The history of Patten Gymnasium

    George Maher was the architect behind the original Patten Gymnasium, built in 1909. The facilities included two baseball diamonds, six tennis courts and seating for a few thousand spectators. Blueprint courtesy of Northwestern University Archives

    Sheppard Shanley, son of Shanley Pavilion’s namesake, remembers walking into Patten Gymnasium in 1949, when he was just 6 years old. He looked up at all the college students as he headed for the pool, fascinated by how tall they were.

    With two Northwestern professors for parents, it is no surprise that Shanley learned to swim at Patten during Wildcat Camp, a day camp for children in Evanston and the surrounding towns.

    Of course, Shanley was not alive to see the original Patten Gym. He does not have any sentiment attached to the new one, despite using it throughout his childhood. Shanley says he has not thought about the building in a while nor heard it mentioned.

    “The last time I heard it mentioned was as ‘the place where the rowers went to practice,’” says the senior associate director of undergraduate admissions. “How much do people use it?”

    But there is more to be said for Patten’s history, even if it is not Northwestern’s newest, biggest or most popular gym today. Over the years, Patten’s status as a gym has wavered as new generations of students take to its swimming pool, weight room and basketball courts.

    The predecessor

    Before there was Patten, there was the creatively named Northwestern Gymnasium. Students fund-raised to build the structure, collecting $10 per share of stock from other students and community members. After it remained unfinished years later, students convinced the Board of Trustees to purchase the building from them.

    From 1876 to 1909, the Northwestern gym was the sole place of indoor gymnasium work. After Patten opened, the 40-by 80-foot North Campus building switched gears, housing a mineralogy lab and the Medill School of Journalism.

    For many years the gym was highly regarded on campus. But when basketball’s popularity grew at the turn of the century, the field house became more of an embarrassment than anything.

    Enter Evanston mayor, philanthropist and broker James “Wheat King” Patten.

    A new source of pride

    When Patten, who earned his nickname by cornering the market on wheat in the early 1900s, donated $150,000 – a figure that later increased by at least $100,000 – for a new gym, campus erupted in happiness.

    “That crumbling annex of the heating plant; the apology of all Northwestern students; the butt of all jokes from the Chicago papers will soon be nothing but the horrible memory of twenty or more long years of torturing nightmare,” reads an article from the June 3, 1908 issue of The Northwestern, now called The Daily Northwestern. “The New Gym: Or the absolute promise of one, arose like the morning sun last Friday after two decades of darkness.”

    Northwestern celebrated the opening of Patten Gymnasium by holding its 51st commencement there in June 1909. The building boasted features like two indoor baseball diamonds, a swimming pool and an indoor field that doubled as an auditorium capable of seating thousands of spectators.

    George Maher, an architect with a similar style to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the building. The only place left on campus today to see his work is Swift Hall. Had Maher designed the whole campus, as he originally planned on doing, Northwestern would have become an “architectural wonder,” writes Jay Pridmore in “Northwestern University: Celebrating 150 Years.”

    Jim is one of two statues that flank the new Patten Gym. Photo by Julie Kliegman / North by Northwestern

    The heart of the gym was not defined by its equipment and structure alone, though. Patten donated two statues in 1917 – statues that can be seen outside today’s gym as well. Affectionately named “Pat” and “Jim,” they bear inspirational inscriptions for aspiring athletes.

    Pat showcases a Charles Kingsley quote: “And after all is not that enough to have lived for, to have found out one true thing, and therefore one imperishable thing in one’s life?”

    Jim, on the other hand, channels Alfred Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek to find, and not to yield.”

    Along with the main doors, these inspirational Hermon MacNeil sculptures form 100 percent of the overlap between the old, beloved gym, and the new Patten Gym, originally meant to be an interim facility and nothing more.

    Eventually, the administration pushed Pat and Jim aside to make way for a huge, multi-level maze: the Technological Institute.

    End of an era

    The school razed the old Patten Gym in April 1940 to build a new-and-improved home for the McCormick School of Engineering.

    “Many of these buildings were distinguished works of architecture, but they did not set a unifying tone for the growing campus, and when modern efficiency demanded, they were razed mostly without protest,” Pridmore writes.

    The new gym was erected just north of Tech – but not before the Wildcats had one last hurrah in the old building.

    Northwestern hosted the first ever NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in front of 5,000 spectators. At the end of the game, when University of Oregon had soundly beat Ohio State University, the clock ran down for varsity basketball on Northwestern’s campus.

    After the original Patten was razed, there was a 12-year spell during which the Wildcats played all their games at Evanston Township High School. Although the media and administrators hyped up the new gym, it was largely without good cause. The basketball courts measured a full 18 feet short of regulation size.

    “At the time, most high schools actually had more adequate recreational facilities than what we offered,” says Dan Bulfin, long-time director of recreation on campus.

    The basketball courts in Patten Gym are too short for varsity play, says Dan Bulfin, director of recreation. “The keys almost touch one another.” Photo by Julie Kliegman / North by Northwestern

    Even though the facilities were arguably lackluster, the new Patten still had some spunk.

    “We used to have indoor roller skating on Saturday nights with a disco ball and disco music when disco was all the rage,” Bulfin says.

    But the gym that was on top of its 70s fads and even sported a rifle range for ROTC students could not restore the glory of its early 20th century predecessor.

    Varsity athletes worked out in Patten and their coaches held offices there, back in the 40s and 50s when it was common to see one coach at the helm of multiple sports. Long after most athletes moved out of Patten, the gym was still abuzz with physical education majors until the administration phased out the program in the early 80s.

    Today Patten, along with Blomquist, is home to intramural sports so as to keep SPAC, the campus “drop-in center,” Bulfin says.

    Shanley grapples with the puzzle that the new Patten is smaller than the old one, a choice largely due to a lack of funds, Bulfin says. Even more striking is the fact that the new gym is a historical structure, meaning Northwestern cannot change the outside to expand it.

    Patten may be a little emptier now that it shares students with Blomquist and SPAC, but at least Pat and Jim stand tall outside to protect it.

    “They carry a longer history with them,” Shanley says of the statues, looking back not just on his experiences at Patten as a boy, but much further to the decades before he was even born.


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