How the Thompson Center Takes Georgetown Athletics to New Heights

October 6, 2016 / Sherri Privitera

Georgetown University and its Washington D.C. surroundings are long on history and short on space.

The university’s campus, known as “The Hilltop” because of its perch overlooking the Potomac River and Northern Virginia, sits on a relatively cozy 104 acres. Steeply-pitched roofs and elaborate stonework define its Gothic architecture, which in some cases dates back to the late 1800s.

So when Populous and Bowie Gridley Architects were tasked with designing a modern 144,000-square-foot facility to usher Georgetown Athletics into a new era, we had to embrace what all Washingtonians have come to live by one way or another. We had to bake diplomacy into our design.

Here’s the story of how innovation and tradition came to coexist in the new John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center. I’m proud to share it as project manager and on behalf of the entire design team.

Fitting in While Standing Out

Nestled in the southwest corner of campus and a stone’s throw away from the Potomac River lies McDonough Gymnasium. With offices, training facilities, locker rooms and an intimate 2,500 seat multipurpose arena, it’s been the home to Hoya Athletics since opening in 1952.

That’s 64 years of history and counting. The traditional retirement age for workers in the United States is widely accepted as 65 thanks to the fine congressmen and women five miles down the road at the U.S. Capitol.


Yes, but the symbolism of an older structure transitioning into a new phase of its life wasn’t lost on the project team. The Hoyas needed new facilities, especially to continue to compete in the hyper-competitive hoops environment of the Big East Conference, but McDonough wasn’t going anywhere. The two structures would be both physically and emotionally connected, with the Thompson Center taking over many duties while still paying respect to its next-door neighbor.

That harmony starts with the exterior. The Thompson Center and McDonough connect at the corners, resulting in a Tetris-like shape when viewed from overhead. From the curb, the two structures transition seamlessly into one another thanks to a design sensibility and intentional use of brick and limestone trim.

The effect is subtle and still allows the modern facility to strike an impressive figure from the street. Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed said as much in a recent tweet:

Our team’s understanding of this sentiment and the relationship between new and old was the key driver of the project’s success.

“The priority from day one was to fit the project contextually within the Georgetown campus,” says my Populous teammate Norman Friedman, lead designer on the project. “We love it when clients place an emphasis on high-quality design and embrace the character of a campus.”

And the character of McDonough is undeniable, so much so that we designed the lobby which both facilities share to show a visible connection to the old exterior of the gym. Instead of drywall, visitors are greeted by McDonough’s original eastern brick wall and stone archway.

Heading further inside, the innovative design of the Thompson Center is even more apparent.

Slam Dunk Bunks and More

For years, a sticking point in its creation had been how to fit all the amenities onto a relatively small footprint.

Basketball courts take up a substantial amount of space – and the men’s and women’s practice courts each feature one full-size court along with four half courts. The dilemma dissolved away with one simple solution: stack the men’s and women’s gyms on top of each other. It’s a rarity in basketball training facilities, but we threw ourselves at the challenge and designed extra support between each gym to dampen vibration. It’s OK if a parking garage has a little bounce, after all; not a premier Division I basketball court.

The next challenge was to imagine and turn into reality a space that all of Georgetown student-athletes could call home. When McDonough was built in the 1950s, Hoya Athletics fielded nine teams. Flash forward to present day and 29 total men’s and women’s programs suit up each academic year.

To squeeze in all of those amenities – from locker rooms to training areas to sports medicine spaces – the Thompson Center extends up five levels with meticulous planning to minimize the distance traveled for each student-athlete. Meeting with all user groups helped us identify the context in which each space existed. For example, a basketball player can practice, shower and stop by the coach’s office for a quick chat with only a few steps’ worth of travel.

With a larger strategy in place, the design team let its creativity run wild with features that enable student-athletes to excel. Among those is a cryotherapy setup that delivers the equivalent of a high-tech ice bath and speeds up the recovery process after a grueling practice.

The experience of a Thompson Center visitor also extends beyond the nitty gritty of collegiate training. A central courtyard carves out space for contemplation while funneling warm sunlight into most levels of the building. The corridor that connects to McDonough has been transformed into a Hall of Fame, which is open to the public and boasts two beautiful rotundas.

The sum of all these little touches results in a facility that feels like it belongs to anyone and everyone who bleeds Hoya blue. And rightfully so. Just like any politician worth their salt, the John R. Thompson Jr. Intercollegiate Athletic Center represents and serves everyone in its community.

Meet the author

Sherri Privitera

Senior Principal, Senior Architect / Kansas City


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