Continuing Up the Hill: the Rensselaer Student’s Association Clubhouse

In 1906 a committee of Rensselaer graduates met in New York City for the purpose of organizing a Rensselaer Student’s Association. During the first decade of the 20th century the majority of the Institute’s 485 students resided off-campus in Troy rooming houses and the intention of the alumni was to create a club that served as a central on-campus meeting place for all students, where all would be welcome without regard to fraternity or other affiliation. To quote the December 12, 1906 edition of The Polytechnic: “The object of the association is to establish a true democracy in the student body, to develop loyalty to the Institute, and in every way to cultivate the Rensselaer spirit. In a word, to make college life a reality at Troy.”

The committee of graduates began by raising money to pay the salary of a secretary of the association. They also attempted to collect money for a clubhouse, but only $3,600 was donated. In the meantime the Rensselaer trustees authorized $10,000 for the clubhouse which was completed in 1908 at a cost of $19,000, of which the Trustees ended up contributing $15,500.

Interior of Student Clubhouse

The following description of the new building appeared in the June 10, 1907 edition of The Polytechnic: “The students’ clubhouse of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will be located on the east side of the campus, adjacent to the athletic field. It will be of the colonial style of architecture and seventy feet in length by thirty-five feet in breadth. The basement will contain the hot water boiler for shower baths, with room for lockers if necessary. The first floor will contain a locker room, shower baths, toilets, and office for the secretary and a billiard room. The second floor will have a dining room, kitchen and main lounging room. The lounging room will be about 50 by 35 feet in size, and by means of accordion doors the dining room may be thrown into connection with it so that an apartment seventy feet long will result. Student’s receptions and dances may be held in this room. The third floor contains sleeping rooms for the secretary of the association and servants.”

View looking west across the ’86 Field

Situated at the west end of the ’86 athletic field, the club house served as the headquarters of all student extra-curriculum activities until it was razed in 1932 and replaced by a new Rensselaer Union building, the present day Lally Hall.

In April 1908 the Rensselaer Student’s Association combined with the RPI Union (founded in 1890 for the purpose of encouraging and promoting athletics and other student activities) to form the Rensselaer Union.

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Once a No Name, Twice a Winner

Sixty years ago, NASA was formed, the microchip was invented, Ella Fitzgerald was on the radio, and four men from RPI won the National Handball Championship in Chicago, Illinois. That’s right! Mike McQuillen, Harvey Poppell, Jerry Gonick, and Fernando Arias, under the guidance of RPI’s Athletic Director, “Pop” Graham, won the National Cup in handball, a sport that the team, besides Gonick, had never played until freshman year of college.

Up until 1958, Rensselaer was a relative no name in the sport. The big players in the national handball championship were schools that are still prevalent in college sports today, names like the University of Texas and Notre Dame. Texas had won the previous three years, but in fact, it was RPI that had actually tied with Notre Dame in the championship. It was suggested that each team hold the trophy for six months, but Notre Dame insisted on a rematch, and it was Mike McQuillen who won the bout, 31-14. When interviewed by The Rensselaer Polytechnic, McQuillen remarked, “We hoped to be up among the leaders but never expected to capture any title.”

A year later, in 1959, RPI stunned again, winning the national championship for a second time in a row, this time in Houston, Texas. Veterans Harvey Poppell and Fernando Arias returned, with the team being rounded out by newcomers Cal Mittman and Charlie Goldberg. This time, they managed to beat the University of Texas for first place. Unfortunately, that would be the last time RPI won the national handball title, but they certainly put on a show, with Arias helping to take the title with a 21-12 win in the finals.

Handball is not competitively played at the Institute today, but it has a long history at RPI. Though there is limited information on the sport at Rensselaer, handball is first mentioned in a 1911 Rensselaer Polytechnic article, stating that the then new ’87 gym was equipped for handball play. A decade later, in 1921, the official interclass handball league was established at the institute. However, it was the interfraternity play for the Barker Trophy (more on that in an upcoming post) that helped to spawn intramural, as well as intercollegiate, handball tournaments. These lasted at the school until 1980, when the sport was replaced by racquetball for the Barker Trophy.

There was a brief pause of play in the fall semester of 1943, due to “lack of population,” as most men were helping to contribute to the war effort, but interestingly, handball contests were held for Naval Aviation cadets on campus. According to an article in the February 9th, 1942 Rensselaer Polytechnic, handball, among other sports, helped “instill…the competitive spirit so necessary in combat duty.”

Throughout the years, there were many attempts to get handball recognized as a varsity sport, but sadly, that would never come to fruition. Instead, it remained an “approved organization,” meaning that, though there were competitions and awards, and it got its budget from the Union, it was never recognized as an RPI varsity sport. Therefore, players never received RPI sports recognitions or achievements. Instead, students played out of the pure love they had for the game.

Towards the late 1970’s, the interest in handball was waning, and the Executive Board decided not to pay for upgrades to the handball courts. Though there were students who still practiced the sport, by the 1980’s, competitive handball had all but tapered out at RPI.

Today, in places such as the Bronx and Brooklyn, there seems to be a cultural renaissance happening in handball popularity. It’s estimated that there are 2,300 public handball courts in New York City’s five boroughs, and competitions and tournaments are still played across the country, in various cities and colleges. Do you think competitive handball will ever make a return to RPI? Leave a comment below!

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More Tidbits: A Tibbits Avenue Mystery

In my July 25 post about an RPI/Troy souvenir spoon, I mentioned the jeweler F. W. Sim & Co.  This was a local firm headed by Frederic W. Sim of Troy.  That was enough information for my purposes – that is, until I happened upon another connection between Mr. Sim and RPI.

