Makeover combines 1950’s charm and 2020’s amenities
By John Herndon, 110forChrist.com
It made no difference when or why I stepped inside Frankfort High School’s F.D. Wilkinson gymnasium, I always knew I was strolling through history in a place that could be one of Kentucky’s best basketball showplaces.
The walls, the old bleachers and the locker rooms located under them just gave a big-time feel to a high school gym.
It wasn’t even attached to the school, which was enough to make it special. I still remember the first time I was ever there. The Anderson County team I adored made the short trip to Frankfort in a battle of two of Kentucky’s best teams in January 1971. Jimmy Dan Conner led the Bearcats, who would eventually finish as state runner-up, to a close win over a Frankfort team that was considered one of the favorites in the 11th Region.
I returned when I was manager of my high school team. In the mid-1970s, it was easily one of the nicest places we visited.
Add to my perception that the place reminds me of Memorial Coliseum with its ramps and entrances to the playing area and, well, you get the idea.
“It was built in 1956, which was roughly the same time as Memorial Coliseum. I don’t know if that was a style or what,” Frankfort High girls’ basketball assistant coach Mac Yocum said.
What he does know is that at one time, Frankfort’s home court was generally considered one of Kentucky’s best. “When this was built, we are told it was one of the two or three largest (high school arenas) in the state,” Yocum said.
The 2,800 capacity listed on the KHSAA website would not be among the state’s largest today but would be well above average.
But somewhere along the line things changed. The arena was damaged by several floods that ravaged Frankfort, prompting the installation of a portable floor that had been in use across town at the Frankfort Civic Center. “That was my understanding, that we got that floo. Governor (Julian) Carroll arranged for that after the 1978 flood,” Yocum says.
However, the solution was not perfect. As is the case with most portable floors, it developed dead spots. Over time, the hallways under the bleachers became storage areas giving a junky appearance. Wilkinson Gym was no longer a basketball showplace.
Things have drastically changed.
Thanks to a $5 million renovation project, F.D. Wilkinson Gymnasium has to again be among Kentucky’s finest places to watch a game. In my mind, the sight lines have always been very good and now it combines that 1950s charm with some 2020s amenities that have to make the Panthers proud.
“It was a challenge and everything was started from scratch,” Yocum said. “The only thing original is the bleachers.”
Gone is the portable floor, replaced by a permanent 94-foot floor. “When (the city of Frankfort’s) flood wall was built, we didn’t need the portable floor,” Yocum explained. “When we redid it, we did a college floor and put shot clocks in.”
Yocum added that the facility should now be attractive for a small college conference to play its tournament in Frankfort.
The renovation included new scoreboards on each end, just like things had been, but added a fan-friendly overhead scoreboard. “With the shot clocks, there are eight clocks in the arena,” Yocum noted.
Large video boards are at each end of the arena and the renovation included turning an open stage area into classrooms complete with a glass wall allowing visitors to watch the game action. Yocum says the area can be used for alumni events during games. There is also a handicapped seating area complete with an elevator to access the old stage area.
“If we were to have a tournament, we can use the area for a hospitality room here and we have another room off to the side that can be used as a media workroom,” Yocum says.
Frankfort is scheduled to host the 41st District Tournament, beginning later this month.
And the cluttered hallways? They’ve been enclosed and are now the home of new state of the art locker rooms, including separate areas for officials and the home cheerleaders.
In a nod to history, the architects kept some old phone booths and turned them into trophy cases.
The renovations forced the Panthers from their home during the 2020-21 season with “home games” being played at Frankfort Christian Academy. However, the Panthers returned to their new old home for a double-header against Christian Educational Consortium on Nov. 29. As of Jan. 31, the Lady Panthers stand at 12-9 with the Panthers coming in at 9-13.
But regardless of the team records, the renovated F.D. Wilkinson gym is a winner. It’s not the biggest. It’s not the newest or most modern, but Frankfort again has a top-level high school basketball arena. Panther fans should be very proud.
NEW LOOK GYM CARRIES A NOD TO HISTORY
One new look feature in the Wilkinson Gym is the nod to the great sports history of the school and the city. Championship teams from all sports are honored, but the school also pays homage to Mayo-Underwood High School, a school that served African-American students.
“Mayo-Underwood was in existence from 1928 until, essentially, 1956, after Brown vs. Board of Education. The school was in existence a few years after that but the athletes started coming over here,” Yocum explained.
“A few years ago, when Chris O’Bryan became the boys’ (basketball) coach, he started doing some things to get the (Frankfort) alumni connected and it was decided to reach out to the Mayo-Underwood alumni. We have the banners and we have Mayo-Underwood throwback jerseys that we wear occasionally.”