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Rearview Mirror: Campus Recreation Center

In honor of an historic US Open, it’s an appropriate time to take a look at one of the more famously famous buildings on campus.

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Original plan for the Olympic aquatic facilities.
Georgia Tech Archives/Facilities Department Photographs and Slides (

For those of you who follow either esoteric, interesting campus happenings at Georgia Tech or are invested in off-Olympic-year swimming, the events at McAuley Aquatic Center this past weekend was of particular interest to you - for the record, I am both, shockingly, I know. With the 2019 Toyota US Open National Championships in Atlanta, I figured it made sense for me to be there live to cover it. However, there’s not a whole ton of Tech action outside of prelims - except, of course, Caio Pumputis - so I decided I’d take a look around and see what I could find about perhaps the best-trafficked former 1996 Olympic Games facility.

NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, I currently serve as an advisor for the CRC, but I’m not sure why that would effect what I have to say here all that much. But it’s probably worth making known.

It’s rather convenient, actually, that this column is being written in association with the US Open. Yes, sure, I feel the need to justify myself as a media type around the sporting aspect, but, in another sense, it’s also apt simply because, at the most basic level, they updated the little display in the front of the building not just to keep it in line with the freshest branding standards, but also to emphasize some of the core pillars of the history of the facility. So that was timely. But, I’m not here to spit back to you what a poster says, it’s more appropriate to keep digging. This would mean going past the opening of the CRC, originally the Student Activity Center II, past the Olympics, and past even the first edition of the SAC.

I suppose a logical place to start would be with the Old Heisman Gymnasium. For the readers and Commentariat of this fair site who predate the start of Rearview Mirror, it was almost exactly two years ago to the day that I wrote my first history feature for the site, a meandering look back at of some former Georgia Tech basketball facilities. Notable takeaways from this include mention of the old Works Progress Administration brick building, as well as something I had forgotten about but remain passionate about - we need to name something after John Heisman again. But, though it would make sense, I don’t think that’s the best place to start, either. For the proper context, let’s flash back to Tech in 1888 under its first president, Rev. Isaac Hopkins.

Hopkins’ first letter to the newly accepted student body that summer was telling. Seeing as the campus only had two buildings, the facilities for housing, feeding, and occupying said students outside of class were, well, nonexistent. In his letter, the president publicly extolled the many boarding options - some more affordable than others - with local families who could provide them four walls, a roof, and a couple square meals. There were a couple key factors at play here. Tech wasn’t getting any funding from the state, despite being a public school. As we’ve seen many times in the past, Tech would have to turn to private donors far more than a school of its nature should be forced to do. The active interests in the very legislature that created it were also smothering it from becoming anything more than a withering, struggling single major trade school, far from the engineering and industrial powerhouse its visionaries intended it to be. Thus, what little funding there was went to classes, shops, and faculty. There was nothing left for a dormitory or dining hall, let alone student center or recreation. College, in general, too, was a very different kind of experience back then, especially at Georgia Tech. Privately, the fair reverend believed that extracurriculars were a detrimental distraction. On top of that, the initial curriculum called for students to spend half of their day in class and the other half in the shops. Sure, the shop was a great way to learn the hands-on skills that being a successful engineer requires - something it seemed other schools lacked, in a debate that continues both on campus well into the future and in engineering education in general today - but it was also seen as a way to manufacture useful goods to sell to keep the school doors open. Money was tight, as noted. So was time.

It was somewhat miraculous, then, when Hopkins decided to permit a motley band of boys to form the first Georgia Tech football team. By then, the school was already changing, anyways. The shops had not only not made all that much money while diluting the instructional time, but they had also burned down, and Tech was forced to shoestring a budget to replace them outside the damage payments. Gifts from donors like James Swann eventually led to dorms, and, in the case of the Knowles Dormitory in 1897, a dining hall and a student gymnasium.

Of course, despite later being a begrudging but powerful supporter of hiring John Heisman, recreational life was hardly any easier under the militaristic reign of President Lyman Hall. He also saw it as a waste of time, and preferred a strong, orderly campus culture complete with strong punishments for, say, breaking curfew. The Knowles Dormitory would stand until roughly its 95th birthday, long past the end of its tenure as housing, when it was replaced with portions of the Bill Moore Student Success Center, also known as the stadium skybox and press entrance, one of the first modern examples of its kind, incorporating everyday usage into stadium facilities.

