Monday, March 29, 2010

Discarded and Forgotten: RIT's Downtown Campus Vol. 2

The more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter what contemporary students may think are the differences between generations, the historical record shines the light of truth on those assumptions. This may or may not come as a surprise, but RIT appears to having been battling student apathy since the beginning of time. A segment in the Reporter entitled "Tech Talks" once posed the question to students, "It has been said that RIT students are not so friendly as students from other colleges. What do you think about this?" Of five students polled, one agreed entirely while two others tapdanced, indicating reluctant agreement. Near constant refrains regarding mistreatment of lounge facilites, open pessimism and ridicule of instructors, and lack of support for varsity athletic clubs litter the pages of 1950s Reporters.

A more surprising common thread spanning the years is the participation in intramural parking situation criticism. The true dawning of the motor age, practically still under ten years old, had already created a monster that compares favorably or unfavorably, depending on your point of view, with today's hyper-convenience demands. Whether bemoaning the snowy conditions of the student parking lot at Troup and Clarissa, the vexing actions of hypocritical police officers, or the cost of the student lot privilege, RIT students were exhibiting the first glimpses of a national behavior that would sacrifice our most efficient, energetic, and charismatic public places to the mythical 'God of the Open Road.' Quizzically, a rash of pointed Reporter pieces in 1953 cast a harsh glare on reckless motoring and the lack of emphasis on safety. By October of 1954, discussions were beginning about restricting the ability of students to bring cars to campus. Ultimately complacency and economic factors offering virtually cost-free convenience would win out over community.

One student who was both behind his time and ahead of it was Bruce Davidson. His October 28, 1953 captures the viewpoint of the rare appreciative student:

Editor, Reporter:
We can boast about our campus! Although our campus has little plush grass, looming trees, or spaciousness, we have in our immediate midst a huge campus, practical, efficient, and honest in this modern world. In opposition to most other college campuses, which tend to shield the student from life as a reality, RIT's camus is life itself; life and its realities are all around us. Here at RIT we have the opportunity to know our instructors as personalities trying to help us learn; not Gods garbed in robes dictating truth, and to be feared and never questioned. Our teachers live on our campus. Their homes are in some instances small apartments. Others are ordinary rooms in the dorm. However unpretentious their homes may be, they are always open for visits from the students. Many have sought personal aid from a teacher over a cup of coffee. Let us find the things here that are here.


With elements of campus life likely in mind, Ellingson and the trustees forged on in the collection effort for the 125th Anniversary Fund. Kate Gleason's 3434 East Avenue mansion, valued in the tens of thousands of dollars, was a gift to this fund which by May 10, 1952 had reached the princely sum of $3.6 million. The campaign received a sizeable shot in the arm in late 1953 upon the death of Trustee George H. Clark, for whom the Clark Building and Clark Union were named. Clark provisioned in his will 10,000 shares of Kodak common stock plus one quarter of proceeds from the estates post taxes and fees to be used, "if and when the Institute shall determine the construction of such a gymnasium to be advisable." Much less newsworthy at the time, but not in retrospect, was a meeting of ice skating enthuasists from RIT and the surrounding area sponsored by the man appointed to replace Clark on the Board of Trustees: F. Ritter Shumway.

At the beginning of the 1953-54 school year, RIT's bread and butter was still evening classes. A record number of approximately 4,300 night school students combined with almost 1,200 full-time collegiates comprised the student body. The introduction of four-year programs for the 54-55 duration would change this dynamic significantly. The anticipated ranks of the chemistry department swelled by 66% prior to the fall of 1954 and necessitated a complete overhaul of the chemistry facilities in the Eastman Annex. The Institute entered their trademark scheduling territory that fall with the introduction of the quarter system. Programs requiring co-op, Chemistry, Electrical, and Mechanical, became five-year programs, requiring 12 quarters of schooling and EIGHT co-op quarters on the job.

The 125th Anniversary fund had grown to almost $5.5 million and student debate was ramping up over the prioritization of the expansion plan with nearly all students advocating for a new men's dorm or gynasium as the antecedent project. The May 7, 1954 Reporter began to shed some light on the scope of land acquisition The Institute had in mind. Included in these parcels was the mansion on Livingston Park at Troup Street housing the Irondequoit Chapter of the DAR. In a straight trade, The Institute would compensate the DAR with the George C. Gordon home at 1099 East Avenue in exchange for the 1837 Hervey Ely House with possible plans for conversion into The Institute's library according to Ellingson. These plans were scrapped and a retraction printed just two weeks later, however. A combination of the difficulty of adapting the Gordon's house along with a looming zoning battle (!) to establish the chapter in a residential zone swayed the opinion of the chapter president. The building still functions today as a museum, genealogical library, and meeting place for the DAR.

Just four months after outlining targeted acquisitions, demolition began on the Buell House and RIT Faculty Apartment Building immediately north of the DAR house to make way for the new $650,000 gynasium. In order to provide for the establishment of first-class physical education programs at The Institute, six other structures on Livingston and Spring would meet their demise. Previously, the varsity basketball team engaged its foes at the Jefferson High School gynasium, the swimming club forced to trek to the city-owned natatorium on South Ave. The small gym located in the Eastman Annex was only adequate for fencing and wrestling practices.

"With the rapidly expanding enrollment at RIT, the need for the gym kept growing, and the recreation and athletic facilities that will be made available to the students, will help fulfill the program of all-round development that is the goal of the school."

-September 24, 1954

Meanwhile, another force conspiring to change the face of The Institute forever first reared its head on November 20, 1953 in an otherwise innocuous story about spring tennis practice. RIT's three tennis courts were to be confiscated in the near future for the completion of Rochester's new Inner Loop. By all accounts, this was not even the grade separated Inner Loop that we know today, object of much scorn and derision from those who seek to restitch our lacerated urban fabric. Nevertheless a thematic precedent had been established that would become the obsession of area traffic engineers for the next twenty years.

More to come...

No comments: