125 Years of the Rensselaer Union

R.P.I. Union graphic, Transit 1898The students formed the R.P.I. Union in the fall of 1890 stemming from a desire to be taken more seriously for their athletic endeavors, to be more competitive with rival colleges, and to create social ties with Troy citizens (The Poly Dec. 20, 1890). At this time, the first President of the Union, W.C.H. Slagle, was elected as well. Though never explicitly mentioned in the historical record, evidence suggests students used their Gymnasium (built in 1887), then located at the foot of the Approach, as a space for union activities such as dances.

Rensselaer Union Clubhouse (background) Grand Marshal elections, circa 1915The first official home for the Rensselaer Union was a student clubhouse built in 1908. The Clubhouse was located at the west end of the ’86 Field. This new building boasted a lounge for receptions, meetings and dances. It was also equipped with lockers, showers, billiards, toilets, a dining room, and a kitchen. The Union’s clubhouse and its surrounding environment were alive with student life and activities, in particular Grand Marshal events, of which the Union was in charge.

Union flyer, 1956In 1932, a new clubhouse was dedicated and the old one was torn down. The new building offered a lounge on the 1st floor, card and game rooms on the 2nd floor, and a ballroom on the 3rd floor. By the 1950’s however, the student body had grown to such an extent the building was overflowing with students vying for space. As early as 1956 students were eager for a new, larger building. They approached Union Director Frank McNeil and asked about the possibility of better accommodations. In 1959 a committee was formed to study the feasibility. For the next five years a series of reports was written to analyze the need for more space. General consensus was that a new building needed to accommodate a plethora of student activities as well as become “the living room of the Institute” – a place for the entire Rensselaer community.

Hair Salon, Rensselaer Union, Transit 1973The Rensselaer Union building was completed in 1967 on the corner of 15th Street and Sage Avenue. This new building was constructed with a growing and diverse campus population in mind. Ample space to accommodate the needs of the entire campus community were addressed and anticipated in ways never before seen with meeting rooms, offices, dining services, a plethora of social spaces, places to lounge, a campus bookstore, a bank, a hair salon, and much more.

Today, the Rensselaer Union is a thriving hub of campus life and far from just a building. The Union sponsors club activities, campus-wide programming, performing arts and fitness opportunities for all Rensselaer students, faculty and staff. Additional documentation regarding the history of the Union can be found in the Shelnutt Gallery of the Rensselaer Union and the main floor of Folsom Library.

Posted in Building History, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute History, Rensselaer Union, Student Life | Leave a comment

Poly to the People

In January 2014 I announced that back issues of the Rensselaer Polytechnic were available online. There was a hitch, though. For copyright reasons, off-campus access to issues published after 1977 was limited to current members of the Rensselaer community. That left out alumni, who don’t have Rensselaer Computing System (RCS) login credentials. But at long last RPI alums can see the online collection in its entirety, thanks to our intrepid Systems Administrator, George Biggar, RPI ’77.

To remedy the situation, George collaborated with Alumni Relations staff to get their authentication system to work with Rensselaer Digital Collections. Alumni can now login using their Rensselaer Alumni Association (RAA) username and password. After extensive testing, the login system is ready for prime time, giving alumni access to the Poly through April 2001. I’m still working on adding issues after that date, so stay tuned!

For details on logging in, please click here.

Poly clipping, 1985

Clipping regarding the impact of technology on newspapers. This piece was written by Otto Kumbar and Bill Goin on the occasion of the Poly’s 100th anniversary of continuous publication (The Rensselaer Polytechnic, v. 105, no. 20, p.13, February 20, 1985).

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The 85th Commencement: Class of 1915

Class of 1915In our efforts to bridge the gap between the past and present, we share with the Class of 2015 a look back 100 years to Wednesday, June 16, 1915, when Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduated 87 men, one of the largest classes on record at that time for the Institute.

