'A bittersweet day:' Demolition begins on Fairfield University's Alumni Hall

FAIRFIELD — Wally Halas started watching Fairfield University basketball games at Alumni Hall when he was 12 years old.

Several years later, in 1965, he would take the court there as a member of the Fairfield Prep basketball team, helping the school secure its first state title in 1969.

And on Monday, he watched a crane tear into the roof of the now 62-year-old building at the start of demolition to make way for a new convocation center.

“It’s a bittersweet day, but good for the university and prep communities,” said Halas, who now serves as the vice president for university advancement.

Halas said he still remembers the exhilaration he felt on game days, running out of the locker room onto the court to cheering fans who would throw red and white streamers.

“It was like a cascade of color,” he said.

He pointed to the stands, describing the faces that would watch through windows at the end of the gym and a crowd that packed the bleachers until they were standing on the top row. Cheers would echo off the cement wall that used to separate the space into two courts in the early days, amplifying each fan’s voice, he said.

“Instead of 1,200, it would sound like there were 2,400,” he said.

It will take about a month for Alumni Hall’s demolition to be completed, said Katie Hurley, the project executive for Gilbane Building Company, which is building the center and recently completed the new nursing building on campus.

The new convocation center, to be built on the same spot, is expected to be completed by the end of 2022. It was designed by Centerbrook Architects and is expected to cost $45 million.

It increases the current footprint by about 33 percent, bringing the total square footage up to 85,000 square feet. It will be able to seat 3,500 — up from 2,800 — and will host Stags basketball and volleyball games, Fairfield Prep basketball, concerts and other events.

Until completion of the new facility, the university’s athletic events will be played at Webster Bank Arena, said David Frassinelli, the university’s vice president of facilities.

He too grew up with Alumni Hall, which is where he saw his first basketball game. His father was involved with some of the university’s earliest buildings.

Alumni Hall was built in 1959 — an innovation at the time and one of the earliest pre-stressed concrete buildings. The 11 pre-cast arches used to create the curved roof set a record, according to the university archives.

“That was pretty exciting to see the arches lifted in place,” said John Phelan, who served as the field engineer on the project. His father was the architect and E & F Construction Company, which was in charge of the project, built several of the buildings on campus.

Alumni Hall was Phelan’s first project after graduating from Yale, he said. He was also a Fairfield Prep graduate and was pleased to be involved in a project that would give other Fairfield Prep students a place to play basketball.

His son attended both Fairfield Prep and Fairfield University, where he also played basketball.

Phelan said he enjoyed watching his son play in a building he helped build and would frequent the site as a season ticket holder. His daughter, Betsy Blagys, is now the university’s assistant director of recreation, working next to Alumni Hall.

“It’s a little emotional,” Phelan said, adding he would always see the building as he drove on campus. “It’s not going to be there anymore.”

But whether Alumni Hall stands or is replaced, “The buildings are less important than the memories you made and the people who did it,” Frassinelli said.

The venue hosted some memorable concerts throughout the years, including performances from the Beach Boys, The Byrds, Ludacris and John Legend. Then-Vice President George H. W. Bush also made a campaign stop there in 1988.

Both Phelan and Frassinelli said it’s time for a new structure, allowing for more space and hosting events beyond athletic games. Replacing Alumni Hall with a modern venue is the capstone of the university’s master plan to improve the student experience, which is years in the making, Frassinelli said.

“It will really raise the bar for events on campus,” Frassinelli said.

kkoerting@newstimes.com