Memorial Mystique

Alumnus’ travels in France provided inspiration for Memorial Gym’s unusual design

Fans cheer on the Commodores in Memorial Gym

Edwin Keeble, who enrolled at Vanderbilt at age 16 and graduated with a bachelor’s in engineering in 1924, was an eclectic and versatile architect—and certainly one of the most prolific in Nashville history. Among his many lasting architectural contributions to the city is Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium, named to honor the 144 students who lost their lives during World War II.

Keeble found inspiration for the gym’s unusual design, which features a court that sits above portions of the crowd, while studying architecture in France. Playing basketball in the basement of the Paris YMCA, he and others suffered countless bruises and injuries from accidentally running into the brick walls ringing the court.

“The reason we’ve got so much space around the floor in the Vanderbilt gym,” he once told Roy Neel, BA’72, “is that I had learned what it was like running into that wall in Paris.”

Keeble hadn’t set out to design the gym. After returning to Nashville from World War II, he heard Nashville was in the running for a new federal building. He called his old friend Jimmy Stahlman, BA 1919, publisher of the Nashville Banner and member of the Vanderbilt Board of Trust, for advice.

“Forget that one. I’ve got another one for you,” Stahlman told Keeble, according to Neel’s book Dynamite!: 75 Years of Vanderbilt Basketball (1975). “We want to build a fine new facility at Vanderbilt—a memorial to those alumni who died in the war—and I want you to design it.”

After Keeble won the Memorial Gym project, construction began in 1950 and was completed two years later. The dedication game was played on Dec. 6, 1952, against the University of Virginia—a 90-83 victory for the Commodores.

Originally designed to hold 6,583 spectators, the gym has since undergone multiple expansions and has more than doubled its seating capacity to 14,316. Despite the renovations, Keeble’s design elements remain central to the building’s identity, helping to create a unique home-court advantage for the men’s and women’s basketball teams known as Memorial Magic.

“What the phone booth is to Clark Kent,” once wrote University of Kentucky sportswriter Nick Nicholas, “Memorial Gym is to Vanderbilt.”