UB Then

Remembering the UB Bubble as more than just a lot of hot air

The Bubble — think along the lines of a golf dome — was a recreation facility that opened in January 1975. Images courtesy of University Archives


Published September 13, 2023


Editor's note: This story is the first installment of "UB Then," an occasional feature highlighting people, events and other interesting elements of UB history pulled from the University Archives. 

A more than 31,000-square-foot inflatable building that was once part of the North Campus should be hard to forget, but memories of the UB Bubble seem vague at best for today’s campus community, except for those who used the temporary facility beginning in the mid-1970s.

The Bubble — think along the lines of a golf dome — was a recreation facility that opened in January 1975. It functioned well in that capacity, according to records in University Archives. Its legacy, however, is one of form, not function.

The Bubble, despite its utility, inspired a host of unflattering nicknames, including “Sport Wart” and “Who Hatched it Hall.” A writer for the Buffalo Courier-Express called it a “plump glowing caterpillar.” There was even a “Name the Bubble contest” that never produced anything official, although “The Buffable” was cute. A UB track coach referred to the structure as “The Air Dome” in a 1975 newspaper story, a respectable moniker that never caught on.

It was always The Bubble, and its story begins with the students who populated the university’s first residence hall.

In the fall of 1973, the initial wave of resident students arrived on the developing North Campus. Their new home was the recently completed Governors Complex, the first building to open following 1968’s ceremonial groundbreaking on the nearly 1,200-acre site in Amherst.

Designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, Governors’ four linked residence halls, each bearing the name of a former New York State governor, could accommodate 800 students.

The suite-styled dorm and its dining halls provided students with a comfortable, modern living space, but little else — because there was nothing else.

The university provided transportation between Governors and the South Campus as the North Campus took shape, adding by the end of 1974 O’Brian, Baldy and Bell halls, along with the Ellicott Complex to the list of competed buildings, with 3,000 students now living and taking classes in Amherst.

But campus planners didn’t consider the need for a recreation facility as the new educational plant came to life.

Aerial photos from the period show just how isolated students were from anything unrelated to their living space and their classrooms.

An aerial photo of the North Campus taken in June 1985. Above and to the left of center, a parking lot with a darker rectangle where the Bubble once stood. Above and to the right of center, you can also see the first phase of Alumni Arena, which was completed in 1982. This is likely another reason it was decided not to repair the Bubble when it deflated for the second time in 1984 – it wasn't needed anymore.

“The first students to reside on the Amherst Campus were quick in pointing to their need for a conveniently located, enclosed recreational facility,” said then-president Robert L. Ketter in a university publication.

A bus could get students to Clark Gym on the South Campus as easily as it did to classes, but Clark wasn’t ideal. The facility was already overcrowded, and Alumni Arena, on the North Campus, was years away from completion.

A temporary facility was needed — in a hurry.

There was talk of renting off-campus space in the vicinity of Governors. Renovating a nearby abandoned supermarket was another consideration. The possibility of a “more permanent temporary structure” on campus was discussed and quickly dismissed before anyone had actually defined “more permanent temporary.”

The 262-foot-by-120-foot bubble, 42 feet at its highest point, was the answer.  In just 15 months, the $250,000 — $1.5 million adjusted for inflation — bubble moved from a proposal on paper to a campus reality through the combined efforts of the Student Association, the President’s Office, Facilities Planning and Recreation-Intramurals Service.

Birdair Structures of Cheektowaga built and leased the bubble to UB. Birdair was a pioneer in the field of inflatable structures. The company engineered the United States Pavilion for the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka, Japan, and another for the United States exhibit at the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington, four years later. Birdair, in fact, had built nearly half of the thousands of bubbles like the one at UB that were in use at the time.

The local reaction to UB’s bubble, as though it arrived as a visitor from outer space, is curious, given the popularity and proliferation of similar structures around the world.

The Bubble could accommodate a large number of athletic pursuits. It was 263 feet x 120 feet, and 42 feet tall at its highest point. It failed only twice, in 1977 and 1984.

UB’s bubble could accommodate six basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts, 18 badminton courts, four tennis courts or various combinations those playing surfaces. It lacked showers and changing facilities, which were available in nearby trailers.

“It’s not going to be plush,” said Bill Monkarsh, director of recreation and intramurals, in 1974. “But it will be a ‘nice temporary facility.’”

And durable, too.

The Bubble failed only twice: the first time during high winds that accompanied the Blizzard of ’77 and again in 1984 following a problem with one of the blowers.

The university retired The Bubble following its latter collapse. The first phase in Alumni Arena’s construction was complete and the need for The Bubble no longer existed.

It had a good life, but the bubble had finally burst.