Searching for information about the RPI spoon in Rensselaer Digital Collections, I discovered a 1936 article that mentioned Mr. Sim in the student newspaper.  It noted that the former Sim residence “on a hill out Tibbits Avenue” had been purchased as a home for RPI’s president.  Since the current president’s house is on Tibbits, I was curious to see if it was the same property.  I consulted our Rensselaer Building Histories page and discovered it was not the same site.

I found that the president lived on “Upper Tibbits” from 1936 to 1943 in a building that later became Alpha Tau Omega’s fraternity house in the 1950s.  Still later it was acquired by Acacia.  But Acacia is located on Sunset Terrace.  So… where was the house on Tibbits?

At that point I decided to visit my other favorite local repository, the Rensselaer County Historical Society!  I consulted a plethora of fire insurance maps.  Nothing useful showed up, in fact Sunset Terrace wasn’t even on the map.  Now what?  At that point the RCHS volunteer who had been assisting me suggested we consult Kathy Sheehan.  Kathy is the historian for both Rensselaer County and the City of Troy, and she grew up near Tibbits Avenue.  Voila!  What we couldn’t find in records was readily available in her brain.

It turns out the Sims property was a large estate on a private lane that intersected with Tibbits, and that lane is now called Sunset Terrace.  So, the building currently occupied by Acacia fraternity was formerly the Sim property, and later the RPI president’s house.  Mystery solved!

Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house.

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A Spoonful of Fun!

I recently posted about a souvenir spoon held by the Institute Archives and Special Collections department at RPI.  Well, it’s not the only one!  The first one was produced at the very beginning of a spoon collecting craze in the gay nineties (1890s, that is).  The other one in our collection dates from 1914.

RPI silver spoon, 1914

This spoon is different from its predecessor in many ways.  First and foremost, this one features an engraving of the Carnegie Building inside the bowl, while the earlier spoon represented RPI with a transit level on the handle.  The newer one is also customized with engravings on the front and back of the handle.  The front bears the letters “A.E.G.” while “Xmas 1914” is on the reverse.

Engravings on an RPI spoon, 1914I had hoped to identify A.E.G., but I can find nothing to connect this handsome artifact to a specific person.  Lack of provenance – the chain of ownership of an item or collection – is one of the down sides of acquiring materials through vendors.  Objects like silver spoons are likely to have changed hands several times before they end up in the archives, limiting our ability to trace their origins.  Nevertheless I’m pleased to have not one but two RPI silver spoons in our collection!

Carnegie Building engraving on an RPI spoon, 1914

Addendum1890s RPI Spoon (courtesy of Ken Breitkreuz)

When I posted a photograph of an RPI spoon from the 1890s, I kind of hoped someone else would recognize the design and contact me.  As Ken Breitkreuz’s comment to that post indicates, he does in fact have a souvenir spoon similar to the one in the archives collection.  Ken (RPI Class of 1988) was kind enough to share a photograph of his spoon, which bears the same markings on the handle as the one held by the Institute Archives.

However, Ken’s spoon has one major difference from the one I wrote about.  His version has a traditional oval bowl instead of the scalloped shape of ours.

Thanks, Ken, for allowing me to share this image of an RPI relic with our readers!

 

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A Silver Spoon at RPI

RPI’s Institute Archives and Special Collections department has a lot of cool things that you might not expect to find among our rare books, manuscripts, and Institute records.  We also have a variety of artifacts, some of which are well over a century old.  Our most recent acquisition in this category is a sterling silver spoon dating from the 1890s.

RPI silver spoon, circa 1891

This item came to us via ebay, and I’m particularly fond of its design.  I happen to love sterling, but this spoon is special more for what it represents than the material it’s made of.  The top of the handle depicts a transit level, the same item for which our (now defunct) yearbook was named.  Transits long represented Rensselaer due to the school’s strong association with civil engineering.

Below the transit, “RPI” and Troy” appear in a funky, flowing script, with decorative elements along the border.  The back of the handle provides useful information about the spoon’s origins.  It’s marked “STERLING” – no surprise.  “PAT-D88” indicates it was patented, although it isn’t clear what the 88 signifies.  It’s probably not the patent date.  The souvenir spoon craze in the U.S. didn’t begin until 1889 after a spoon with the likeness of George Washington was first produced. (There’s an excellent article about souvenir silver spoon collecting by PBS’s History Detectives which is readily available online.)

“F. W. Sim & Co.” also appears on the back of the handle.  This was a jeweler operating at 246 River Street, Troy, which I also discovered in a web search.  Even better, I found a series of Sim & Co. ads in RPI’s student newspaper, The Rensselaer Polytechnic.  The first ad appeared on April 4, 1890 and promoted the usual array of jewelry store products.  The following year a cryptic question was posted under the heading Polyisms:  “Have you sent her an R.P.I. spoon?” (March 21, 1891, p.151).  A few pages later, a quote from the Troy Times clarifies things:

The Rensselaer Polytechnic, March 21, 1893 (p. 155)

It isn’t clear if this spoon was ever a big hit, but the Poly carried ads for F. W. Sim’s souvenir spoons throughout the 1892-93 school year.  By the fall of 1893 the company returned to more generic jewelry advertisements, perhaps marking the demise of the RPI/Troy silver spoon.

F. W. Sim & Co. ads in the Polytechnic, June 22 and September 30, 1893

A Challenge…

While I was able to find out a lot about this antique spoon, one question has me stumped.  Why does the bowl have an indentation on each side?  Is this some unique piece of Victorian silverware?  Or are the indents just another flourish indicating that the spoon is a decorative object rather than an eating utensil?  If you know the answer (or would care to venture a guess) I’d love to hear from you!

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