A grand affair, the 85th Commencement took place in the ‘87 Gym. Hiram F. Mills ’56, a renowned Hydraulic Engineer was the commencement speaker. Mills was connected with many important water supply and sanitation projects. The commencement program included the William Tell overture by Gioacchino Rossini, Conferring of Candidates and Degrees, the singing of “Old Rensselaer,” Benediction given by Rev. Dacey, and a finale of “Alla La Polacca De La” Serenade.

"Ricketts Convicts" 1915In keeping with tradition at the time, the students and alumni held a pageant which formed at The Approach with the present GM, John W. Howard and former GM Glenn W. Tisdale, along with several others. All were mounted on horseback and led the procession in white trousers and red sashes. Nollers Band followed, and then came the New York Alumni after which several earlier classes followed in automobiles and “grotesque costumes.” Several floats were included to highlight clubs and shenanigans. For example, the Scholarship Club, the Social Outcasts, and “the toads” were among the many. Upon arrival to campus up the hill,"the toads" the procession was met with a circus and mock bear hunt by students of the Rifle Club. Then, a pushball game ensued between the classes of ’05 and ’07. At the conclusion of the pageant, President Palmer C. Ricketts awarded “the silver loving cup” to the class who made the best appearance. He chose the Class of 1917, who endearingly called themselves “Ricketts’ Convicts.” To read the full account of the Pageant of 1915 and enjoy the many photos please continue here.

Class of 1915 SealA shining star among the Class of 1915 requires mention here. Emil Praeger from Brooklyn, NY, born in 1882, entered the Institute and gained recognition as the “tall and handsome athlete.” His classmates describe “all fair hearts in Troy were in a flutter” when “Praeg” entered the “Tute.” Praeger’s professional legacy was so significant that he is now in the RPI Alumni Hall of Fame. Among his many accomplishments, he is remembered for designing the Tappan Zee Bridge which spans the Hudson River at Tarrytown, NY. In WWII, Praeger went to Washington as design manager of the Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks and was commissioned a Commander and later Captain.

With this we bid the Class of 2015 a fond farewell, we wish you the best success, and we hope your legacy makes it into the Archives as well!

Posted in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

A Symbol of the Office: GM 1884

Top hat logoIt’s no secret that the Grand Marshal is symbolized by a top hat – the GM even writes a column by that title in the Polytechnic. But other symbols of the office are less well known, such as the cane presented to 19th century GMs at the end of their terms (see amythearchivist’s post, “a walking status symbol,” July 28, 2009).

I recently learned of a very different symbol of the highest student office at RPI through an unexpected source – ebay.

We have a standing search for all things RPI in ebay, and I check the results daily. There’s usually a mix of RPI clothing, old postcards, Math & Science medals, out of date Institute publications, etc. Online auctions have helped us fill several gaps in our collections, and it’s kind of a fun way to spend a few minutes of my day. Occasionally I find something really different, as I did a few weeks ago.

GM pin     GM pin

On March 19th a gold and enamel bar pin showed up among the new ebay lots. With the letters “GM” between “R.P.I.” and “1884” it certainly looked authentic, but the clincher was the inscription on the back: “William A. Aycrigg.” Not only did William serve as GM in 1884, but he also kept scrapbooks documenting his activities as a student. Three of them, containing programs, calling cards, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia, are in the Institute Archives (MC 45). The volumes have been painstakingly indexed, so it was easy to identify pages that might shed light on the pin.

GM Committee reportVoilà! An 1883 Grand Marshal Committee financial report includes a receipt listing a variety of expenses, including $20.00 for two GM pins. It’s not clear why two were ordered, but at $10.00 each they were quite costly for the time.

Transit, 1884At this point I knew I wanted the pin for our artifact collection, and I placed a bid. While waiting for the auction to end I dug into a few more sources. The Polytechnic wasn’t published in 1883 or 1884, but the June 1885 and 1886 issues both mention presenting newly elected GMs with a pin. And while I can’t prove when this tradition started (or ended), the shape of the pin hints at a fairly early adoption. The Transit usually included a list of former Grand Marshals, and as early as 1874 the GM page included an engraving that matches the shape of the pin! Since the engraving only appears on GM pages it’s clear that form was a symbol of the office of the Grand Marshal for many years.

