Historic Palestra floor makes a rebound

Known as the “Cathedral of Basketball,” the Palestra opened in 1927 and has grown into one of the most historic collegiate arenas in the nation. The celebrated gymnasium has hosted more games and visiting teams and NCAA tournament games than any other college facility in the country.

The first game at the sports center fell on New Year’s Day in 1927. In front of a sold-out crowd, Penn’s basketball team defeated Yale, 26-15.

In 1939, the Palestra hosted the Eastern semifinals of the first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, where Brown played Villanova and Wake Forest took on Ohio State.

Most likely, people alive today weren’t at any of these games. And although they can’t literally take you back in time, Penn Athletics and the Business Services Division have partnered to offer fans of the Palestra a chance to travel into the past and own a piece of history.

In 2008, the court’s floorboards were replaced and the initial plan was to simply discard the uprooted wood. But with Penn’s commitment to sustainability in mind, Marie Witt, the vice president of the Business Services Division, decided that the wood should be put to a more productive, greener use, and tasked Ilene Wilder, director of marketing and business development for Business Services, with finding an appropriate outlet.

Wilder contracted with a California recycled memorabilia company and a local woodworking firm to craft commemorative items from the Palestra’s floor. And now, fans can own novelty items created from the original hardwood court.

Tokens & Icons, based in Berkeley, Calif., has created pens, a bottle opener and cufflinks out of the old floor. Custom Concepts, in Germantown, has made wooden picture frames.

Wilder says the pieces are a great sustainable use of the wood, given the public’s sentimentality towards the Palestra, and a unique way to support the University’s Climate Action Plan. “It was a nice combination of being sustainable and helping further the Penn brand,” she says. A certificate of authenticity accompanies each creation.

The bottle opener—the most popular item—comes complete with a piece of netting from basketball rims in the Palestra. The color-top pens contain red floor wood from the foul lanes and sidelines and the picture frames come in two different sizes. Penn Athletics has also created donor gifts with sections of the wood.

A Tokens & Icons representative recently participated in a show in New York that featured some of the Palestra items and told Wilder he was amazed at the number of people who came up to him with a story about the famed basketball arena.

Wilder says the pieces are popular gifts for graduation, retirement or a promotion, and the University is looking for ways to expand the line with additional products.

Alanna W. Shanahan, senior associate director of athletics at Penn, says the floor items are a great way to share the renowned arena with its many admirers. “Obviously the Palestra is an extremely historic facility,” she says. “It’s a facility that we’re extremely proud of and one that has played host to not only Penn games, but games throughout the City of Philadelphia that have had great meaning over time.

“Not only are Penn people particularly proud and fond of the Palestra,” she says, “but people from Villanova, Saint Joseph’s, Temple and La Salle also have a fondness.”

The items will only last as long as the wood does, making them truly available for a limited time. The pieces can be purchased at the Palestra, in the Penn Bookstore or online at www.upenn.edu/palestrawoodcraft.