Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Houston Field House Celebrates 50th Anniversary
By Paula Garwood
In 1930, figure skating legend Sonja Henie appeared at Madison Square Garden. Dr. and Mrs. Livingston W. Houston's three daughters traveled to New York City to see her skate. They instantly developed into frequent and incurable skaters that had the consequence of reawakening their father's interest in skating as well. Was this the event that started him quietly working towards getting some kind of community arena for the Tri-cities area?
Well, it is plausibly a slight exaggeration, considering World War II is what finally brought the construction of the Field House to fruition, but it was Livingston Houston, industrialist, president of Rensselaer, Rensselaer alumnus, Engineer hockey player and all around skating enthusiast that got the whole project rolling.
It was during World War II that Dr. Houston accepted the presidency of Rensselaer. Directly after the war ended, colleges were brimming with veterans returning to seek an education. Rensselaer's registration doubled. The post-war possibilities gave Dr. Houston just the window of opportunity he needed.
Uncle Sam volunteered to help by making various "war surplus" buildings that were scattered around the country available to colleges. The colleges need only apply for them on a project basis.
Dr. Houston, (then President of RPI since 1944) had impressed the Board of Trustees with the concept of a sports-civic arena for the area and the chase was on for an expansive metal building, possibly a hangar. Regrettably, Uncle Sam didn't pronounce hangars "war surplus". However, the trustees were successful in tracking down a huge Navy warehouse in Davisville, Rhode Island, applied for it and the government moved it to Troy over the next year and a half.
The structural shell of the building was acquired late in 1946 under the articles of the Veterans Educational Facilities Program. Initially the building was a steel frame complex, covered in metal. In this form it was not altogether appropriate for Rensselaer's needs. The support of the government was confined to disassembling, moving, and reassembling of the building in a form close to its original design. This took nearly a year and a half to accomplish. Rensselaer was authorized to collaborate in a controlled redesign of the building by assuming the cost of the refabrication of some of the initial materials and by providing new materials where needed by the design adjustments. Redesign was significantly restricted by the intrinsic form of the building, but it evolved into a very acceptable structure.
Between Rensselaer, Uncle Sam and close to one million dollars spent to erect and adapt the structure, the RPI Field House made its debut and was officially opened on the 125th Anniversary of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, October 13, 1949. The public had a facility as expansive as Madison Square Garden, suitable for sporting events, concerts, commencements, and, for its time, an inspiring ice arena.
The Field House at Rensselaer had begun its course as a unique indoor cultural and recreational center nearly unmatched in versatility. One short year after its formal debut, the Field House had become a central part of the community life in the region.
Its central feature, of course, was the artificial ice hockey rink that measured an impressive 185 by 85 feet in size. Embedded in the concrete floor were roughly nine miles of coiling 1-1/4" wrought iron pipe through which brine would be pumped to freeze the floor. After the floor was cold, layers upon layers of water were sprayed until the ice measured one inch thick.
Ice hockey began at RPI in 1901, but it wasn't until the 1949-1950 season when the sport was renewed after a 12 year lapse, that RPI began to attain national prominence in collegiate men's hockey. The Field House could safely be given the credit for putting RPI hockey back on the map.
In two hours the rink could be covered with a removable wooden floor, measuring 120 by 85 feet (court size 86 by 50 feet) and completely equipped for basketball. The facility could also handle tennis and had a pistol/rifle range.
On both sides of the rink were fixed concrete stands capable of seating 4,000 people. Another 1,500 seats could be made available by placing temporary stands at one end. In addition, 2,500 seats could be set up on the playing floor for non-sporting events.
The facility had been lighted, heated, and furnished with a public address system and scoring equipment. Team rooms, dressing rooms, showers, storage offices, and concession areas had been installed.
The completion of the interior of the building made the Field House Rensselaer's focus for indoor winter sports and student activities like dances, concerts, exhibits, lectures, hockey games, and other gatherings.
In 1960 the RPI Field House was still a force in Troy and the surrounding areas. It was still admired as the "Madison Square Garden" of Upstate New York. Its versatility had been put to the test and more than 300 major theatrical and musical events had been held there. There was not another top-notch ice rink to match it between Radio City and Lake Placid.
In the 1976-77 season Rensselaer women's ice hockey began as a club team, and they campaigned on the club level for 19 years. In 1994, Rensselaer hosted and won the American Women's College Hockey Association's National Club Championship, completing the most notable club season ever with an exemplary 13-0-1 record facing club teams. In 1995, Rensselaer again hosted the National Tournament and this time finished 3rd. Rensselaer began its first period of varsity women's hockey competition in the 1995-96 season.
In 1983 the Field House experienced another major overhaul. Several of the brace poles were eliminated because they obstructed the view from the stands. A new roof was put on as well. The ice rink floor was dropped two and a half feet and a new training facility and weight room were added along with a new varsity locker room.
Today, nearly fifty years later, the Houston Field House is used primarily for ice hockey and figure skating, due to the addition of other sports facilities on the campus. However, the Field House remains a distinctive college coliseum that was a consequence of World War II. This grand edifice that ignited a revival in ice skating and ice hockey for Troy and her neighbors continues to be "an educational, cultural and recreational" center for the area.