The Cornellian first reported in 1907 that students desired an indoor facility to help student athletes train for their spring season, as many felt the reason for their often poor starts was owing to the lack of proper facilities to begin practicing as early in the season as many of their opponents. During a meeting with faculty, trustees, and alumni, the idea of a gymnasium was proposed and a fundraising campaign began, seeking pledges not just from the alumni but from the students as well.
Saturday, October 10, 1908, was “[a]n evening fraught with a great deal of significance” with the laying of the cornerstone for the new gymnasium. January 15 of 1909 marked the dedication of the new building, located in Ash Park near the football field, where students were able to begin using the building for collegiate and intramural sports almost immediately. According to a college press release, the new gym boasted two full basketball courts, showers and lockers for both men and women (and a special locker room for visiting teams), a swimming pool, an indoor track, and wrestling room, among other amenities. Today, it is the only building on campus that was designed by an alumnus of the college.
The Royal Purple of 1911 contains many pictures of the interior of the new Alumni Gymnasium, depicting both men and women making use of the gym, and noting that most students were very pleased with their new space and the variety of physical activities it offered. In addition to the various spaces for athletics, coaches had offices within the building as well, allowing for student-athletes to meet with their coaches at times other than practice.
The building could seat 1600, and the pool area could seat 300, allowing for students and family to come cheer on their teams. During this time, intramural sports as well as intercollegiate sports blossomed, and participation in many of the different athletic offerings increased.
In 1953, with the building of the Field House in Ash Park, Alumni Gym was remodeled for the “department of health and physical education for women.” There was an emphasis placed on women’s health in the new building, and many of the new amenities catered specifically to women, as all the men’s sports had moved to the new Field House. During this time, Cornell offered varied intramural sports for women such as field hockey, synchronized swimming, and basketball; women now had a facility of their own in which to practice for their competitions.
Over time, as the women’s athletics moved out from the Alumni Gym to the Field House, and then to the Richard and Norma Small Multi-Sports Center, the building fell into disuse. The Cornellian took a tour of the dilapidated building in the early 1990s, noting that while maintenance had done some work to clean up the dead pigeons and the sludge that now replaced the water in the pool, the building was certainly not something that could readily be put to use with the supplies on hand. At this time, the art department was sharing Armstrong Hall with the music and theatre departments, and with all three growing, more space was needed.
Trustee James McWethy, Class of '65, gave a $2 million challenge grant to help raise money for a new space for the art department, and with his generous donation and the donations of others, Cornell was able to refurbish the old Alumni Gym to host the art department, keeping some historic aspects, like the hardwood gym floor, but taking away others, such as ceiling insulation, in order to reveal the structural elements of the building. In honor of McWethy’s donation, Alumni Gym was renamed McWethy Hall in 2002, and it has hosted the art department and the Peter Paul Luce Art Gallery ever since.
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