Long-awaited St. Paul Gym

by Amy Olson

Editor’s note: More than $400 million is earmarked to build and renovate numerous University facilities over the next several years, thanks to a 1998 capital budget windfall and private donations. This is the third in a 10-part series, ‘Reconstructing the U,’ detailing how the massive rejuvenation effort will affect every student, staff and faculty member in addition to reshaping the school’s physical appearance. Next Monday’s issue will explore the construction of the Minnesota Library Access Center on the West Bank.
On a field near the St. Paul Gymnasium almost a century ago, two teams of men struggle to move a six-foot diameter ball across the field into their opponents’ goal.
Little is known about the long-forgotten game called “push ball,” other than it was invented before the turn of the century and seemed to be a popular sport at the University Farm, as the St. Paul campus was then known.
As the decades pass at the University, the variety of recreational sports come and go. As old sports like push ball die out and are forgotten entirely without old photographs, new sports like rock climbing take their place.
The nearly-finished renovations at the St. Paul Gymnasium, including a rock climbing wall and larger pool, reflect that ebb and tide as the Recreational Sports department and the University enter the 21st century.
Gym staff members expect the final renovation projects, including the rock climbing wall and racquetball courts, will be finished by the end of October.
The addition of the racquetball courts and climbing wall on the gym’s west side facing Cleveland Avenue, and the pool on the gym’s north side nearly doubled the gym’s size.
But the gym isn’t just larger. New carpet and paint grace the aerobics studio overlooking the indoor track, and white tile in the new locker rooms replace the drab gray fiberglass of the old showers.
While the gym was originally constructed for about $88,000 in 1915, the renovations have cost approximately $3.95 million. The project was funded by the 1987 Recreational Sports project and student services fees, the first building renovation to use such funding at the University.
In 1915, students and faculty at the University Farm eagerly anticipated the opening of their gym. There were growing pains, however.
Growing pains
The new carpeting and fresh paint in the aerobics studio and mat room belie the true age of the St. Paul Gymnasium, where years of use by exercise enthusiasts have left their indelible mark: rounded divots from years of foot traffic hollow the stone stairs leading to the indoor track above the basketball courts.
The earliest reference to the gymnasium is a letter dated Dec. 17, 1913 from A.F. Woods, dean of the agriculture department, to University President George Vincent. Woods informed Vincent he had received the building plans from the architect, Clarence Johnston, and requested funding for the building to begin.
When work began in the spring of 1914, Johnston and Woods were optimistic that the building could be completed by winter. But problems delayed completion.
Initial plans called for the gymnasium to be constructed 50 feet closer to campus instead of on Cleveland Avenue. The topographical maps made by the University’s agricultural engineers were incorrect and delayed excavation for the building’s foundation, as the engineers and Johnston argued where the building should sit.
Problems persisted even after the location was settled. On Nov. 16, 1914, workers with the S.J. Groves and Sons excavation company got too close to the gymnasium as they dug for gravel, causing a wall to collapse.
Cameron and Co., who were building the gymnasium, had to repair the wall at a cost of $104.50. It took six months to resolve the dispute between the two companies.
There were other hitches as well. In an effort to save money, University officials did not want to install a chlorination and filtration system in the three-lane pool that was under construction by the mid-1915. The building superintendent, A.M. Bull, wrote a letter to Woods, advising him that constructing the pool without such a system would cost more money in the long run and would pose a serious health risk for people using it.
On July 21, 1915, George Hayes, the University’s comptroller, approved the extra appropriation of approximately $1,000 to have the filtration system installed.
The gymnasium opened later that year and included areas for “apparatus training,” an indoor track above the gymnasium’s basketball court, a pool and locker rooms for both men and women.
It is the University’s oldest athletic facility still standing, with the exception of the women’s gym built in 1914 and later named after J. Anna Norris, a doctor and professor who advocated women’s athletics and recreational sports. Norris lobbied the Board of Regents to build a gymnasium for the University’s women, since the Armory provided a place for men.
