The Super Tents at the University of La Verne include the Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion and the Dailey Theatre. The DuPont Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior of The Tents had a guarantee of about 40 years. On this, the 50th anniversary year, the Tents are slated for fabric renovation. / photo by Kim Toth

The Super Tents at the University of La Verne include the Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion and the Dailey Theatre. The DuPont Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior of The Tents had a guarantee of about 40 years. On this, the 50th anniversary year, the Tents are slated for fabric renovation. / photo by Kim Toth

by Jack Janes
photography by Kim Toth and Abelina J. Nuñez

It is a sunny day without a cloud in the sky as you drive eastbound on Arrow Highway. Ahead, you notice five giant tents pointing high into the clear skies. These iconic tents grab your attention, as they have for the past five decades. They were futuristic in 1973, and they continue that persona in the present.

During the fall of 1973, the University completed the construction of The Super Tents, which became the home for sports, journalism, art, theater, the bookstore and also served as a student center. As the University celebrates the 50th anniversary of The Tents, the administration looks to rejuvenate them from the present into the future life of the University.

By the early 1970s, then named La Verne College (University status came in 1977 with President Armen Sarafian) was in need of a new gym, theater and a creative arts building, but the University budget could not support the building of multiple facilities. “All the things the school needed were far above the budget,” says former University of La Verne President Stephen Morgan. Instead, La Verne was able to gain a grant from the Ford Foundation’s Educational Facilities Laboratory.

In 2000, the Tents were renovated for students engaged in sports and in the Kinesiology Department. Among the improvements were a weight room for the University’s student-athletes. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

In 2000, the Tents were renovated for students engaged in sports and in the Kinesiology Department. Among the improvements were a weight room for the University’s student-athletes. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

Together, the Ford Foundation, campus faculty department leaders and professional architects collaborated on a building design that would save money and be a building that would host all the departments in need of space. What they designed was something truly innovative, actually futuristic. The new buildings would be constructed with a fiberglass fabric exterior coated in Teflon, and it would be in the shape of two tents, one with four peaks, the other with one. Thus, The Super Tents were born. “To be honest, when I interviewed here, I hadn’t really heard of La Verne, but when I mentioned that I’m interviewing at the University of La Verne, I had two sets of relatives say, ‘Oh, that’s the place with the big tents!’” says Paul Alvarez, ULV kinesiology professor.

The DuPont Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior only had a hoped-for life expectancy of about 40 years. But even Dupont was not sure of the durability of its fabric, since it was newly invented. Now, as the University of La Verne celebrates the Tents’ 50th anniversary, they are still standing tall—albeit ready for fabric renewal in 2024—with only a few patches along the way.

How has it lasted so long? Well, Morgan, who in the early 1970s was the assistant to then La Verne College President Leland Newcomer and was charged with the planning and construction of the Tents, says that other Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior buildings were supported with air pressure, but La Verne decided to make them cable-supported to be more permanent. Another reason why they have lasted is because Dupont—to support their protype fabric first appearing on La Verne’s Tents—invented a glue specifically for Teflon-to-Teflon bonding so the University could do patchwork on areas that were damaged.

They were officially dedicated in the Spring of 1974. The Super Tents, as they were dubbed, delivered as promised. Inside were the physical education faculty offices, Art Department, Student Center, Health Center (housed in a bright orange plastic Quonset hut) and student center, bookstore, athletic locker rooms, basketball and volleyball court, weight room, student government offices, student mailboxes, a snack bar, pool tables, pinball and video games. And when the Communications Department was launched in 1976, space was found inside for a large journalism room, a radio station, a television studio, a photography darkroom/teaching area and corresponding faculty offices. In so many ways it was the new center of the University. “It was a neat, little, composite community, just because there was so many functions going on here,” says Alvarez.

Plus, there was the smaller tent, located steps to the north. The Dailey Theatre, named after donors Walter and Helen Dailey, features a modified proscenium stage, with a 175-250 seat capacity (depending on the stage configuration) with two green rooms and a large stage set building area. The Dailey Theatre complex also holds a smaller production space called the Jane Dibbell Cabaret that hosts up to 70 people. The theater tent has been the home for performing arts majors since 1974, and it has seen numerous eloquent productions in its time.

“Going into the Tents is an interesting experience because there were so many things going on inside them,” says Al Clark, professor emeritus. “It was interesting because it was such an active place—active in so many ways that it’s hard to describe.” With so much going on, they were the center of life for students at La Verne. What other building can you attend class, catch a basketball game, workout, read your mail, play pool with your friends, eat lunch at “The Spot” and then attend an all-University dance in the evening hours? The Tents had it all, and students of all majors would come together and connect with one another. “The thing I missed when we moved over to the Arts Communications Building—the thing I missed the most—was the fact that you weren’t in the center of everything like you were when we were in The Super Tents,” says Mike Laponis, communications and radio professor emeritus.

The Tents were a maze that you could easily get lost in. There were often times when departments had no choice but to intersect with each other with so much going on at the same time. “This didn’t bother me very much, but even while we were trying to be on the air in the radio station, you would hear basketballs dribbling on the floor above you,” says Laponis. You could walk out the Tents’ southeast doors and catch a softball game or take a left out the same door and immediately be at the Ben Hines Baseball Field. You could go out the southwest door and be right on the football field. The open area that is today the weight room was once the art studio, and there were times when an art class was in session at the same time as a basketball or volleyball game or practice, and those students would clearly hear players, coaches and sometimes a large crowd yelling and cheering on athletes. Plus, in turn, students could easily look over the court wall and see life drawing classes in session. It was a one-room schoolhouse with little privacy.

