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Rearview Mirror: New Institute Order

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Blake Van Leer, noted jokester.
Georgia Tech Archives/Georgia Tech Photograph Collection (“Van Leer, Blake,” Georgia Tech History Digital Portal, accessed March 7, 2019,

For ten years after his retirement, Marion Brittain still walked from the president’s house to his office, sat there, wrote his magnum opus, and worked the alumni channels. Blake Van Leer, his successor, meanwhile ran an institute - now with that name - from a new office, lived in a new house. Suffice it to say, the place looked quite different from his successor in the postwar world. And the problems he faced reflected that.

As much as the colonel in the president’s office could know the school he now ran was unprepared for the brave new postwar world, there really wasn’t much he could do to change it. The global conflict had taken much of Tech’s student body, as well as most of its faculty, in order to defeat the forces of evil in the Pacific and in Europe. However, the most pressing problem facing Georgia Tech wasn’t the lack of manpower, but rather the simple fact that, even before the war the school was already overcrowded. The war, in turn, halted all construction, and educators around the country knew they would be in for a boom in enrollment once the military came back from abroad.

Blake Van Leer faced many problems in his first year as president. The pre-war student body was around 3,000. This was expected to double. As always, the biggest obstacle to any of all was money, and Van Leer explicitly called out the Board of Regents in his initial report. He stated, “Tech has been penalized for its success and this must stop,” (Wallace, 224). Whereas other schools received up to 80% of their funding from the state, but Tech got just 38% from the legislature. The president suggested an equal percentage or equal per student allotment, but this was slow to come about. However, his worst fear never came to pass, as Tech did eventually surpass the million dollar per year mark.

Tech was rapidly taking steps to become a modern institution, and in those early years, implemented the school’s first set of by-laws. Though many dates could be said to be the birth of the modern research institute we now know, the establishment of written governance documentation is surely a key point. The days of having just one or two men with their hands firmly on the controls of the institute were dead. There would be no more years of Lyman Hall, alone at the top, as fundraiser-engineer-administrator in chief.

Cherry Emerson and Frank Groseclose became Dean of Engineering and head of industrial engineering in those days, notable among other additions as men who now have buildings named after them. Jesse Mason, head of Chemical Engineering and later Dean of Engineering, and also future namesake of a building, headed the committee in charge of Tech’s first master plan. Van Leer endeavored to advance academic planning as well, from teaching and research loads, salaries, and advancement of the physical plant through the master plan. Millions of dollars sat ready to build, but the wartime restrictions were still in place.

That initial master plan was a funny one, indeed, looking back. The campus was declared to be a roughly quarter-square mile plot from North to Tenth and Hemphill to Williams. The campus was to be bound by major streets, secluding it from Atlanta, but also connecting it via road to further parts of town. Additionally, all housing was to be on the east side of campus, all athletics and green space in the strip roughly paralleling Fowler Street, all class buildings would be centered on Cherry Street, and auxiliary structures would fall near today’s BioTech Quad. You’ll note that today, almost none of this is true - campus is much larger than 135 acres, and exceeds those boundaries in almost every direction, housing is fractured into three parts, the CRC is nowhere near Fowler Street, and campus classrooms stretch from West Peachtree and Fifth to Hemphill and Tenth.

Peculiarly, Tech also dropped the word science from “Bachelor of Science” in those days, which was apparently normal but sounds weird. The building plan was going nowhere fast after the war, and veterans were beginning to flood back on to campus. Housing them would zoom to the top of Tech’s priorities. Van Leer closed his second annual report stating, “Georgia Tech is prbably the truly unique institution in the United States in that it is privately supported but publicly controlled,” (230) a scathing criticism of a still-inept state. Despite Tech’s impetus to grow housing, the first project, for veterans and families, was located 12 miles from campus. This, however, was not new construction, but rather a purchase from Lawson General Hospital, and would be complemented by units on the Chamblee Naval Air Station as well. These facilities, purchased for under $30,000 of the school’s money, would later form the backbone of what was at its birth a new unit of Georgia Tech, Southern Poly, then called the Southern Technical Institute.

Tech’s most suspect building for quite some time, the Burge Apartments on North Avenue, followed the purchasing spree on the east side of Atlanta. Since dismantled and replaced with a parking lot, the Burge Apartments were deemed surplus when work was completed on the Tenth and Home development, which replaced some of the Callaway Apartments, a contemporary building to the Burge, on the north side. The most remarkable buildings, though, in this time, were the completion of the older sector of today’s east campus freshman housing with Glenn, Towers, and Smith dorms.

The completion of the also since-demolished Harrison Hightower Textile Engineering building and six temporary buildings on the west edge of campus adjusted the campus layout slightly towards its intended space usage. With this shift, the Knowles Dormitory became office space and the A. French Textile Building became the home of Industrial Engineering. Interestingly enough, the Hightower inscription remains on the wall of the Manufacturing Related Disciplines Complex wall on the second floor, but, since I just found it today, it is unclear whether the Materials Science and Engineering wing of the MRDC is intended to honor Hightower, though MSE is the successor school to the since-defunct Textile Engineering program.

In one last report to the Board of Regents report, Van Leer was quick to note that, despite its growth, Tech’s physical plant was still hardly able to hold 2,500 students, let alone the 5,000 enrolled at the time of his writing. Tech yearned for facilities like architecture space, a library, general classrooms, more research space, an armory and fieldhouse, and a student activities building. The latter, essentially a student union, was mentioned for the first time, and was notable for a school largely under military control during the war and one that had banned almost all extracurriculars under the reign of its first president, Isaac Hopkins. He would go on to note, that, since facilities are not the only thing that determine the quality of higher education, Tech, rather than rank at the bottom, as would be deserving of such an under-built school, out-punches its weight class.

This would be Van Leer’s last report to the Board of Regents as the president of the Georgia School of Technology. Instead, with that report, he became the first president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, representing a critical step towards becoming a comprehensive technological university, and, in the eyes of many academics, this change, though somewhat vain, was a major step to preen Georgia Tech in the limelight of educational prestige.

And with that, Van Leer was once again a president hard at work just to make ends meet when most of what he had to work with could be best described as barely adequate. But now, Georgia Tech was, at last, the Institute.

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.