Home & Hearth & Hallowed Halls
Amid a spate of campus construction plans, we visit McKee Gymnasium, the historic heart of MU women’s athletics.
The stately three-story building with a slate roof and white limestone walls sits behind a row of oak trees, halfway between Memorial Union and Rollins Street on Hitt Street’s east side. Hundreds of students walk past McKee Gymnasium every day. Few know its story.
College campuses are a whirlwind of change around a few iconic buildings. At Mizzou, the Columns will always remain, unchanged. Everything else must keep up with the times. Accordingly, several campus landmarks — Swallow Hall, Stewart Hall, Lafferre Hall — are undergoing major renovation.
In February, the Board of Curators approved $1.2 million to hire Cannon Design Inc. to design a STEM-focused building that would take the place of McKee Gym. Those plans have been put on hold, however, because of a lack of funding.
Nevertheless, the notion got us thinking about McKee and the central role it played in the history of women’s athletics.
Women’s athletics at Mizzou started modestly, in 1889, with the first physical education class for women. Each semester, 100 women performed calisthenics in Jesse Hall, carefully maneuvering around three posts that ran through the middle of a converted classroom. By the early 1920s, 650 women per semester took turns jumping and stretching in the makeshift space.
The men, meanwhile, had an entire gymnasium to themselves. Rothwell Gym, built in 1906, was off-limits to women except on Saturday mornings and two evening hours per week. Even then, women were not allowed to use the lockers or baths.
Meanwhile, interest in women’s sports started to kindle. The 1910s saw the start of field hockey, indoor baseball, and track-and-field clubs for women, though participation was low. Then, in 1923, Mizzou women got a gym — the $150,000 New Women’s Gym. In the same year, MU hired the building’s future eponym, Mary McKee, as professor of physical education and head of physical education for women. Women’s athletics began to flourish.
Equipped with a pool, a basketball court, dressing rooms, lockers and “subtle art deco style,” the New Women’s Gym was home to an upsurge in athletic activity.
The Mermaids Club, a women’s swim club, formed in 1926. They gave annual exhibitions with the men’s swimming team that proved so popular that ticket sales from the inaugural event paid for a new set of bleachers in the gym.
Women’s sports continued to expand, and, by the early 1950s, included basketball, folk dance, modern dance, soccer, tennis, volleyball, table tennis and softball.
It wasn’t always easy, though. “Miss McKee,” as she was known, oversaw and advocated for physical education for women for 35 years. In an interview during the late 1960s or early 1970s, she recounted difficulties women faced in gaining equal treatment.
Male students would take over the women’s tennis courts and athletic fields and refuse to leave. “The fraternities would come over, and they would tear down our archery targets and play baseball there. If we came out for [archery] class, they’d say, ‘So what?’ ” McKee said.
McKee Gym also helped precipitate the launch of Mizzou’s gymnastics team. Early in her career, in the late 1950s, Marge Meredith, BS Ed ’53, M Ed ’59, assistant professor of physical education, inherited the duties of teaching “stunts and tumbling.”
“The first years we had gymnastics, I knew nothing about it,” she says. But at a national physical education conference in St. Louis in the early ’60s, she was introduced to the uneven bars, balance beam, vault, and other equipment of the sport.
Meredith grew up in a do-it-yourself family, so when she got back to Columbia, she and a few students constructed their own balance beam. They thought it was fine, but “the first time schools came and competed in our gym and had to perform on that beam, they just thought it was below par because it looked homemade,” she says. They ordered a factory-made beam after that.
The first official Mizzou gymnastics team formed in 1966. They competed as a club sport with no money for uniforms, travel, lodging or food. Consequently, they carpooled to competitions and slept on the floors of members’ relatives whenever they could.
One of the earliest gymnasts was Elaine List Kent, BS Ed ’70, M Ed ’96. She fell in love with gymnastics during her senior year at Columbia’s Hickman High School, too late to be a top competitor herself. But she threw herself into the sport at Mizzou, practicing five days a week, and attended workshops and summer camps at Meredith’s urging. Later, she made gymnastics the centerpiece of her physical education teaching career in Columbia Public Schools.
As a student, List Kent didn’t live in the dorms and wasn’t in a sorority. Her four years on campus centered on McKee Gym and the people there. It was her campus home.
“It’s a building worth remembering,” she says.
Today, Mizzou no longer segregates athletics facilities by gender, and McKee has been converted into offices and a fine-arts stage.
Meanwhile, decades of rising enrollment have put an ever-increasing demand on classroom space. That demand is especially strong for lab space, accelerated by a national focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
It’s been many years since McKee has been used as a gymnasium. The pool was drained in the ’70s or ’80s — no one is quite sure when — and later covered. Losing the structure itself would mark its final chapter.
But even if that happens, McKee won’t be forgotten. A student named Rachel who took classes in McKee was interviewed in 2011 as part of a campus project documenting the building. “I think it would be nice to have the history more widely known throughout campus,” she said. “Jesse Hall and [Ellis] Library have a great history, and so does this building. I love to play softball, and I think it’s pretty cool, as a girl, to know that I am in a building that started making girls’ sports important.”