The upstairs gymnasium at the University of La Verne Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion hosts games and practices for the Leopards volleyball and basketball teams. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

The upstairs gymnasium at the University of La Verne Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion hosts games and practices for the Leopards volleyball and basketball teams. / photo by Abelina J. Nuñez

The Tents garnered attention from outside the University, too. “Occasionally, I would drive by on Arrow Highway, and I would see the Tents, but I didn’t know anything about them. It just became sort of the most iconic building that I knew,” says Laponis about his experience with the Tents before he was hired as a ULV professor in 1982. Inland Valley Daily Bulletin columnist David Allen even listed The Super Tents as one of “The Seven Wonders of the Inland Valley” in his blog.

Former President Armen Sarafian used the uniqueness of the Tents to his advantage in gaining a major donor, says George Keeler, professor of journalism. KFI-AM 640 radio personality Roger Barkley kidded on air that he drove by the University and saw the unique tents. “They remind me of Dolly Parton,” he said on the air. “A pair and a spare.” He added that he did not know why the University built the radical building. Sarafian, listening in the early morning, called the station and found himself talking live on the air on the Lohman and Barkley show. “The president sold the University not only to Barkley but also to hundreds of thousands of people,” says Keeler. “He invited Barkley to come visit La Verne and take a tour of the Tents.”

Barkley did come and was impressed with ULV. “His son Chris attended ULV. Barkley became a close friend of Sarafian, and several times was a featured master of ceremonies speaker at the president’s fundraising banquets,” says Keeler. Barkley also became a major donor to ULV, with the School of Education’s Barkley building named in his honor.

“People did begin to say, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re the school that has the Tents,’ and we named them The Super Tents when we first built them,” says Morgan who became University president in 1985. “Everyone was calling them a tent and were kidding about the circus coming to town, and we finally just decided to latch onto that, and we named them ourselves ‘The Super Tents.’”

As time went on, The Tents’ usage has changed. Today, the Tents are formally named the Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion, and their use is solely dedicated for athletics and kinesiology. The basketball and volleyball court is still on the second floor, while the weight room is downstairs, but now the only classes that are held in the Tents are kinesiology classes and other physical education classes. Most of the coaches at La Verne have their offices downstairs, along with the Athletic Training Room, which is used to treat injured athletes so they can get back on the field as soon as possible. Kinesiology faculty offices are upstairs.

“They’ve exceeded my expectations because they’ve been renovated inside; the uses have changed. It’s been what we hoped it would be, and that is a facility that could evolve with the times. And as needs change, the use of that structure has changed,” says Morgan. The Dailey Theater and Jane Dibbell Cabaret, home of theater performance arts, have remained the same except for upgrades to the stages.

The University performed renovations to the large Tents in 2000, and many of the programs moved out except for kinesiology and sports. This was no cheap project, as the price tag was already at about $1 million just to bring everything up to code. “In order to add to this additional space, they had one set of air handlers just to move air in and out, let alone air conditioning—they were going to have to basically put in four. They also realized in order to conform to code they were going to have to run sprinkler lines throughout this entire place. They kind of knew they had to put in an elevator so all of a sudden before we had even started the project, we were already $1 million behind,” says Alvarez, who was on the planning committee that oversaw the renovation of The Super Tents in 2000.

Although the main Tents are mainly athletics and physical education, there are still plenty of school events that are hosted on the inside basketball/volleyball court. The Tents remain iconic and central to University life. Every year, the University kicks off the school year with Convocation in The Tents. Students and faculty come together to listen to guest speakers and to ring the bell to welcome the new school year. All-school award ceremonies take place inside. Plus, the University holds significant events like new President Pardis Mahdavi’s recent inauguration ceremony there.

What started out as a project to try and fit six departments into one building 50 years ago has turned into an iconic building that is well-known not just at the University of La Verne, but around the community as well. “I think that they have lasted so well, and that they have met the changing and growing needs of the University. They’ve served the students really well in my opinion, and they have become a conversation piece, and icon, with which La Verne distinguishes itself,” says Morgan.

Unconventional Super Tent Damages

Although the Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior of The Super Tents have lasted longer than expected, there have been some unconventional reasons to repair them. Brian Worley, former director of facilities at the University of La Verne, has some fond memories of repairing the Tents for whacky reasons. Worley tells how the University used to host archery classes on the football field and, occasionally, students and faculty found stray arrows inside that had penetrated through the Tents’ fabric.

Fortunately, no one was ever injured by these stray arrows, but the same could not be said for the Teflon-coated fiberglass exterior. Worley recalls having to constantly fix one specific lamp among the many in the mercury vapor lighting system inside the gym. He could not figure out why it kept breaking loose. The lighting fixtures hung from two pins and were not secured into place on the harness, but there was only one specific lamp that kept falling with no explanation.

“This one light fixture toward the center of the Tents was falling all the time, and we couldn’t figure it out until we realized that people were climbing up on the tents and bouncing on it in the center area, and that was causing enough vibrations for this one lamp fixture to come unfixed all the time,” says Worley. The perpetrators were never caught, but the University did change out the lighting system with lights that were more secure so these climbers would not be able to damage the lights anymore. 

Fifty years later, the Super Tents remain the focal point of the University of La Verne. They have given the University an identity recognized even outside of the La Verne community. / photo by Kim Toth

Fifty years later, the Super Tents remain the focal point of the University of La Verne. They have given the University an identity recognized even outside of the La Verne community. / photo by Kim Toth

Jack Janes is a senior journalism major at the University of La Verne.

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Kim Toth is a junior photography major at the University of La Verne and photography editor of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.

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Abelina J. Nuñez is a senior journalism major and photography minor at the University of La Verne and editor-in-chief of the Winter 2024 La Verne Magazine.