One man's life is inside the Palestra

Palestra

PHILADELPHIA -- His name was Landgrath. Or it might have been Landgreth. It's been a while, so the spelling is a little fuzzy.

At every game he stood at the same post -- on the corner of the court closest to the visiting benches at the Palestra.

This was back in the 1950s and '60s, when security guards wore uniforms similar to the state police, so Landgra(e)th looked pretty imposing, like the kind of guy who would gladly toss a gate-crasher back on the streets.

The kids knew better.

They'd slide through the door behind Landgra(e)th and he'd motion at them with his eyeballs.

"Like this," Dan Harrell explains, rolling his eyes up and to one side. "He was showing us where the empty seats were."

The secret entrance the Southwest Philly pack used to get from the corner of 33rd and Spruce to Landgra(e)th's station has since been boarded up, closed off in the name of progress when the University of Pennsylvania renovated neighboring Hutchinson Gymnasium two years ago.

There used to be a door in the gym's basement weight room. It opened into a dusty storage area that currently houses old water buckets and other basketball detritus. On the opposite side from the door, a pair of wooden steps led to the Palestra tunnel and around the corner from that, another door opened to the promised land.

"This one," Harrell says. "You'd go through this door and you'd be on the court."

Harrell is 70 now. He and his wife raised six girls and those girls have given him 14 grandchildren. In June 2012, he retired. He worked at two places in his life; the first was General Electric and, after he was let go there, the University of Pennsylvania. He got a job in housekeeping at the Wharton School; later he was moved over to the Palestra.

For 23 years, he served as the gym's custodian in the truest sense of the word, caring for the place as if it were his seventh child. The Other Woman, Harrell called it in a love letter of an essay he once wrote, the man and the building becoming so intertwined that people here know him simply as Palestra Dan.

The boy who used to hop the trolley and sneak in with his buddies now has a key to every door in the place. No one dared take those keys when he retired. He knows the building's quirks and noises, its nooks, crannies and even the friendly spirits who visit when it's quiet. He can tell you where a sunbeam will fall at a certain time of day, and spin a story about almost every section.

If you want to know the Palestra, really know it, ask Palestra Dan to give you the tour.


"This is the heart of the Palestra," Harrell says, beginning the tour by ducking through a door off of equipment manager Johnny Borraccini's office. Two men, Jack and Harvey, are standing in front of a long table, folding uniforms.

The heart of the place, it turns out, is the laundry room, where the hum of the industrial-sized washer and dryer keeps in time with the work Jack and Harvey do.

It's not much to look at, unless, that is, you know where to look.

Harrell does.

"See these floors?" Harrell says, pointing to the blond hardwood. "These are the original floors from 1927."

The Irish storyteller is just beginning to spin his tale.

Harrell, of course, knows his floors. Before he retired, his workday started at 5 a.m. and would run until 1:30, except on game days. Then he'd come back to watch the game and work, sometimes well after midnight.

He was charged with keeping the lower part of the Palestra orderly -- neatening up the locker rooms, cleaning the media room. The court was his pride and joy. He used Squeaky Clean, a chemical solvent, to wipe it down.

And he would sweep it, lovingly and deliberately walking up and down the court pushing his 6-foot-wide, white-fringed mop in front of him at every halftime, dressed in his blue shorts, midcalf white socks and gray Penn athletics T-shirt.

"We played Princeton up at their place [in 1999] and they set up big screens so people could watch the game here," Harrell said. "At halftime, I came out and swept the floor in front of the TV. The people went nuts."

The old floors, the ones underfoot of the laundry room, also run on the opposite side of the gym, in a reception and adjoining media room.

The age of the 87-year-old boards isn't what makes them special.

"Look at them," Harrell says. "They go the wrong way."

Sure enough, the planks are laid to run horizontally, not vertically -- perpendicular to the baskets out on the court. It's hard to grasp just what that might look like in a game, but naturally Harrell has a solution. Over in the reception room, there's a photograph of an old game with the wrong-way flooring. It's jarring, like looking at a lined piece of notebook paper on the court.

"They said [old Saint Joseph's coach] Jack Ramsay used to claim that gave Penn an advantage," Harrell says. "Maybe that was true."


No surprise, the visiting locker rooms at the Palestra aren't much to look at -- though former Penn coach Fran Dunphy insisted they were the nicest in the Ivy League.

Bare-bones lockers, old showers, all shoved into a space that is tiny when empty, bound to be cramped when filled with big and tall basketball players.

A blackboard hangs on a back wall in an alcove created by a covered soffit that cuts diagonally from ceiling to wall.

This is where visiting coaches stand to address their teams.

Harrell ducks under the soffit, where a tiny piece of paper is taped. Only someone standing facing out to the locker room can see it.

"Coach Tom Gallagher, St. Philomena, CYO basketball," it reads. Harrell put it there.

Gallagher was Phil Martelli's coach at St. Philomena, a man who had a profound impact on the Saint Joe's coach.

