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Feldman, Jim / The buildings of the University of Wisconsin

Gymnasium and armory,   pp. 75-79

Page 75

Fig. 1. Porter and Conover's 1891 design drawing Fig. 2. Gym during construction 1894. Sheds in
from the Aegis. Armory/Gym folder #2jf-19]  foreground held temporary boiler and tools.
[Armory/gym folder #1 jf-2 1]
The Red Gym was built in 1892 as a combination gymnasium and armory. It quickly
became too small and obsolete. In the middle 1960s it's gymnasium function was
superseded by a new gym on the west end of campus. Under maintained and under-
utilized for 60 years, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974,
and will be renovated for use as a campus visitors center in the late 1990s.
"In 1894 the Daily Cardinal reports a student showing his parents around the campus for the first
* time was heard to say: "Yes dad, the science hall is a nice building, but our gymnasium!" The
Ibuilding still has that effect on people, the shock of seeing a red brick castle with its sense of
stupendous mass, solidity and permanence in its beautiful setting by the lake, here in the late 20th
century. The arguments about its looks being inappropriate to a campus, its lack of modem facilities
and cost of upkeep tend to pale when faced with the colossal visual impact it makes from Langdon
Street or from Lake Mendota. As much as any building on the campus the old red gym reflects the
time and values of its builders.
Gymnastics began to gather popularity in U. S. colleges in the 1850s. By the 1880s Harvard,
Yale and other prestigious schools were spending large sums to build elaborate gymnasiums. In
northern climates where the weather renders exercise dangerous for months of the year, buildings
designed for exercise take on additional importance. The University of Wisconsin had no gym after
1891 when the old wooden gym on Bascom Hill burned. During the efforts to fund the new science
buildings in 1885, the regents had attempted without success to get an appropriation for a new gym.
Then in 1891 the legislature passed a 1/10 mill tax for the purposes of building several buildings, a
dairy building, a college of law and an armory.1 When planning was begun for the armory, the dairy
and law buildings were well under way. In May 1891, president Chamberlin and some of the regents
travelled east to examine some college structures and gather ideas for the UW building. In several
instances they saw that the same building served for a gymnasium and armory.2

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