With the next turn into recreation liable to take a turn into the already mentioned odd, meandering story of early Georgia Tech basketball, often double-billed with a school dance at its various homes around the city or on campus - the Crystal Palace, Temporary Gym, and the Armory - it becomes necessary to jump back to the Old Heisman Gym. While the Hesiman Gym was notable for several varsity reasons - for example, its cozy 1,800 seats were less than that of the 2,500 seat Temporary Gym, it was the site of the first televised basketball game in the region - often wired directly next door into the Armory so non-students and non-faculty who weren’t allowed to see games live could follow along, and it was the first home of Tech’s swim team - it’s for things like Drownproofing and hosting shows, events, and speakers that it was most relevant in the day-to-day lives of Tech students. The outdoor recreation - football, baseball, track - took place on Grant Field. The indoor recreation took place immediately past it on the north side. And thus the students of Georgia Tech finally had a permanent, diverse, and adequately-sized facility to use for health and wellbeing by the middle of the 1930s.

This was all well and good for a while. Georgia Tech enrollment had actually decreased suddenly and unexpectedly a few years earlier when the School of Commerce had been yanked 80 miles up the road for fear of doubling up programs between the school in Athens and the Georgia School of Technology, but into the postwar era of the GI Bill, a push towards greater post-secondary education, and the growth of research and graduate programs, Tech’s student body swelled. Of course, as is tradition, the facilities could hardly handle them, and Tech had far more pressing needs than worrying about third tier problems like extracurriculars when the academic, research, and basic functional spaces like housing and dining were packed to the maximum. It certainly didn’t help that, though Athletics had been pushing for funding for new facilities, William Alexander, then the Athletic Director, was laser-focused on his magnum opus, no, not the 1928 Rose Bowl win that brought him a national championship and the rolling green space north of Fifth Street, but a Physical Training Fieldhouse that would take years and many iterations before debuting to the world after his death as the Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Though some physical education would take place at the new facility, extracurriculars and mandatory classes like drownproofing would have to make do with the Heisman Gym and the off-campus neighboring Rockefeller YMCA, now the Chip Roberts Alumni House. With growing student population, increasing expectations as to what a modern institute should provide to its students, and the ever-increasing ages of the facilities rendering them rather outmoded, once Tech’s immediate problems had been dealt with in the form of North Campus housing and new facilities like Van Leer for Electrical Engineering, the General Classroom (Skiles) Building, and Price Gilbert Library, it was high time to replace or supplement the older extracurricular facilities. With the AMC already assisting the Old Gym by the early 1960s, the Fred Wenn Student Center was first up, finishing construction in 1970. It was most notable athletically for being the original home of Outdoor Recreation at Georgia Tech, as well as for its 12 lane bowling alley. By the completion of the Student Center, finally institutionalizing many functions that had been off-campus at the YMCA since its inception, the first models of what would become the Callaway Student Athletic Complex were surfacing.

Allow me to take a quick aside on the significance of the Callaway name to Georgia Tech. It will likely get a full column some day, but the legacy of the Callaway family, its textile company, and its foundation cannot be understated. Whether you are an alumnus who spent semesters in the original North Campus housing, the Callaway Apartments, which fulfilled the least glamorous portion of an early iteration of the Tech Master Plan, or a mechanical engineer with research in the Fuller E. Callaway Jr. Manufacturing Research Center, you’ve been positively affected by their work. Whether you spent time working out in the SAC, have basketball tickets in the Callaway Club, spend football pregame on Callaway Plaza, or have ever wandered through the Arthur Edge Building, these facilities were funded by the generous keystone of the Foundation. And, of course, the Whiteheads, Woodruffs, Stewarts, Schellers, and Zelnaks - newsworthy at the moment, themselves - have all done a ton, too. Tech is a different place for all of their generosity.

The exact details of the history of the SAC are somewhat hard to find after it opened in 1977. Since it’s still living history, there are probably many of you out there that could steer me in the right direction. Things that are known, though, are that it included fitness, courts, an indoor pool, driving cages, and outdoor fields. I have seen nothing confirming nor denying this in my research, but I am told that the pool was 25 meters, rather than yards, and wasn’t terribly deep, so Drownproofing stayed at the Heisman Gym until it was discontinued. Logic would have it that the varsity swim team stayed there, too, since short course meters is non-standard in American swimming. In its first decade, the place was largely consistent, with only minor tweaks being made. In 1988, though, a larger 50 meter outdoor pool was added to the facility. This would go on to serve as the warm-up/warm-down pool for the Olympics. Though Atlanta, thanks in no small part to the technological prowess of Georgia Tech’s assistance, was awarded the 1996 Olympics around the time the outdoor pool was opened in 1990, construction did not begin on the aquatic behemoth until 1994. The main swimming and diving facility immediately to the west was accompanied by a temporary water polo stadium taking up the eastern portion of the recreational fields outdoors below the hill the SAC sat on. By the end of the first phase of the Olympic project, the SAC was showing its age, and Tech was stuck with a to-be-demolished water polo arena and a 14,000ish seat semioutdoor pool, and an outdated athletic complex.

