the building. Satanic symbols and other graffiti scar the walls in the former men’s locker room.
Under the proposed restoration, the building would include a wellness center for student training, new offices for administrators and faculty, new and larger classrooms and several new labs (including a cadaver lab).
The pool area would be retained but there would be no more swimming. Instead, the current pool’s walls would be restored and surround a grassy area that will serve as a gathering place for students.
Until state lawmakers come up with funds to restore the building, however, students and faculty must survive in a deplorable space. During my extensive, hour-and-a-half tour, I observed the aftermath of multiple ceiling leaks, two of which have damaged floors and furniture in faculty offices in the main building of the complex. The only men’s restroom on the building’s first floor is closed because of a large, growing hole in the ceiling. Damage from water leaks is apparent at almost every turn. Ceiling tiles are missing throughout the building.
The area around the Huey Long Pool, which most people never see, is in the worst shape. Students and the public are not allowed in this area for safety reasons. That doesn’t mean that vandals don’t constantly invade the area and inflict further damage. During my tour, Solmon and Seifried discovered a previously locked metal door to a gym area that had been pried open since their last visit.
Here are some photos from my recent tour of the facility, followed by artist’s renderings of the proposed renovation: