Requiem for the Roundhouse: The Rex Enright Athletic Center (1956-2012) [Updated]

The Roundhouse, c. 1960.

An era passed at Carolina last month, with little notice and no fanfare. After fifty-six years of service to Gamecock athletics, the Rex Enright Athletic Center - universally known by its semi-official nickname, the "Roundhouse" - was closed, and the entire USC Athletic Department moved, lock, stock and barrel, into its palatial new home at the Rice Athletic Center, located in the University's state-of-the-art Athletic Village.

Hopelessly obsolescent, poorly lit, and plagued by a perpetually leaky roof, the Roundhouse was unloved by those who were forced to work within its curvilinear walls, particularly in recent years. Outgoing A.D. Eric Hyman probably summed up the prevailing feelings on just how badly the building had deteriorated:

[The move] needed to happen for South Carolina. The Roundhouse was absolutely abominable, and you couldn't bring recruits there. I had several coaches that couldn't stand to be in the place. There was a lot of problems with the building. It was the right thing to do for our coaches and our student athletes, and I think the presentation now we will do will be second to none, and I think it will help recruiting.

Its Rosewood Drive address conferred little prestige on the Roundhouse, either; situated just up the hill from the Fairgrounds, the neighborhood was replete with gritty convenience stores, seedy coin-laundromats and a bevy of watering holes so sketchy that even most undergraduates declined to darken their door (and, no, I do not mean the venerable Rockaway Athletic Club - home of the best pimento burger in North America).

But despite the Roundhouse's myriad faults, the quirky "Mid-Century Modern" style edifice - with its two-levels, unadorned brick walls and Art-Moderne-inspired second-story window strips running uninterrupted beneath the jutting, circular soffit - was the beating heart of Gamecock sports for nearly three generations. And, as you will see after The Jump, it deserves a special place in our memories.

The Roundhouse was built to replace the meager office space in the old "Field House" (c. 1927) that sat on Sumter Street across from the Longstreet Theatre. Completed in 1956, it was immediately named for the beloved Rex Enright - the ex Notre Dame and Green Bay Packer running back, not to mention former Georgia Bulldog men's basketball coach - who was USC's head football coach from 1938-1942 and 1946-1955 [in the interval he served as a lieutenant in the US Navy during the Second World War].

Enright''s health had forced him to step down as head coach after the '55 season, where a disappointing 3-and-6 campaign left him with an overall 64-69-7 record - making him simultaneously both the winningest and losingest USC football coach of all time.* For four more years, Enright would go on to serve as Carolina's Athletic Director in the new building that bore his name until he was felled by heart disease in 1960.

Often called a "field house" in the early days, the Roundhouse was part of a post-war building boom and general beautification program under USC President Donald Russell that delivered some architectural gems (the Thomas Cooper Library, 1959), some duds (the Russell House student union, 1955-1958) and some absolute, unforgivable monstrosities (e.g., the veil-block clad, seven story horrors on Main Street formally called "the Towers" but known to all as "the Honeycombs," 1958-1965, not to mention the McBryde Quadrangle - i.e., the old Fraternity Row, 1955).

While most of these structures generally offend our post-modern aesthetic sensibilities [and in the case of the Honeycombs had become embarrassing white elephants by the 1980's], they were considered extremely fashionable and commendable at the time. The Thomas Cooper library, for example, was based on Harvard's Lamont Library, and won a national award in 1963. Likewise, the deplorable Honeycombs were designed by a world-famous NYC architect, Edward Durrell Stone.

The Roundhouse was undoubtedly of the same vintage. While I cannot find the name of the architect in any of my usual references, its layout was almost certainly inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's circular-themed designs of the 1940s-1950s, such as the E.T. Roux library at Florida Southern College (1942) - and which reached their pinnacle with Wright's famous Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church (1956) and Guggenheim Museum (1959).

Regardless of its architectural merits (or shortcomings as the case maybe), the Roundhouse was indisputably the ground zero for every major decision, good or bad, affecting USC sports in the 60's, 70's, 80's, 90's and the first few years of the 21st century.

It was the haunt of the dual football HC/AD leviathans like "Pepsodent Paul" Dietzel and Jim "Don't Overload Your Wagons" Carlen who both ruled USC athletics by virtual fiat in the 60's and 70's [except when they weren't at war with basketball coach Frank McGuire ] - and who helped lead us out of the ACC and blocked us from rejoining, respectively. The Roundhouse also provided offices for the ill-fated Joe Morrison, the over-matched Sparky Woods and the bone-headed Brad Scott during the uneven years of the 80's and 90's when we wandered through the CFB wilderness as a major independent, before latching onto the SEC in '92.

For years, South Carolina fans donated at the $250 "Roundhouse" level of the Gamecock Club, and it's name has been proudly displayed on those ubiquitous little garnet, black and white stickers that adorn the cars, pick-ups and RV's of USC fans throughout the Palmetto State and beyond.

Moreover, the Roundhouse was the stage from which King Dixon had to deal with the fall-out of the Tommy Chaikin steroid scandal, and the subsequent grand-jury investigation, not to mention the place where he fired basketball coach George Felton, and oversaw the forgettable Steve Newton years that followed. Likewise, Mike McGee worked from the Roundhouse when he hired national-championship caliber coaches like Lou Holtz, Steve Spurrier, Ray Tanner and Curtis Frye - along with nationally-respected hoops guys like Bobby Cremins, Eddie Fogler and Davey Odom (the first of whom he lost after three days, and the second with whom he feuded for years and third for whom he took an amazing amount of criticism in light of how low the basketball program's fortunes sunk after Odom retired).

And, as much as he may have despised the place, it was from his Roundhouse office that Eric Hyman created his heralded three-phase Facilities Master Plan a/k/a The Garnet Way that has led to so much of our present success.

The completion of the Kay and Eddie Floyd Football Building at Williams-Brice Stadium during its 1994-1995 renovations (at a then-eye-popping $1.86 million price-tag, which today seems incredibly modest for a project of its size) was certainly the beginning of the end for the Roundhouse. With most of the senior football coaching staff now housed at the stadium, there was little impetus and even less need to pour more money into the decaying, out-of-date and cramped Roundhouse. By the time the state Budget and Control Board approved the $19 million new "Coaches Support Building" in 2010 - since renamed in honor of Charleston attorney and major donor Joe Rice- the Enright Center was not just long-in-the-tooth but a decade or two (or three) past its retirement date.

While the Rice Athletic Center will be another jewel in our Athletics diadem, the old Roundhouse still deserves better than to be summarily abandoned or slated for the wrecking-ball. So much of our sports lore is wrapped up in those circular walls that it would be a shame not to preserve it. USC fans for generations to come should be allowed to enjoy a structure steeped in so much Carolina history. Sure, it was home to a lot of decisions that we may have come to regret in retrospect. But it also played a part in all the things you loved about Carolina athletics over the last fifty years, too. The good memories definitely outweigh the bad. How could we be Gamecock fans otherwise? Ours has never been the easy path. Other fans may have been born with the athletic equivalent of a silver spoon in their mouth. We've had to scratch and claw for every success we've had, often against odds that would have broken the hearts of lesser men and women. Now that we've tasted some sips from the well of success, we shouldn't forget where we came from. Razing the Roundhouse would be just that sort of mistake.

Perhaps a generous alumnus will come forward to help with a much-needed renovation, Maybe new USC A.D. Ray Tanner will recognize its importance and save it from demolition. Hopefully, the Gamecock Club will stick to tradition and retain the Roundhouse name for its second tier donation level.

But no matter what, the Roundhouse will always hold a special place in the hearts of every Gamecock - past and present - who came to know and love the idiosyncratic little building on Rosewood Drive.

Or if not for the structure itself, then at least what it stood for.

***

UPDATE: As I commented below, it's been years and years since I actually went inside the Roundhouse; perhaps my perspective has therefore been obscured by Rosewood-colored glasses. In an interview with Ron Morris in The State published on Sunday, July 22, 2012, Eric Hyman said his biggest regret as the USC A.D. was not pushing to replace the Roundhouse even sooner than he did:

In retrospect, I would have put equal value into prioritizing getting the coaches’ support building, soon to be dedicated as the Rice Athletic Center (RAC), as I did the Dodie Academic Enrichment Center. It was unfair (to ask ) these people to remain in such squalor … for seven more years before finally moving last week to the RAC. It hurt their recruiting as well as the recruiting of staff and assistant coaches. Now that we have moved in the new facilities, it is just overwhelming that we remained so long in what was not only the greatest eyesore on campus, but inefficient and unsanitary conditions. So to go back in time, I would have moved the RAC up the priority list and worked to get the money for it over some of our other projects.


Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2012/07/22/2363475/morris-worst-part-of-hymans-job.html#storylink=cpy

Now, personally I would not go so far as to call it the "greatest eyesore on campus" (though I could concede that's up for debate), but Hyman's references to "squalor" and "unsanitary conditions" strike me as heartfelt. The place was not just past its prime and obsolescent (as commenter dcGamecock aptly described: "low ceilings, poor sight lines, ineffective design, terrible lighting") but had become riddled with mold, etc. My use of the word "unloved" in the second paragraph maybe too anodyne by a wide-margin. Perhaps "hated" and "despised" might better express how the A.D. staff felt about the building at the end.

Thus, my romantic paeans for preserving the actual bricks-and-mortar might be well-intentioned but misplaced. The comment by Carolingarnet that the Roundhouse could possibly be memorialized - e.g., saving a piece of it - may turn out not only to be the best option, but the only realistic one as well. And I'm fine with that. I won't thrown myself in front of the bulldozers, or advocate extreme, Berzerkley-esque measures to save it.

But whether you think the 50's-mod architecture is ugly - or if you conclude that reality compels a demo-job - I hope you at least warmed up a little to the old Rex Enright Athletic Center. It was built in love of Carolina athletics and hope for better days to come. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, just remembering that is enough.


* Steve Spurrier (55-35 in 8 seasons at Carolina) will surpass Enright's all-time wins mark
if the 2012 team wins ten games; note: Rex Enright also coached USC men's basketball during
the '42-'43 season.

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