The Palestra gets a facelift

As you might have seen in yesterday's Daily News, the Palestra had a new floor installed this summer. It was officially unveiled this afternoon, and I had just enough time to get down to 33rd Street and check it out before the Soul parade reached City Hall.

You can see a view of the court in the photo above, and there are quite a few photos from this afternoon in the gallery. But if you click through, you'll see some pictures that no other media outlet in town has.

Mikaleyn Austin, the documentary filmmaker and former Penn basketball player whose movies include The Palestra: Cathedral of Basketball, snuck into the Palestra earlier this summer and took some pictures of the arena with the floor torn out. As you'll see, some of the wood that was removed dates all the way back to the building's construction in 1927. Most of it was installed in 1985, which was the only other floor renovation in the building's history.

As for the new construction, Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky talked with reporters this afternoon about the construction process and about plans he has for the arena in the coming years.

Bilsky said that Penn "wanted to keep it a clean look and a sharp look." If I can put on my design critic's hat for a second (and I studied urban planning in college, so give me half a chance), I liked what I saw. I especially liked the dark red color scheme, which was part of Penn's logo and uniforms for many years but isn't as much anymore.

As for the wood itself, Bilsky focused on the safety aspects of the material.

"You get a lot more cushioning than you used to have, and the maple is first rate," Bilsky said. "We're more aware of the fact that students are stronger and faster. You hear about stress fractures, so you want to make sure that you're taken care of from the standpoint of safety first."

You'll see in the photo gallery that one of the pictures Mikaelyn sent me is of the old wood stacked in big piles on the concourse. Bilsky said that "a lot of it is not usable," but that doesn't mean it's not valuable.

Bilsky spoke of using pieces of the floor as mementos and thank-you gifts. I wouldn't be surprised if he was referring to donors in the capital campaign Penn has launched to fund its big eastward expansion project.

That project includes a number of new athletic facilities. Among the highlights of the plan is enclosing the northern facade of Franklin Field to create a new fitness center and some retail.

It will also involve razing the outdoor tennis courts that currently sit between the Palestra and 33rd Street in order to create a new public green space.

So could the Palestra itself be involved in all this?

"We'll be doing a feasibility study some time within the next year to look at things we can do to the Palestra," Bilsky said. "We're not going to touch the facility per se - it's going to still have the same ambience and the same feel. But it is an older building and there are things we can do to improve the amenities and the layout, and possibly air-condition it."

A better indication of the scope of what could come is the price tag Bilsky put on the plan.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we did something along the lines of a $20 to $25 million renovation over the next three to four years," he said.

Stay tuned. And check out this video I put togther of Bilsky talking this afternoon about the new floor.