Gym looms as a relic of changed priorities

With its sheer size and overwhelming Gothic architecture, it is hard for students to miss Payne Whitney Gymnasium when visiting campus for the first time. But the wow factor soon wears off and most students walk by the world’s largest indoor athletic facility without a second glance.

Since its opening in 1932, Payne Whitney has been responsible for filling the annals of Yale history. The gym’s story is one of continuous change and adaptation to demands of the many decades its doors have been open.

Payne Whitney Gym, which has stood since 1932, features 14 floors and more than 12 acres of indoor space for both athlete and non-athlete use.
Payne Whitney Gym, which has stood since 1932, features 14 floors and more than 12 acres of indoor space for both athlete and non-athlete use.

“Payne Whitney has serviced the school as well as the surrounding community and has always been changing with the times,” Payne Whitney archivist Geoff Zonder said. “It was always a hub of activity because something was always going on, whether it was varsity sports, intramurals, regular exercise or other general uses.”

Many are familiar with the story of Helen Hay Whitney, whose family donated $6 million to the construction of the gym. Legend has it that the elderly benefactor pulled up to Tower Parkway to admire her family’s donation, but never stepped foot inside to discover that the memorial she thought was a cathedral dedicated to her son was actually a gymnasium with ornate Gothic architecture. This urban legend floats around the gym between administrators and athletes alike, and is even mentioned on Wikipedia.

But the reality of Payne Whitney’s planning and building is much more honest. Starting in 1925, John Russell Pope received a contract to design a much-needed new gym to accommodate Yale’s increasing demand for athletic facilities. Five years later, the Whitney family donated $6 million for the construction of the gym, stipulating that the facility would be named after graduate Payne Whitney 1898 and that it would be designed as Pope envisioned it.

Payne Whitney was carefully planned to take into account the role of athletics at Yale, which may help explain why the gym’s massive size, Zonder said. At the time, organized athletics was required of every Yale student, whether on the varsity, JV or intramural level. The designers of Payne Whitney wanted the gym’s facilities to accommodate everything from indoor crew practice in its three rowing tanks, to intramural basketball tournaments, to general purpose rooms for dance and posture — all at the same time.

With 14 levels, including mezzanine, basement and sub-basement levels, along with wings extending on either side of the main tower, the gym boasts an incredible amount of floor space — over 12 acres of indoor space.

Ed Mockus, director of Payne Whitney, said that the sheer size of the gym allows many different activities to go on simultaneously, making Yale’s facility unique.

“My colleagues were here for an Ivy League meeting, and they were astounded by the fact that all these activities fit into one place,” Mockus said. “Other schools have little gyms throughout their campuses, but we put it all into one building — people just marvel at what we have.”

During the planning and building of Payne Whitney, Yale was a dominant player on the national college athletics scene in several sports, most notably swimming. Robert Kiphuth, head coach of Yale swimming from 1918-1959 and director of athletics from 1946-1950, led the team to 528 dual-meet wins with only 12 losses throughout his entire tenure.

Since the time of mandatory “athletics for all” during Payne Whitney’s first decades, Yale has changed quite a bit. The most obvious has been the admittance of women starting with the class of 1971, which increased the demand for facilities as women’s sports entered the scene.

In addition, Steve Conn, director of sports publicity, said the changes in recruitment policy then and now may have added to the changes that Yale athletics has seen over the years.

“The climate was very different — back then, there were no rules about recruitment, and now its financial aid is based on need,” Conn said. “The athletes who were recruited back then probably got different deals than the students we recruit today.”

Many at Payne Whitney noted the gym’s ability to adapt with the times and to accommodate whatever was needed of its facilities. Most recently, Yale committed $100 million for renovation of the gym and its athletic facilities, resulting in the creation of the Lanman Center, as well as the Israel Fitness Center and Brady Squash Center.

A prime example of Payne Whitney’s adaptability is the Lanman Center, which opened in 1999, reflecting the changing interests of Yale students. For some, the few times they step into the hallowed halls of Payne Whitney is to visit the Lanman Center during Bulldog Days and Camp Yale. But in addition to hosting various bazaars and fairs throughout the year, the Lanman Center also accommodates four regulation sized basketball and volleyball courts, as well as the indoor balcony running track.

“Payne Whitney has evolved and changed with the times — I don’t think it’s ever been behind the times, and it’s even led with innovative designs during its construction,” Zonder said.

Payne Whitney will soon begin a $65 million exterior renovation process that will make the building more secure, and add new windows, skylights and roofs. This four-year project is expected to begin sometime later this fall.

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