Martelli has done more than a few favors for Harrell over the years and the note is Harrell's simple gesture of thanks.

"Phil is a good man," Harrell says, "but all of these guys are. They all had chances to go someplace bigger. They stayed. That means something."

Martelli was the last Big 5 coach to stop playing city series games at the Palestra. Once St. Joseph's Hagan Arena was renovated he followed his coaching brethren back to his campus digs, taking the essence of the place with him.

Technically, the Palestra is Penn's home gym, but the Big 5 games were its lifeblood. It was a true neutral court, with the teams splitting the house and the gate. The pep band took roost in the upper-level seats, the students commandeered either end, and on a good day, with a good game, fans would fill in up to the corners, as the old-timers say, to the farthest reaches of the place where one section runs into another and the view is less than ideal.

Game "progress" eliminated some of the fun. The streamers tossed onto the court after the first made basket, for example, were eliminated for safety reasons and now would result in a technical foul.

Finances killed the rest. All five schools have their own on-campus arenas, season-ticket holder bases to satisfy and bills to pay. Why split the revenue when a home game puts it all in your wallet?

Fans get it. No one likes it.

"I grew up in a tiny little row house" Harrell says. "We'd have Christmas and Thanksgiving dinner there, all of us crowded together. Then you have six or seven kids and they move out and get their own homes, bigger homes.

"Sooner or later you start going to their house for dinner, but you know what happens? You sit around and talk about the dinners you had at [the old house], because those were fun, those were the memories. Do you get what I'm getting at? That's the Palestra."


Harrell heads up from the court to the concourses, taking one of the four ramps that wind their way up from the floor. Halfway up a ramp, he stops and laughs.

The quirks of the place mean that the ceilings above the ramps slope, the concrete running pretty low to one side.

"I ran into [former Princeton coach] Pete Carril here one time," Harrell says. "He was coming in with his team. One guy comes down, 'Bonk.' He hits his head. Another guy does it and Carril says, 'How long those things been there?' Those Ivy Leaguers, let me tell you."

Ivy Leaguers, well, Harrell would know. He is one, Penn Class of 2000 -- "aught, aught," he jokes.

The refurbished concourses are easily the best new thing about the Palestra. In 2000, Penn took all of the pictures that hung around the building with little explanation and less context and gave them a purpose. The Palestra concourse is now a veritable museum, with displays dedicated to each of the Big 5 schools, the Ivy League, the great coaches and players who played here, even the media.

Here you really get the essence of what makes the place so special -- Ramsay, Dick Harter and Chuck Daly coached here; Guy Rodgers, Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Lionel Simmons played here.

Tucked into the edge of one wall display is a tribute to Penn's greatest success story.

That would be Harrell.

After graduating from West Catholic, he went to St. Joe's for one day and two classes -- rhetoric and algebra. Instead he opted to work, starting in the mail room at GE.

Twenty years later, he was laid off. After getting by with a few odd jobs, he landed at Penn. Along with his Palestra duties, the former CYO football coach helped out with the lightweight football team. A player on the team challenged him to go back to college.

Tuition remission made Penn the cheapest option and so at the age of 46, he applied, and was accepted on the condition that he passed an English class.

The first assignment was to write about a favorite place and before the class left, the professor asked a few students to share their ideas. One talked about a favorite holiday getaway in the Poconos, another about Paris.

"Paris? I've been maybe five places. I wrote about the john," Harrell says. "I said it was my favorite place because it's the one place where I could sit and relax and pick my horses."

Ten years later, Harrell graduated with a degree in American civilization and a minor in anthropology.

Harrell marched with his mop held upside down, the white fringes decorated with red and blue Class of 2000 letters.


The temperature outside is 28 degrees, but that doesn't stop Harrell. He has one more stop to make, and he heads out a door to the alleyway that runs alongside the Palestra.

He points to the sections of limestone bricks that rise vertically up the walls. They're decorative, intended to break up the monotony of the red brick building, but to ingenious kids of a certain generation who lived nearby, they looked a lot like ladders.

"The kids from Grays Ferry, they were nuts," Harrell says. "They'd climb up here, run across the flat roof and see up there?"

He stops to point to a small window that is reachable if you shimmied up from the roof.

"That window gets you in right behind the scoreboard," Harrell says.

Harrell never got in that way, but he used the Hutchinson Gym entry more than once.

He figures he has paid for only a handful of Palestra tickets in his lifetime -- usually for Catholic League playoff games, because it seemed the right thing to do -- and he never did understand the security guards who acted like bouncers.

Back in the early 1970s, when the Flyers were ripping up the NHL and earning their Broad Street Bully reputation, he took tickets at the Spectrum.

"I'd go to a bar before the game and my friends would say, 'Yo, what gate you working tonight?' " Harrell says. "And I'd say [Gate] 4. They'd come, hand me whatever -- a matchbook, a movie ticket -- I didn't care, I'd let them in."

Mr. Landgra(e)th would be proud.

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