Patten Gym--Old

The original Patten Gymnasium was a successor to the first gymnasium building on the Northwestern campus, built north of Fisk Hall in the nineteenth century. By the turn of the century that gymnasium was dilapidated and obsolete. The student newspaper, The Northwestern, called it a “torturing nightmare,” and when, in 1908, the announcement was made that funds had been procured to build a new gym, the paper exulted: “The electrical news was soon flashed to students everywhere and the streets filled rapidly with cheering crowds of violently enthusiastic college men. Parades, bonfires, and speeches were the order till day-light put an end to the affair. . . Old students coming back ask eagerly for information, under classmen wear perpetual grins; and the faculty rush up and grasp one’s hand in a peculiarly brotherly fashion.”

The enthusiasm was all the stronger since previous hopes for a new facility had been thwarted by unsuccessful fundraising campaigns. Then James A. Patten, a prominent Chicago commodities broker known as the “Wheat King,” a former Evanston mayor and a Northwestern trustee, stepped in to rescue the project by offering $150,000 for its construction. Since the new facility was to be state-of-the-art, Patten offered to make up the difference if the final cost exceeded that sum. The renowned Prairie School architect, George W. Maher, who had designed Patten’s Evanston home, was engaged to design the gymnasium. Maher was also the architect for the Swift Hall of Engineering on the Evanston campus.

The new gymnasium was a handsome building with an imposing façade whose structural form derived from armories and massive train sheds. It had a frontage on Sheridan Road of 154 feet and extended back 302 feet. The completed structure had three levels on its west side; the east side had a dirt floor at ground level that served as a track and baseball practice field. In 1921 a removable basketball floor was installed on top of the bare ground, and bleachers, seating between 4500 and 5000, were added. There was also a swimming pool on the first floor. Distributed over several levels of rooms at the west end were a gym, dressing rooms, instructors’ rooms, locker rooms, baths, and administrative offices. The roof’s arched beams—54 feet high at their apex—were studded with skylights for natural lighting, and a ceiling lighting fixture that formed an “N”.

For special occasions a large stage was erected at the west end of the field area, just east of the offices and gym, and seating for thousands was set up on the dirt floor. The building was opened in June, 1909, and for the next 25 years the gymnasium was the site of the annual commencement ceremony. It also hosted such events as student dances, fairs, auto shows, theatrical productions, the annual Northwestern Circus, and political and wartime rallies with such speakers as William Howard Taft and Warren Harding. The building was for many years also the home of the North Shore Music Festival.

The attractiveness of the Patten Gymnasium for such events was enhanced by its stately façade on Sheridan Road. In the building’s early years its entranceway was ornamented with pure gold plating, and in 1917 Patten commissioned artist Hermon MacNeil to design statuary appropriate to an atmosphere of athletic aspiration. MacNeil responded with bronze figures of a man and a woman. The statues have been known to generations of students by the fond nicknames of “Pat” and “Jim.”

When in 1939 Northwestern planned the construction of the Technological Institute, it was clear that the Patten Gymnasium would have to be moved to accommodate the new engineering building. Subsequently a decision was made to demolish the structure and construct a new gymnasium, also to be named for James Patten. One of the most important events held in the building during its final year was the first NCAA basketball tournament, on March 27, 1939, where the University of Oregon Ducks beat the Ohio State Buckeyes by a score of 46-33.

The original Patten Gymnasium was razed on April 1, 1940. MacNeil’s statues were retained and today grace the entrance of the present Patten Gymnasium, dedicated during Homecoming on November 2, 1940.

Patten Gym (Old), Exterior: Postcard
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Quick Facts

Date: 1909

Architect: George Maher

Named for: James G. Patten