Fond farewell: University Hall—an arena, a home, a legacy

University Hall’s visual calling card was its scalloped roof, shown here in a bird’s-eye view. Photo: Sanjay Suchak University Hall’s visual calling card was its scalloped roof, shown here in a bird’s-eye view. Photo: Sanjay Suchak

By Matt Weyrich

As the walls that held up University Hall for more than half a century began to crumble, the crowd that had gathered to witness the orchestrated implosion reacted with mixed emotions. Some cheered, evidently celebrating the dramatic scene, as dust clouds billowed and debris crashed to the ground. Others stood in silence, perhaps recognizing the solemnity of the event. The building that had become an icon—the site of so many legendary rock shows and memorable moments in UVA basketball history—vanished in 15 seconds.

On the morning of May 25, 2019, Ralph Sampson, the UVA baller who gave U-Hall its nickname, “Ralph’s House,” pushed the plunger on the fake detonator, symbolically razing the structure and its defining scalloped roof. “That building housed over 10,000 athletes in its life, and all those athletes got the chance to make memories together,” Sampson said. “There will never be another University Hall.”

When UVA announced it would be tearing down its beloved hoops and concert arena, fans were upset—and who could blame them? Although John Paul Jones Arena has been hosting games since 2006, U-Hall instantly became an emotional crossroads of nostalgia and sadness. The hundreds of people who lined up before it was torn down, just to bring home a brick from the foundation, testified to its meaning.

University Hall became known as Ralph’s House in honor of seven-foot-four-inch Ralph Sampson, who helped lead the team to national prominence in the 1980s. Photo: UVA Athletics

The venue first hosted NCAA basketball games in December 1965. But it wasn’t until Sampson, the eventual NBA Hall of Famer, arrived for the 1979-80 season that the Cavaliers found themselves on the map. The hardwood at University Hall was the stage for Sampson’s rise as the undisputed best player in college basketball. The three-time Naismith College Player of the Year led the Cavaliers to their first Final Four appearance in 1982 and set the team’s standard of success.

The following decade, the women’s squad became a perennial powerhouse behind the talents of point guard Dawn Staley. Also a Hall of Famer, as well as a Women’s Naismith Player of the Year and three-time Olympic gold medalist, Staley led UVA to three Final Four appearances from 1990-92, including an overtime loss to Tennessee in the 1991 title game.

The two programs combined for 37 postseason appearances while calling University Hall home, making games a local spectacle that drew in students, alumni, and the community.

U-Hall was also a popular music venue, and the Talking Heads, Linda Ronstadt, and the Ramones were among dozens of national acts that performed there. UVA/Corks & Curls

Meanwhile, crowds were also filling the seats to see the likes of Chuck Berry, the Beach Boys, and R.E.M. It provided “firsts” for many locals: first glimpse of a celebrity crush, first guitar pick caught in front of the stage, first sore throat from a night spent singing out loud.

So while U-Hall’s implosion marked the end of an era, the dust settled quickly. Serving as the backdrop for the rise of a national championship-winning team has done much to endear the somewhat sterile JPJ to the basketball faithful, and music fans have seen their fair share of headlining acts there over the past decade. UVA fan enthusiasm just might be at an all-time high, and what better time than now—when the era of University Hall as a landmark officially came to a close, opening up the chance for another site to take its place.

JPJ may not have the same rich history or atmosphere of its predecessor, but it’ll be center stage next season when the Cavaliers defend their national basketball title. Fans can embrace it as new banners are hung from the rafters, and shiny additions appear in the trophy case.

There’s nothing conflicting about that.

Posted In:     2019 Best of C-VILLE Editor’s Pick

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