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Last Match at the Columbia Gym

When I shared last night’s post about the Columbia Gym on Facebook, I got a response from Joe Wheeler, long time official at OVW and USWA. It seems the Allen Athletic Club was not the last promotion to run a show in the fabled gymnasium.

The Allen Club’s final show ran on June 25, 1957, shortly after the death of then owner Francis McDonough. Barney “Chest” Bernard defeated Ian Campbell, Nell Stewart defeated Elaine Ellis, New Albany and U of L legend Stu Gibson defeated Lou Plummer, and Bobby Managoff defeated long time Allen Club stalwart “Wild Bill” Longson via disqualification. The Allen Club was sold to former Louisville Colonels baseball player Al LeComte, who moved shows to Freedom Hall because U of L had taken over the gym. Four months later, the Allen Club shut down for good.

Nearly forty years later, Wheeler arranged one final show in the building. “When they did some renovations to the Louisville Gardens back in the 90s, I made arrangements with the Columbia Gym, which was then part of Catherine Spalding College, to move the USWA there for the time they were to be out of the Gardens. The first week there they had a ladies match where the only way to lose was to be stripped down to your bra and panties. The nuns were terribly upset, so the first weeks return to the old Columbia Gym was also the last week.”

Wheeler’s story seems to indicate the nuns didn’t dismantle the old gym as quickly as WHAS stated. What’s more, a search of Pinterest turned up this card promoted by Phil Golden and sponsored by the WWA. The plot thickens.

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Finding the Columbia Gym

1941 thesz allenRumors of the demise of the fabled Columbia Gym have been… somewhat exaggerated.

In Bluegrass Brawlers I noted that the building that once hosted the Allen Athletic Club’s weekly wrestling shows was gone, replaced by an outdoor basketball court. It seems that the source I consulted (and I’m sorry to say I don’t recall said source) was dead wrong.

The Columbia Gym is in fact gone. The room that not only saw the likes of Lou Thesz, Gorgeous George, Buddy Rogers, and countless other legends pass through its doors no longer exists. But, the building that housed the gym as well as the stairway that led down to the gym itself, still stand.

I happened upon the building last Friday after meeting in East Louisville with the folks at Corn Island Archaeology in Jeffersontown. We were discussing some of the long on venues where promoter Heywood Allen once hosted wrestling including Swiss Park, the Savoy Theater, an outdoor Sports Arena between Preston and Burnett, and of course the Columbia Gym.

The Gym was often referenced as being at the corner of 4th Street and Burnett, putting it right in the vicinity of the Louisville Free Public Library – my next stop for the day. After dropping off a copy of Bluegrass Brawlers at the front desk for the library director, I walked out of the building and around the block to the corner of 4th and York.

The library stands on the northeastern corner of that intersection. A car lot is on the northwest corner. A high rise apartment building is on the southwestern corner, and a Unitarian church sits on the southeastern corner. I stood there for a few moments, wondering which of these buildings could possibly have taken the place of the fabled Columbia Gym, but then, my gaze drifted further down the block, away from York.

Behind the apartments stood a parking garage, and just beyond that was a building that looked incredibly familiar. I had found a few drawings and photos of the exterior of the Columbia Gym, and the building just beyond the garage sure looked like what I remembered. I got as close as I could from across the block and snapped the photo below.

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A quick Google search over the weekend confirmed my suspicions: the building that housed the Columbia Gym still stands! It belongs to Spalding University now, and in 2015 – a year AFTER my book was released – WHAS did a very nice story about the building’s history. They don’t mention wrestling of course, because someone else very famous made his name learning to box in the same gym, a man whose name towers over every other in the world of sports. You can click this link to read his story and more about the gym.

You can bet I’ll be back to the building later this year. I don’t know if there’s anything inside that tells more of the Heywood Allen story, but if not, I will certainly be glad to share some of his story with those willing to hear.