Construction of New Theater at Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse is Well Underway


Rachel Rydalch

(Photo by Rachel Rydalch | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Frank Gardner, Assistant Arts Editor


The Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse, located on the southwest side of campus, is getting a major upgrade, but this time it’s big news for artists, not athletes. Construction at the fieldhouse is underway and soon the building will be converted into a theater for use by the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre and Pioneer Theater Company.

This much-needed addition to the campus community is coming at the perfect time. More and more production companies are opening their doors as COVID-19 case numbers and restrictions drop and audiences continue to express increased interest in returning to the theaters to enjoy and support local arts.

A Highly Anticipated, Historical Hand-Me-Down

This project, which was announced during the summer of 2021, was welcomed enthusiastically from the vibrant theater community at the university, who are looking forward to having another venue for intimate theater. But where did this building come from all of a sudden, and what purpose did it originally serve?

The Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse was constructed in 1939 and served as a multi-purpose arena. Most notably, it was where the U’s men’s basketball team competed until the late 1960s before the Huntsman Arena was built. Many of the activities that once took place at the fieldhouse outgrew its smaller capacity of only 5,600 people, nearly a third of Huntsman’s seating.

At the time it was constructed, the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse was the largest building on campus. Aside from basketball, according to the U’s Historic Buildings website, the fieldhouse additionally served as a space for PE and ROTC. During WWII, the fieldhouse was used as a massive dormitory for 1,000 Army personnel. According to the Historic Buildings website, “The bleachers, standards and the entire basketball floor were removed and stored in the balcony … [the balcony] housed a post office, two officer’s quarters, a barbershop and a lounge.”

The space has truly been multi-functional over the years and now, sitting comfortably in the shadow of Rice-Eccles Stadium, it serves as a place for team pride. “Utah” is still written in capital red-and-black letters on the roof, visible to spectators in the stadium.

At-Odds Extracurriculars

Though sports and arts are often relegated by the Western world to nothing more than enriching, and potentially lucrative extracurricular activities for students, one of these activities seems to have the upper hand. Sports are definitely a money-making enterprise at universities in general, and U students in the arts tend to feel their interests being overshadowed when schools choose to divest from the arts and spend big money on sports.

Sports programs at the U require serious funding. They also take up a lot of space on campus — the infrastructure itself is a huge part of each sport’s pride in their team, capacity to prepare for competition and ability to house fans. Both the Huntsman Arena and Rice-Eccles Stadium provide a huge revenue stream for the university.

This is part of the reason the renovation feels so refreshing. Whether or not it signals a change in university attitudes about the arts, it’s a welcome break from the norm and a big win for the theater department.

Exciting Upgrades

The Meldrum Foundation provided funding for the construction under the supervision of the College of Fine Arts. The theater itself will seat 375 audience members in a small, auditorium-style semi-circle partially encompassing a stage at the center. This wrap-around kind of seating, in addition to the small theater size, will make a great space for the more personal brand of contemporary plays that have grabbed audiences’ attention in recent years.

The community building this new space will offer is invaluable to theater students looking to bounce back after a tough go during the pandemic that involved lots of online performances and classes. The shared space between the U’s Theatre Department and PTC will allow connection between professionals in the local theater community and students looking to get hands-on experience in their college years.

Organizers foresee the completion of the project happening in December of this year, and you can find more information about the project on the U’s website.