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Shaping up!

As the Mueller Center, Rensselaer’s newly opened fitness facility, buzzes daily with students pumping iron and shaping up in the aerobic and other multipurpose workout rooms, it’s easy to forget that higher education didn’t always embrace the concept of working out.   

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that the development of physical education and workout facilities in universities began to gain popularity around the country. Rensselaer took the initiative to look into building a gymnasium in May 1883, when students handed the Board of Trustees a petition that stated steps be taken to provide a “suitable gym for student use.”   

A year later, in 1884, the trustees purchased a lot on the south side of Broadway, and a $20,000 gymnasium was constructed. One-third of the money came from student donations. Made of brick and trimmed with stone and terra cotta, the two-story building opened March 11, 1887. The lower level housed a bowling alley, and fencing and boxing rooms. The main floor was devoted to a large workout room with a track around its edge.   

Today’s elaborate, glass-enclosed Mueller Center at 29,000 square feet would easily dwarf the 80-feet-long by 44-feet-wide Broadway gym, and students back then still lacked a playing field for the Institute’s football and baseball teams. Nevertheless, the facility was Rensselaer’s first concession to nonacademic needs, and students hailed it as a start of a new era and a future source of good health.   

In 1891, Rensselaer employed a gymnasium instructor at $30 a month before a physical health and education department was established 20 years later.    

As efforts to increase health and fitness at the university began to grow, the trustees appointed a committee in 1910 to establish “a department of physical culture.” The committee concluded the Broadway gymnasium was “entirely inadequate” considering the increasing number of students, and a modern gymnasium needed to be built to establish physical education.   

This “modern gymnasium” is better known as the ’87 Gym on Sage Avenue. Named in honor of the Class of 1887’s 25th anniversary, it opened in 1912. Alumni from the class paid for the building and its equipment at a cost of $162,000. The old gymnasium on Broadway was then converted into a theater for the RPI Players before it was razed in the late 1960s.


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