NEB&W Guide to the History of RPI

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The Name Game

The RPI Name

The university is named after its founder, Stephen Van Rensselaer. It was established in 1824 as the Rensselaer School. A mere 8 years later, 1832, it was changed to Rensselaer Institute. In 1861, it was changed to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Incoming freshmen have been told "No one can spell 'Rensselaer', no one knows what 'polytechnic' means, and who the hell wants to go to an institute." Nonetheless, the name has persisted. In some years, the initials "RPI" have been encouraged, in other times, discouraged. Just referring to it as "Rensselaer" can be confusing, as there is a city by the same name about 7 miles south.

The King of Holland granted Kilaen Van Rensselaer a vast expanse of land in the New World in the upstate New York area. He was a "patroon", probably related to the English word "patron" and related to the Latin root that gives us "paternal". But basically this was a midieval feudal system where the lord of the manor owned the land and the serfs/tenants farmed it and gave a large portion of their earnings to the lord. This system didn't work in America as anyone could move further west and just claim their own land.

Stephen was fifth in line and inherited this estate at the tender age of five. He was very progressive. Among other things, he was the first president of the first railroad in New York State, the Mohawk & Hudson, basically just lending his established name to this risky venture so it could be taken seriously enough to raise money. Apparently, Rensselaer did not like the "Van" part of his name.


RPI was tiny during the 19th century:

Year Total Enrollment

  • 1825 - 10 students
  • 1850 - 53 students
  • 1900 - 225 students
  • 1925 - 1,240 students
  • 1945 - 1,604 students
  • 1950 - 3,987 students (Note the jump in just five years. In the '50's, there was an explosion of dormitory construction, the so-called "freshmen dorms".)
  • 1965 - 5,232 students

The TOTAL number of graduating students from 1826 through 1900 was just over 1,000. By 1914, it was 2,117, according to a history of the school by Palmer C. Ricketts.

General History

Originally, the RPI started in a small building on Middleburgh Street, which today is considered north Troy.

Then it moved to downtown, to the former "Infant School" on Sixth and State Street (about the site of the current police station). This building burned during the Great Fire of Troy (May 10th, 1862) and the school was moved north one block and up the hill two blocks, to the head of Broadway. The new building was occupied by 1864. A chemical laboratory next to it was also built, named after the current president, Winslow. In the 19th century, RPI was far smaller than it is today. There were only a couple of hundred students attending, no dormitories and not even a real campus. The school was basically located in a building at the head of Broadway on the slope of the hill, called the "Main" building.

In 1886, a gymnasium was opened near the Main building. The building was small by latter standards, but extremely ornate, designed in the prevailing Queen Anne style with a turreted round tower.

In 1904, the building and the Winslow chemical laboratory burned within a month of each. Winslow as rebuilt and served the school for almost a century more. Today it is the home of the Junior Museum on 8th Street. The Main building was a lost and RPI even considered moving out of Troy, Instead, the school purchased the 10 acre estate of Walter Phelps Warren just up the hill. On the site of the Main building, a broad ornamental granite staircase was built, called the Approach. The original gym was taken over the RPI Players in 1929 and torn down in 1966.

The Approach

The Approach was built on the site of the Main Building after it burned in 1904. Sometimes you will read it was built in 1924, but that is incorrect. It was dedicated in 1924, probably as part of the centennial of RPI, but there as a photo of it in the 1914 yearbook, so it must date back at least that far.

The Ricketts Campus

Palmer C. Ricketts was president from 1901 until 1934, one of the longest terms in office. During this tenure, the campus underwent its most significant construction. The new property up the hill afforded major expansion. All of the buildings built during this time (the "red and white with green on top" ones) were designed in the Colonial Revival style.

After WWII, RPI underwent another major expansion. Enrollment doubled and new dorms were built on "Freshman Hill". A number of adjacent properties were acquired, most notably the Peoples Avenue Complex, Mason Lab, and the University Building.

Specific Buildings

See this section.

Student Life

In the 19th century, there was tremendous rivalry between the classes, specifically the freshmen and sophomores each year. Over the years, this violent hazing formalized into the "Cane Rush", conducted under the Grand Marshall. It started in 1874. The cane was stout hickey cane, which the two sides battled for control. By the 1880's, the Cane Rush was held on a distant playing field (RPI not having a playing field at that time or even much of a campus), where admission was charged. The combatants stripped down and greased up, for a wild melee which lasted over 20 minutes. The Victory went to the side with the most hands on the cane. Legend has it that one year it was held on the island between Green Island and Troy. A student grabbed the cane and ran up onto the Green Island bridge and into Troy, followed by all the naked participants through the streets of downtown. This ended the ritual. (Not true, at least the reason it ended.)

In later years, the name was changed to the Grease Rush. In '53, it was still being held, although that year, tradition was broken when the freshmen won, since not a single sophomore showed up for the event. (Also have a date of '57, when interest waned to non-existent.)

In the '39 yearbook, it said "The closest RPI comes to being a co-educational school is to have some of the" (female) "members of the office staff walk across the campus to the delight of some of the students."

Also in the '39 Transit, it was announced that hockey, which went way back to at least WWI, was being dropped as an intercollegiate sport because "of the inconsistency of the weather, a completed schedule was impossible and the Union money was being wasted on equipment and a rink." This was back when hockey was played outdoors. In just a few years, after WWII, the school would acquire the Fieldhouse, which allowed for an indoor hockey rink and hockey would grow to be the school's biggest attention-getting sport.

As of today (2005), there is a whole week of events known as Grand Marshall Week leading up to student elections. Back as of WWII, it was only a single night, with lots of free beer. (The drinking age was only 18 and underage drinking not considered very serious - but then almost no students had cars so drinking and driving was not as much a concern.) The tradition was to try and drink your "number" (Class number.) In '38, they were already having difficulty drinking 38 beers each and pitied the forthcoming class of '99. By '53, the event had grown to a full week.

The nickname "Tute" goes back at least to the early 20th century. Back then, students referred to themselves as "Tutemen", a term no longer in use. The idea of the "Tute Screw" goes back at least to 1953, when Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity presented a large wooden screw to the freshmen class during "Frosh Week".

At that time in the early '70's, I'm not sure if there were any free weights for students (other than athletes) to use. There was one Universal machine in a tiny room in the basement of the '87 Gym. And the only across-the-board requirement for graduation was that you passed a swimming test. (Somehow I managed to doggy-pad my way to a degree.)