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Curtain Call

On Monday, NC State celebrates the grand opening of the newly renovated Thompson Hall, home to University Theatre and the Crafts Center. A ribbon cutting ceremony begins at 10:30 a.m., followed by self-guided tours of the building from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., along with refreshments from Whole Foods Market and entertainment from NC State musicians.

Thompson’s two-year, $16.8 million transformation, funded with student fees and donor gifts, sets the stage for the latest chapter in this campus landmark’s history. Built as the university’s first gymnasium, for the past 40 years Thompson has housed student theatre and crafts programs.

Here’s a look back at some of the social, athletic and artistic highlights that have taken place in Thompson. This story was written as renovations began in 2007.

By Lauren Gregg

John Bratton still remembers the time he got to dance with a young Ava Gardner at the Frank Thompson Gymnasium while listening to the Big Bands of his generation.

“In the ‘30s and ‘40s there were many dances held in Thompson that featured Big Bands, the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Eddie Duchin and Benny Goodman,” says Bratton, class of 1944.

Even without celebrities in the mix, Thompson was still NC State’s social hub and one of the most popular buildings on campus.

“When I was a student, the Frank Thompson Gymnasium was by far the building most used by students,” says James C. Frink, class of 1938. “One of the most important roles the building played in the lives of many students was that it was where they met their lifetime partners – listening and dancing to some of the top bands at dances sponsored by campus fraternities.”

These are just a few of the many memories set against the backdrop of the Frank Thompson Gymnasium. For more than 80 years, the building has held its place in the hearts and history of NC State.

Now, the Thompson building is stepping into the 21st century, undergoing a transformation into a first-class center for its current residents – University Theatre and the Crafts Center.

Renovations will include the addition of gallery exhibition space to the main theatre lobby; enhanced soundproofing and structural improvements that will allow multiple performances and activities to occur simultaneously; and improved access for people with disabilities.

The renovation and expansion of the Frank Thompson Building is a partnership between NC State students, private citizens, businesses and the extended NC State community. Students are so enthusiastic about the arts and the renovation of Thompson that they have already pledged their support through a new student fee increase, which will pay for more than two-thirds of the cost of the renovation project.

The refurbishments will greatly improve productions staged by NC State’s volunteer student theatre, University Theatre, which produces as many as 10 performances each season, with an annual audience of more than 12,000. Thompson’s obsolete equipment and lack of rehearsal space have kept University Theatre from growing and expanding. In the restored building, students will work with up-to-date technology that will make productions even better.

The Crafts Center will also benefit from the building’s overhaul. For more than 40 years, it has functioned as an art school specializing in crafts and has provided student studio space for work in pottery, photography, woodworking, fiber arts, sculpture, lapidary and more. After the renovation, newly configured and outfitted studio space in the Crafts Center will provide safe, efficient and state-of-the-art working areas for students.

In its heyday, Thompson was home to all NC State athletic endeavors, including physical education, intramurals and the men’s basketball team. Thompson was also the center of campus social life, with student dances, concerts and commencement exercises.

Designed as a gymnasium by renowned New York architect Hobart B. Upjohn, the Frank Thompson Building was the first athletic facility of its kind in the Southeast, complete with indoor running track and swimming pool. The building was named in memory of Frank Thompson, NC State class of 1910, who served as captain of both the baseball and football teams and who died in combat during World War I.

“They finished construction on the Thompson building in 1925 and I graduated in 1928,” says W. Clyde Walker Sr., class of 1928. “I remember its first year in action: dances, back-to-back basketball games, lots of coming and going. We’ve both aged some since then. I’ll soon turn 100 and the Thompson building is due for some care and updating. I look forward to seeing it renovated.”

In 1946, the building was closed and condemned in order to avoid chaotic overcrowding in the gym just before an important match up between NC State and Duke’s men’s basketball teams.

“Everett Case’s dramatic success with NC State’s basketball program signaled a new era for the school, as well as the closing of a chapter at Thompson,” says Frank J. Weedon, associate athletics director. “The 1946-47 team, which included freshman Norman Sloan, compiled such a winning record that fans poured in to watch. Despite warnings, crowds of more than 3,800 fans pressed in to witness games with archrivals Carolina and Duke. Officials actually canceled the UNC game and condemned the building hours before the Duke game. The old gym was finished as a basketball arena except for one final game against High Point College played behind locked doors with only college officials and newsmen present.”

Basketball games moved to Reynolds Coliseum in 1949, and physical education moved to the modern facilities of Carmichael Gymnasium in 1963. Over the years, Thompson has housed a mix of campus programs ranging from drama, crafts and music, to ROTC uniform storage and the campus rifle range. In the 1970s, the main floor of the former gymnasium became the official home for an NC State theatre program. In its service to generations of NC State students, Thompson has been modified in innumerable ways to make use of each square foot of available space.

In 2009, thanks to the renovations, generations of future NC State students will be able to create their own priceless memories in Thompson.

Editor’s note: Mr. Walker died shortly after this interview was conducted in 2007.