On a clear, sunny day in Long Beach, students, professors and residents can often look up and find the Walter Pyramid offering a shade of blue that sometimes mirrors the hue of the sky.
After 19 years of standing strong, the Pyramid remains an icon for Cal State Long Beach and the city itself.
The Walter Pyramid has hosted the volleyball and basketball teams for both men and women since its genesis in 1994. It offers a uniqueness that, to this day, still has passersby wondering what goes on inside the 18-story prism and why it was built as a pyramid in the first place.
“When the facility was first built, it was looked at as an icon for the university and the city and still serves as that,” said Mark Edrington, the senior associate athletics director at Long Beach State. “Even people who don’t associate with the university but see it from afar or they hear about it, wonder, ‘What is that?’ and want to come see it. Some people have actually come from the freeway and said, ‘Is that a big science project?’”
What has come to be known as an icon in Long Beach was at one point a worry to its neighbors.
“Soon after receiving the bids, we started getting complaints from neighbors,” said Scott Charmack, then-associate vice president at CSULB at the time of the Pyramid’s construction. ““The athletic director at the time [Curtis McCray] was trying to make this bigger than life. This got the neighbors all nervous so we ended up having a meeting. We had people claiming it was going to change their microclimate, rob them of sea breezes and sunlight.”
One man even voiced concern over his privacy, claiming that people inside the Pyramid could look through his bathroom window. Concerns like these forced the Athletic Department to move the building southeast a ways on the lawn that it currently rests on. These changes were both after the bid and contract signing, delaying the project several months and also costing more in the process.
In the early ‘90s, the athletics department had been trying to get a decent-sized gym for both physical education and school athletics, but because it wasn’t a high priority for the state, much of the funding was in house, and a $10 million price tag was drawn in the sand.
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“We had researched many different kinds of structures to see what we could do, domes inflatable domes, you name it,” Charmack said. “We looked at almost every structure built around the country that could house this.”
The first to suggest building the venue as a pyramid was contractor Don Gibbs. What was originally just a thought turned out to be an ideal plan for a number of reasons.
“It was a cost-effective structure,” Charmack said. “The Pyramid provides walls and a roof in one system, when typically you would have to build big walls and put a roof on it. It also accomplished the statement that the president wanted at the time.”
The construction of the Pyramid surpassed the $10 million threshold, and additional costs were taken care of via private funding, donations and revenue from 49er Shops. The unique and innovative seating system that was the first of its kind, cost $3 million and was added after construction. By the time its doors were opened for the first time, the Pyramid had cost close to $20 million.
There was also an added cost of hiring a private firm to retrieve a pumpkin from the pyramid’s peak after a Spiderman-like prankster climbed to the top soon after construction. The facility officially picked up its name as the Walter Pyramid in 2005, after Dr. Mike and Arline Walter made a $2.1 million donation to CSULB, according to the Beach Review. It remains the largest gift in LBSU Athletics history.
Cameron Ungar, the associate general manager at LBSU, is in essence the gatekeeper of the Walter Pyramid and makes sure all facilities and fields are maintained. Ungar also decides who can or can’t use these facilities on campus and has taken calls from a myriad of different types of entertainment.
Street ball, animal shows, mixed martial arts, cheerleading and other forms of competitive entertainment have utilized the Walter Pyramid. In 1996 the NBA’s Pro Summer League held games at the facility, and one of them was Kobe Bryant’s first game as a Laker.
Movies like “Space Jam,” “Money Ball” and “Redbelt” were filmed on location at LBSU as well. The television shows “Lie to Me” and “Make It or Break It” were also filmed at LBSU.
“Usually we get commercials because commercials are generally just one day,” Ungar said, “whereas a feature or TV show needs extended periods of time. And we have so much programming in the building that we don’t have the calendar flexibility to give them two or three weeks at a time.”
Minnesota Timberwolves all-star big man and UCLA alum, Kevin Love, recently visited the pyramid to film a commercial for Chinese sportswear brand 361 Degrees.
The Dalai Lama and Hillary Clinton are two notable political figures that spent time at the Pyramid in recent memory. They are two people in a long list of events and memories that have been able to visit what has come to be the symbol of CSULB.
CSULB art history professor Peter Holliday paralleled the Walter Pyramid with Roman Catholic cathedrals in France and the sense of identification similar buildings have for their environment.
“It marks where we are geographically, and it also stays in your mind as something that brands the university,” Holliday said. “It’s a sort of physical, visual entity that gives us an identification.”