My last, and most edifying, discovery was a photo of William as a student. I didn’t immediately notice the pin on the vest of his suit, but there it was – next to his Chi Phi fraternity pin! Clearly these would have been two of the most significant emblems of his associations as an RPI student. I’m happy to report that my bid was successful and the Archives now owns this interesting piece of Rensselaer history… just in time for GM Week 2015!

William A. Aycrigg  William A. Aycrigg (detail)

Posted in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute History, Student Life | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Continuing Up the Hill: College Pond

In our last “Continuing up the Hill” post we described the acquisition of the Warren property in 1905 following the fire which destroyed the Main Building. Along with a house and stable, the property contained 10.5 acres. During the next two years the Institute purchased more land. A small 0.81 acre parcel was purchased from the Troy Hospital (the present West Hall) and 1.41 acres in two parcels from the Warren and Tibbits estates. These two parcels were the first Institute properties to border on Fifteenth Street. In 1907 a 10.6 acre parcel was purchased from St. Joseph’s Seminary, whose main building occupied the present site of Folsom Library. Added to the 1.7 acres purchased with the Rankin house in 1877, the Institute now owned 25 acres east of Eighth Street.

The property was very irregular in surface. An east-west ravine ran through it and there was a stream and pond of considerable size called College Pond. The pond was located at the northeast edge of what is now the ‘86 Field and extended north to the top of the ravine. The pond was filled in 1907-08 with clay from a large hill at the east end of the athletic field. In 1908 a street called Avenue B (now Sage Avenue) was cut through the ravine from Ninth to Fifteenth Streets, a continuation of Federal Street. The street cut through part of what had been College Pond.

City of Troy and Vicinity, Weise and Bardin, 1876We have been unable to locate any photographs of College Pond, but we do have two images, both from maps. The first, compiled by Weise & Bardin of Troy in 1876, shows the pond east of the Troy Hospital (current West Hall). The pond’s eastern edge is abutting Thirteenth Street. We think this section of Thirteenth Street was a figment of the cartographers’ imagination. There is no evidence the street crossed the ravine and cut south through what became the Rensselaer campus. (Thirteenth Street is interrupted at Peoples Avenue directly opposite the entrance to the North Parking Lot and then continues south of College Avenue.) The map also shows a stream at the east side of the pond.

Troy, N.Y., 1881 by Beck & Pauli. Courtesy of Library of CongressThe second image of the pond is from a wonderful 1881 panoramic map of Troy from the Library of Congress (follow link above to view the entire map of Troy). The map clearly shows the triangular shaped pond and the ravine to the east of the Troy Hospital and notably shows no streets crossing the area between Eighth Street and Burdett Avenue.

Posted in Building History, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute History, Troy NY | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Spirit Day 2015: Mystery Gear

This Friday is RPI’s 4th annual Spirit Day, in which member’s of the Rensselaer community are encouraged to show their pride by wearing or displaying RPI gear.

We consider spirit everyday here in the Archives where it pervades the memorabilia collections that we house. We have certain items because they say Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute but we don’t know who owned them, wore them, or touched them. We simply know that at some point in history certain items had particular significance to someone!

Since we can’t wear our gear to show Spirit, maybe you can infuse some into these items by telling us if you’ve ever seen them before, and when or why?


Posted in Mystery, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute History, RPI Trivia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Mystery Image #36

During Rensselaer’s recent Family Weekend, the Institute Archives held a “show & tell” for campus visitors.  We displayed an assortment of items documenting the student experience at Rensselaer, focusing on the changing campus landscape, housing over the years, Grand Marshall history and activities, and RPI hockey.

We didn’t know what to expect, but Jen and I were pleased when several families (and a few students) dropped by throughout the day.  Some came to see what we have, others had questions for us.  Since we’re in the business of helping people find answers to their pressing historical queries, that was a welcome aspect of our day.