It took five years to foment a plan for the pool, but the adaptive-reuse of the space began in earnest in 2001. Since the roof towered 120 feet above the deck of the state-of-the-art, 50 meter, 10 lane facility, it was proposed to float a prestressed concrete fourth floor into the building to host multipurpose courts, an indoor rink, and studio spaces, which would be encircled by a track on the fifth floor in the first stage of the re-imagination of the Olympic facility. A team room for varsity swimming was added under the Olympic rings on the new, largely bare west wall. The rest of the construction led to the ultimate destruction of the SAC, the addition of the Crawford Leisure Pool on the site of the former outdoor pool, complete with 6 25 yard practice lanes, an amorphous pool, a hot tub, sauna, and a waterslide, and the fitness floor and racquetball courts. The top third of the stadium seats were lost to the addition of the roof, but the full diving platform remained, while the bleacher seats on the south side succumbed to the addition of a parking deck. What was at the time the largest single piece of artificial turf in the world was installed out on the outdoor fields, and two sand volleyball courts eventually settled in what is known as Alumni Park across from the current home of Outdoor Recreation.

There are certain benefits to having what is assuredly one of the country’s nicest facilities, especially as it pertains to aquatics, right on campus. As a swimmer, I certainly appreciate that every day. Whether its getting to host fantastic events like the US Open, the Duel in the Pool, the Pro Series, or the NCAA National Championships, there’s at least one meet on the calendar every year with eye-popping prestige. Of course, it also means that there’s a huge demand for the facility. Practice lanes are hard to come by for aquatic sports, but also there’s plenty of teams clamoring for what precious little recreation space Tech has. There’s a reason that, say, building a varsity soccer, field hockey, or lacrosse stadium would be difficult - there’s not a lot of open land to host one. If there was, it would probably already house more opportunities for general students to exercise and compete.

There’s plenty of interesting things about the facilities we already have. Honestly, researching them and finding so much of the past of Tech extracurriculars shrouded in mystery and lost to the sands of history makes me even more curious. I know very few things about exact details of the CRC, SAC, and places like them. But I do know that some of Tech’s very finest organizations would not exist without them. The club sports that are the most important to follow for Yellow Jacket Roundup on Mondays like Hockey and Men’s and Women’s Lacrosse and Soccer exist not only because they scratch an itch of pent-up demand that this school and its fans have for watching hockey, lacrosse, and soccer, but also because the exploits of these oft-unsung students doing athletic things for little other reason than passion and the desire to represent something bigger than themselves are worth noting. That’s why we have extracurriculars in the first place, and, going farther back, why we have varsity college athletics, too. Extracurriculars, whether its Solar Racing, Bridge Club, Archery, Climbing, or hacking, well, anything bring kids together. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the building dedicated to fitness and sport of the everyman on campus, the Campus Recreation Center. And nearly nowhere else in this country can offer up a facility finer than the one we have.

Thus, I think the mundane historical notes - costs, etc. - are rather irrelevant. What matters is more the “newspaper clippings” of life. Sailing Club, ergo, would find the relevant parts of Tech’s granular recreational past highly relevant to them. For me, probably best self-labeled as the Pied Piper of Esoteric Tech Things, the year that matters most is 1995. In that year, among other new things on campus, the pool later known as McAuley Aquatic Center saw its first world record set. And, nearest and dearest to my heart, because of the advent of that new, beautiful pool, the Georgia Tech Swim Club was founded.

The significance of campus recreation, intramurals, and extracurriculars is inherently innate - a personal experience.

A special thanks to Dress Her in White and Gold, Engineering the New South, and the Georgia Tech Archives for the background information and images used in writing this column.

If you have any events or ideas you would like to see investigated, leave a comment below and I will be sure to look into adding it to the schedule. What is old is new again, or at least liable to be featured in the future. Thank you for reading this latest edition of From the Rumble Seat’s Rearview Mirror. To those that have suggested events post-1960s over the last year - I promise we will get there soon! They’re on the schedule!