The St. Paul Gymnasium, however, was the first recreational building constructed for co-educational use.
While the facility was welcomed by students and faculty, not everyone approved of men and women sharing the gym. An article in the November issue of the Minnesota Farm Review, announced the gym’s opening with this conventional opinion:
“The new gymnasium for the department of agriculture students, which has just been completed, is a fine building for the purpose for which it was erected. The fact that it must be made to serve for both the men and the women of the department is, of course, objectionable, but the building has been so arranged as to minimize this objection.”
The controversy lasted for decades. When Alvin Weber, a veterinary anatomy professor, went to the gym to exercise the day he started teaching in 1949, he was fine with sharing the facilities with women. But the locker room entrances were not well-marked.
When he entered the gym through the doors on the east side of the building, Weber found a bra laying on the bench.
“I decided it was time to look for another door,” Weber said.
A bigger, better pool
The new pool of the St. Paul Gymnasium, housed in a bright sunny room, is more than twice the size of its predecessor which occupied a dank, windowless room in the basement of the gym.
The old shallow pool, which was three lanes wide, measured 28 feet by 60 feet. While the new pool does not have a diving well, it is eight feet deep at the center and is 75 feet long and approximately 40 feet wide.
But while the old pool was small, it played an important role in the early days of the gym.
Early on, the St. Paul Gymnasium also began to serve non-University people as well. On May 10, 1929, W.C. Coffey, dean of the College of Agriculture, received a letter from Lucile Stoffer, the executive secretary of the American Red Cross. Stoffer asked Coffey to allow the Red Cross to use the pool to teach children and adults how to swim, assuring him that the lessons would be free.
Stoffer wrote, “As you undoubtedly know there is no fee charged by the Red Cross as we are anxious to teach the greatest number of people how to swim and how to save lives.”
But the public soon outgrew the tiny dimensions of the old pool. For Weber, whose wife used the old pool, the new pool is a welcome change.
“Maybe with the bigger size we won’t get circling disease,” Weber chuckled, explaining that the pool’s shorter distance required swimmers to turn at the walls more frequently.
Emphasizing the new and preserving the old
For Jeff Olson, moving the old clock and scoreboard with the numbers “1917,” from the basketball court to the new addition symbolizes the marriage of the gym’s history with its future.
Although the numbers may be incorrect, 1917 marks the year gym managers thought the gym opened.
“It’s neat to see the face of the old wall and realize the parking lot used to be here,” Olson said, standing in the hallway across from the four new racquetball courts. Olson is the gym’s public relations assistant and a senior studying journalism.
The St. Paul Gymnasium’s renovation began as part of the 1987 Recreational Sports Facilities project, which included the construction of the University Aquatic Center in 1990 and the University Recreation Center in 1993.
In 1990, the gym was partially renovated to include an elevator; the two old racquetball courts were converted into office space, but because of funding problems, the rest of the renovations, including the pool, had to wait until 1997.
The mat room, aerobics studio and running track on the gym’s top floor have not changed. Neither have the basketball court on the second floor, nor the fitness room below the gym.
The new locker rooms extend over the site of the old pool on the bottom floor of the gym’s north side. Just beyond the new locker rooms, which have more showers and lockers, lies the new eight lane pool.
The addition, with the pool and the rock climbing wall that overlooks it, form an upside down L along the gym’s north and west sides.
Olson said the remodeled gym emphasizes the new facilities while preserving the old structure, which is the only building on the St. Paul campus cited for historic preservation in the University’s master plan.
As the only campus facility with a rock climbing wall, Tony Brown, the gym’s program director, said he hopes the renovated gym will attract new users, including students and faculty.
Olson said the gymnasium will also be open for its neighbors to rent for birthday parties and for those who want to learn how to rock climb. The gym will also have fitness programs for both University and non-University users, such as water aerobics and group cycling.