One family, however, caught us off-guard when they asked about something they had observed near the Darrin Communication Center.  They brought in a photo of an object they thought might be either a piece of modern sculpture or construction debris, and wondered if the archives could shed light on the mystery.  Now that’s a question!

I’ve looked through photos and contacted other people on campus to try to identify this object, all to no avail.  I’m hoping some observant reader will recognize the item pictured below and shed light on our latest mystery image… or should I say – mystery object?

Can you identify the concrete object near the center of this photo?

Can you identify the concrete object near the center of this photo?

Posted in unidentified photographs | Tagged | 6 Comments

Happy Birthday SVR

NStephen Van Rensselaer IIIovember 1 is the 250th anniversary of Stephen Van Rensselaer’s birthday. Fifth in direct descent from Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, the first Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764-1839) inherited a vast landed estate in Rensselaer and Albany counties at age 5.

He graduated from Harvard and spent time in state government and as a member of the U.S. Congress (1822-29). His chief services to the state, however, were economic and educational. Van Rensselaer was a member of the Erie Canal commissions and president of the state’s first board of agriculture. He was a lenient landlord for 3,000 tenants. He was founder and supporter of a wide variety of social, educational, business, and governmental institutions.

Stephen Van Rensselaer IIIIn 1824 it was his vision and support that enabled Amos Eaton to establish the Rensselaer School “for the purpose of instructing persons, who may choose to apply themselves, in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”

Van Rensselaer died on January 26, 1839 at the age of 74. He is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Panama Canal Centennial: American Success

Nicaraguan Stamp, 1900Political Strategy  In 1900 the United States was planning for a Nicaraguan canal. Meanwhile, the French were desperate to sell their Panama Canal Zone rights to the U.S. for $109,000,000. The U.S deemed the price too high and continued with their decision for a Nicaraguan canal. Supposedly, just prior to the U.S. House ruling in favor of a Nicaraguan Canal, French lobbyist named Phillipe Bunua-Varilla mailed a Nicaraguan stamp depicting the eruption of Momotombo volcano spewing lava and smoke to each undecided U.S. senator. The House ruled in favor of Panama. The French offered the zone, and all rights and equipment for $40,000,000. The U.S. accepted the offer.

Colombia immediately created obstacles for the U.S. therefore the first order of business was to back Panama in becoming its own nation. President Theodore Roosevelt seized the opportunity to support a Panamanian revolt. Colombia, discouraged by the arrival of the U.S. warship Nashville, withdrew forces and within 24 hours Panama declared independence without any bloodshed. On November 3, 1903 the U.S. recognized the new nation and three days later Panama’s ambassador granted full control of the Canal Zone to the U.S. Continue reading

Posted in Rensselaer Engineers | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Panama Canal Centennial: The French Debacle

The construction of the Panama Canal begins with the French. In 1875, while the United States was conducting surveys across Mexico and Nicaragua, trying to find the right canal route, France became very active and ambitious, eager to make their mark. The French spirit had been so greatly aroused by Ferdinand de Lesseps’s completion of the Suez Canal in 1869, that France decided to take the lead and attempt to conquer the Isthmus of Panama. Again, RPI Engineers were involved, in varying capacities.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, circa 1881Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French diplomat. During his early career he was posted to Tunisia and Egypt. In 1854 Said Pasha of Egypt gave de Lesseps permission to build the Suez Canal. De Lesseps’s scheme was backed by an international commission of engineers with financial support from the French emperor Napoleon III and others. The Suez Canal opened in November 1869.

The Geographical Society of Paris organized a committee in 1876 entitled Congres International d’Etudes du Canal Interoceanic seeking international cooperation for the purpose of building an inter-oceanic canal through Panama. Having gained fame for his Suez endeavors, de Lesseps desired to repeat his success in Panama. Being a national hero, he was asked to lead the Congres and make a canal in Panama come to fruition. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments