Back Then

Photography: Millhiser gym courtesy Virginia Baptist Historical Society; Bo Diddley by Jeffrey Mayer; Bruce Springsteen by Album/Francesc Fàbregas

It’s fitting that when Millhiser Gymnasium’s transformation into UR’s Student-Athlete Development Center is complete this fall, the new building will retain its hardwood floor and basketball hoops, given the temptation they’ve presented to students over the years.

“I used to try to sneak in there and pretend that I was in Hoosiers,” said Taylor Smiley, ’03, referring to the classic basketball movie, which featured an old-school gymnasium. “Millhiser was my favorite spot on campus. The gym floor was always covered in dust because no one ever went in there, so I would try to find a broom to clear some space and shoot a few jump shots before anyone knew I was in there.”

Forgive Smiley his trespasses, as he might have been one of the more conscientious basketball-loving students to pay unauthorized visits to Millhiser, which opened in 1922. According to Mike O’Toole, who retired in 2019 after a long career as UR athletics’ coordinator of facilities and events, students clandestinely entered the building for full-blown pick-up games until the current renovation work made it physically impossible.

The old gym served legitimate purposes, too. Funded by a donation from Clarence and Regina Millhiser in memory of their late son, Roger — a Richmond College student who passed away following surgery while training for duty in World War I — it was “one of the finest athletic plants of any college of its size in the country” when it opened, according to university literature. Millhiser initially housed Richmond’s athletics department and was the home court for Spider men’s basketball until 1947, including the program’s lone undefeated season in 1934–35.

While the basketball team moved into increasingly more modern and expansive digs, Millhiser continued to host events, including concerts featuring the likes of Bo Diddley in 1966, Death Cab for Cutie in 2001, and in 1970, an obscure young artist named Bruce Springsteen. Over the years, the historic facility also has been the home of the military science and leadership program, office space for enrollment management, summer camps for local youngsters, and a practice venue for cheerleaders and various club teams, among other functions.

The renovated version of Millhiser will have a more singular focus. The gym “will become the hub of our academic support and leadership programs for our Spider student-athletes,” said John Hardt, Richmond’s vice president and director of athletics.

“Millhiser Gymnasium has an important place in the history of Richmond Athletics,” he added. “This project allows us to preserve the history of Millhiser Gymnasium while breathing new life into the facility with its repurposing into the Student-Athlete Development Center.”

As Millhiser enters the next stage of its long and varied life, it’s returning to its roots.