After three long, winding weeks, Rearview Mirror is back. There’s much to talk about in the world of sports and history, and sports history, but it’s time to get back to the grind. So we drop back in on the eminent engineer who was just placed at the helm of the newly christened Institute.
The organization that Blake Van Leer now led was almost unrecognizable to the one Marion Brittain had held control of just a few years prior. When Tech’s school became an institute, all the degree-granting departments became schools in their own right. Exactly thirty three days after Tech became the Georgia Institute of Technology, Van Leer’s radical reorganization kicked into overdrive when the amount of personnel reporting directly to the president was slashed from almost two dozen to barely half of that number. Cherry Emerson’s old temporary position of vice president was revived and the same man who had held the position previously was returned to the new post, while Dean Lloyd Chapin was bumped up to the dean of Faculties. Emerson was put in charge of the Engineering Experiment Station, Buildings and Grounds, executive matters, and the campus physical plant engineering. Meanwhile, Chapin oversaw the two new colleges - Jesse Mason’s College of Engineering and Ralph Hefner’s General College - and the ROTC divisions and Graduate School. Perhaps the most interesting shift under the new management was the eclectic Dean of Students George Griffin, who also took on the Infirmary and YMCA operations. Keep in mind, though, this wasn’t wholly unsurprising, since, back in the day, with no student center and limited other extracurricular options, the YMCA was the heartbeat of student life on the Flats. The rest of the direct-reports to the president were oddball assignments, like the WGST radio station, registrar, comptroller, librarian, alumni association, and public relations. Oh, and the athletic director.
The next major phase of the Van Leer administration would bring him, pocketbook open, to the feet of the Georgia Board of Regents. The first brand-new building completed in his tenure was the John Smith Residence Hall at the corner of North Avenue and Techwood Drive, followed by the expanded Engineering Experiment Station off of Cherry Street behind today’s Crosland Tower, as well as current east wing of the College of Design. At the time, the Architecture Building, as it was known, was the largest facility in the world dedicated to such studies. The gem of those early years, though, was the opening of the Price Gilbert Memorial Library, as we delved into a few weeks back when the Crosland Tower reopened. Much can be and has been said about the libraries and their matriarch, Mrs. Dorothy Crosland, but their completion was a high water mark for Van Leer’s quest not to simply expand the physical plant westward or renovate existing facilities, but acquire the major facilities that Tech somewhat dumbfoundingly lacked, like a proper library or a classroom building.
Tech’s western frontier was truly wild back in those days, with many temporary wooden buildings no better than hovels shoehorned-to-bursting with classrooms and offices scattered towards Hemphill. Van Leer’s biggest dream, the aforementioned classroom building, would bring general studies like English, Math, Economics, and Social Sciences under one permanent roof, with permanent being the operative word in that sentence. Five years after Van Leer’s most eloquent plea, in which, having completed his and Crosland’s quest for a library, he outlined the necessity of such a non-liquidating investment, the Vernon Skiles Classroom Building was finally completed. Of course, much would change between 1954 and 1959, but the wheels of time turn slowly, and that’s a story for another time, anyways.
Six weeks before Athletic Director William Alexander’s death, he met with the Athletic Association regarding building a “great fieldhouse” for Tech athletics. Without advance permission, the Old Man went ahead with preliminary architectural drawings, a model, and cost analysis. Of course, a 10,000 seat basketball arena that seated 13,000 for concerts was even larger than what would eventually be built, but the man also intended there be physical training and workout space for 5,000 students, to boot. Wisely, Coach Alex noted that the 2.5 million dollar price tag was exorbitant for the Athletic Association to pay out of its own pocket upfront, or even spread over a quarter century. If only certain past athletic directors had been so wise when it came to spending money they did not yet have. Anyways, on the afternoon of the man’s funeral. his friends and colleagues teamed up to commence work on achieving the deceased coach’s dying wish - building what would eventually be known as the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The committee organized across the country to raise their 1.5 million dollar share of the costs, with the Athletic Association picking up the rest. Events were held around the country, the most significant being the Georgia Tech - William Alexander Memorial Parade in November of 1950. According to Wallace,
“15 college and high school bands, 17 ramblin’ recks [not to be confused with the later 1961-purchased 1930 Ford Model A Sport Coupe], the Tech ROTC units, a 30-foot float with a scale model of the Alexander Memorial Building, 500 marching freshmen, officials of the city, county, and state, and the 1950 and 1928 football teams”
marched in the parade and 200,000 people turned out to line the streets. Though the campaign saw leadership turnover, Chip Roberts, the “man who loved Georgia Tech,” saw to it that the campaign was within $200,000 of its goal by the end of the year.
Due to the Korean War, a strict ban on construction steel was implemented, though Emerson and Van Leer managed to get the project off without even a single hitch, as it was deemed that the largest assembly hall and most modern training facilities in the state of Georgia were vital to the military operations of the state and on the campus. Of course, back then, the seating capacity was intended to be 13,000, and the location was deemed to be the north side of the block of Ferst Drive between Fowler Street and Cherry Street, more commonly known as “the baseball stadium” both then and now. Clearly, something shifted in the planning process.
The pre-construction groundwork proved quite costly, and as considerations like labor and the newer concept of air conditioning were factored in, the price crept ever upward. The opera and theater technicians were increasingly demanding more of the budget to maintain sight and sound balance, and the whole project seemed to be falling through.
When Emerson turned to the state of Georgia for help, he was rebuffed simply,
“The State of Georgia doesn’t intend to put its money in athletic facilities at universities, now or ever.”
Considering the subsequent developments, someone is lying, or “ever” is a heck of a lot shorter than I thought it was.
Construction finally began on the project in the spring of 1955, when the contract was inked. However, the physical size and the scope of the activities was drastically reduced from the original plan. By then, the project had moved off of Rose Bowl Field and out of Russ Chandler Stadium to a roughly square block bounded by Fowler, Tenth, and Eight Streets, as well as the new highway cleaving Tech from Midtown Atlanta. The 7,000 seats and circular amphitheater seating were the best Tech could do in its limited budget, making it fine for indoor sports and passable for concerts, but Tech did attempt to host major musical productions, and operas, but those were soundly, firmly, and absolutely awful and will never return to the building at Tenth and Fowler. Though the facility hosted indoor sports, speeches, and other large campus gatherings, rather than becoming the Atlanta hotspot for seemingly everything under the sun, it also saw day-to-day use for its accompanying workout facilities. In an interesting parallel, it was also home to WGST, and, many decades later, it is now the Atlanta base of operations for the ACC Network.
The final assorted construction projects of the early 50s included expanding Tech Tower with the Bradley Building, which would become the home of a student supply store, as well as Junior’s Grill, later Highland Bakery, and the completion of the new President’s House on Tenth Street, the first named contribution of many from a Callaway scion.
Perhaps the most interesting of the projects was Van Leer’s full separation of the cobbled-together programs out in Chamblee from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Southern Technical Institute, as Tech’s offshoot was called, became a legitimate technical school offering associates degrees in various fields. Interestingly, this is rather close to the original intentions of Tech’s founders, as the technical education had bifurcated significantly in the preceding century. Nowadays, Southern Poly is a part of Kennesaw State, rather than in the orbit of Georgia Tech.
And this brings us to the summer of 1956. Tune in next week while we look at the seemingly permanent morass-like state of football coming out of the 1950 season.
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.