by Jose Brambila
photography by Cierra Boess
“It’s a landmark building; it’s a confusing building; it’s a controversial building, and I would say that probably nobody loves it, but everyone is impressed with it.” Such is the reputation of the University of La Verne Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion and accompanying Dailey Theater, says Al Clark, professor of humanities. The Pavilion and Theater, known to previous student generations as “The Super Tents” are the most iconic and unique buildings on the University of La Verne campus. Their quirkiness defines the time period when they were built—the early 1970s. They symbolize innovation and problem solving to provide the needs for an ever-growing institution. From their cost saving inception to their utilitarian function, they serve as a center point on the University of La Verne campus.
Dr. Leland Newcomer, who served as University president from 1968 to 1975, oversaw the building of the structure. Stephen Morgan, who later led as the long-time president of the University, was at the time assistant to the president and building project manager. He was also charged with fundraising. Newcomer had led construction of innovative structures as school district superintendent of Clark County, Nevada. As the new La Verne president, he needed a new building for his expanding college that would solve his facilities problem in a cost effective way. He described the projected building as a “six in one,” because he said it would take six buildings to do what the Tent complex was going to cover. “The Tents are here because we had a new, energetic and exciting educational leader in Leland Newcomer,” says Clark. Indeed, Newcomer was interested in bringing the University to a new era. He started programs that are still viable 50 years later, including the Law School and the Regional Campus program. “This was going to be his signature building, and to this day, it is still understood to be the first of its kind,” says Clark.
Morgan says the “Super Tents,” as they were fondly dubbed shortly after their opening, came out of a need to provide a variety of spaces. “We had such needs as a new gymnasium and locker facility, an art studio, theater, recreation areas and snack bar for our students, a student health center and a workout area. As we started to explore meeting these needs, we realized the cost of building traditional facilities was beyond our modest financial capacity. Leland Newcomer, known as an innovative educator, suggested we look for creative ways to fill our space needs.” The two learned of a new fabric developed jointly by Owens-Corning and the DuPont Corporation. The fabric was a woven fiberglass coated with Teflon. The architectural firm of John Shaver and Co., from Salina, Kansas, was engaged to design the structure, and the Birdair Co., was contracted to fabricate the material. Some of the buildings using this Teflon fabric were air supported structures, but Morgan and Newcomer decided a cable supported structure would be best for the University’s needs.
The College did not have the means to finance the building of the Tents, so the administrators got creative. “We applied for a planning grant from the Educational Facilities Laboratory, an organization funded by the Ford Foundation, and used that grant to search out innovative building concepts of the time, Morgan says. The total cost was projected at $2.5 million, of which $1 million was to be raised through donations. “I believe the total cost of the facility was approximately half the cost of traditionally constructed facilities,” says Morgan. As it turned out, only $500,000 was collected. The La Verne College Board still approved the project, taking out a loan at a 21.5 percent interest rate. Reflecting on the high interest rate, Clark says that Newcomer said, “No bank ever closes on an institution.”
When the tents opened, they quickly became the center of campus. The bottom south floor of the main Tent held Athletic Department coaches’ offices, athletic locker rooms and a gymnastic/weight room/fitness area. The north side provided an open floor area for the Art Department, while the west side allowed student government to find meeting space and featured a unique orange ski Quonset hut for the Health Center. The center of the building housed a comprehensive Communications Department, with areas carved out for journalism, radio, TV, speech and photography. On the east side was a snack bar called “The Spot,” along with a student center game area. The games were pushed to the wall to make room for all-campus dances. The top floor featured an innovative gym floor, which hit NCAA mandates for basketball and volleyball. Previously, these sports were held in an old gym that fell far short of regulation court requirements. A separate Tent structure allowed the development of a Theater Arts program, with a main stage, a cabaret area, green rooms, faculty offices and a set workshop. “The radio booth was very visible,” says Mike Laponis, professor of communications and head of the radio program. “KULV used to have a slogan, ‘INTENTS Music.’ I really liked that the campus media were in the hub of the campus. It had the benefit of seeing and interacting with everyone on campus, not just those in the Communications Department.
“The building was initially ‘sold’ to the Physical Education and Athletic Departments as a building solely for our purposes,” says Rex Huigens, professor of kinesiology emeritus and former head football coach. “Well, that changed immediately. There were constant problems for the Communications and Art Departments. The building was not designed to be a quiet place. An interesting story is that the Art Department was set up where the downstairs weight room is now. The Art Department would have nude models pose for life drawing classes. As you can imagine, there were a lot of ‘spectators’ on the upper level looking down when it occurred.”
Morgan recalls in the early days the fabric’s durability coming into question. “A funny story is, at the time we built the facility, no one was quite sure how long the roof would last. Some said, ‘Maybe 20 years; some said longer.’ One day, President Newcomer and I were discussing the longevity of the roof, and we commented, ‘Oh, well, not to worry; neither one of us will be here in 20 years.’ Little did I know that 20 years later, I would be the president and responsible if the roof failed. Fortunately, the roof has lasted well and is still in service.” The Teflon fabric, originally invented by DuPont, forms the main walls on the prototype La Verne building. “This was the first one made so no one knew what was going to happen; as a result, the builders could not give any major warranty guarantees on their fabric beyond 20 years,” Clark says. “That’s why on the 20th anniversary, there is a plaque in the weight room of the SSAP that talks about the 20th anniversary. They brought back everyone—the architect, the engineer, the designers; they were all there.” The building and the fabric itself is now accelerating past that mark, despite occasional fabric rips and novelty damage from arrows and ambitious 1970-1980 era student climbing pranks. Scott Forsyth, a University maintenance worker since 1987, also attended the University and remembers the proximity of playing fields. “Where the parking structure is now there used to be a women’s softball field. Coach Ortmayer used to teach archery there, and the bales of hay were on the same side of the field as the Tents. So, if you missed the bales of hay, nine times out of 10, the arrow would end up in the Tents.”
Since the building was a prototype and constructed of a new material, it caused creative moments in engineering. On the spot engineering plans were crafted to hang the lights. There were some structural problems as well—the biggest being leakage during rainfall. DuPont developed a glue that worked with Teflon so the Tents’ seams could be sealed. But the glue at first did not work well. Some of the seams, including those around the perimeter, leaked like a sieve. Basketball and volleyball games were sometimes cancelled because the rain caused the rubberized gym floor to become super slick. During rainstorms, Huigens says there were buckets and towels everywhere. “I remember during one rainy day the football team practiced upstairs because it was so wet outside. When one of the players was practicing, he was backpedaling, and his feet went out from under him. When he fell forward, he caught his front teeth in the synthetic surface. It took both his front teeth out as well as a 2” x 2” piece of the floor surface.”
The tents, which originally were opened fall 1974, were renovated in 2005 at a cost of $4.5 million. Other departments, including Communications and Art, had recently moved out, so they were rechristened then as they were originally intended: as a Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion. More than 40 years later, the building continues to meet important needs of the University and still fascinates visitors with its innovative, futuristic look.