NEB&W Guide to the History of RPI - The Campus

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General History

RPI was organized in 1824, and started on Jan. 25, 1825 in a small building on Middleburgh Street, the former Farmer's Bank, 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. Its construction and a chemical laboratory next to it was undertaken by RPI president John Flack 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 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 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 and the University Building.

Specific Buildings

Main Building

The so-called Main Building was built in 1864, to replace the RPI building that burned in the fire two years previous. The design is what some architects called "Norman" and others call "Victorian Romanesque". Many many other Troy buildings constructed right after the fire also followed the style, with lots of semi-circles, and all trim executed in brick.

The building also had a Mansard roof, the so-called "Second Empire" or "French style" popular at the time (like West Hall), and had Gothic style arches on the first floor, in what is known as High Victorian Gothic (like the Rice Building).

The Main Building lasted until 1904, when it, too, burned.

Winslow Labs

Winslow Labs was built right after the fire of 1862, named after the president of RPI at the time, John Flack Winslow, president and trustee, 1860-'67. He also was one of two Troy citizens responsible for getting the iron-clad ship, the Monitor financed.

Later, the building was doubled in size when a similar looking addition was added to the south. It is the oldest building still standing that was built for RPI.

Original Gym/Playhouse

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.

Alumni Building

An Alumni building was constructed in 1893, in downtown on Second Street, next to Troy Savings Bank (now First Niagara). Despite the name, this was NOT to house the Alumni Dept. (which didn't exist at that time), but was built from the funds raised by the alumni of the time. It was used to house the extensive fossil collection of NYS geologist, James Hall, who had just recently donated this to the school. It also housed the library and administration offices (despite being a few blocks from the school).

The building was sold to the Young Men's Hebrew Association in 1915, probably because the recently constructed Pittsburgh Building took over these functions. Today there is a very modern glass single story projected out, housing the ATM for the bank.


William Proudfit, a Troy native, was a student here, but killed in a horse and carriage accident in 1875. His parents donated money for a building as a memorial for him. I think it was built originally as an observatory, and rebuilt in 1900 as the building in the photos.

There is a legend (which has been transferred to West Hall) that at one point, every year, the engineering students had to survey the entire campus. One year c. 1959, the professor started to correct the results. He saw on the first test, the student had gotten the location of the Proudfit wrong by inches or even feet (depending on who tells the story) too far west, so he flunked the student. Then he saw the same mistake on the next test, and the next and the next, all with the same error, so he went out and surveyed the building itself. He found it had slid down the hill by that amount, so the unstable building was torn down. It is now a small park, the flat area between West Hall and Sage. A stone was fitted into the south end of the Science Center.

Rankin House

This was a private residence which was purchased by the Proudfits in 1877 in order to acquire the land for the Proudfit Building (see above). The Rankin House was used to house needy students back when there were no dorms on campus. The building was located on the site where the Pittsburgh Building was later built. (It might be spelled "Ranken".)


Named after Andrew Carnegie, whose vast fortune was used to endow many libraries and other public buildings, such as famed Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Pittsburgh Building

Pittsburgh, PA was a major iron and steel center which employed a lot of RPI graduates. The alumni there donated the money for this building, which was built in 1912. This was the first time in American history, the alumni of a single city raised enough money for a college building.

It was built to house the geological museum, the library, and the school administration. (From 1947 until '62, the model railroad was in the basement.)

Walker Labs

In 1905, the mother of graduate Dr. W.W. Walker donated money toward the construction of this building. (At the time, it was RPI's largest contribution, $2OO,000.)

In the 1990's, Walker Lab suffered a major fire (but did NOT burn to the ground, despite popular legends to the contrary), a fire started by a former RPI employee. It was rebuilt.

Union Club

The first Student Union, called the Union Club, was built in 1908 on the west side of the '86 Field. It cost less than $20,000 to build. (Remember, the campus land from 8th St. up to 15th had only been purchased in 1905.)

In 1932, the wood building was torn down and the Union moved into a new brick building between the Greene Building and Amos Eaton. In 1967, the Union moved again, to the present building on the corner of 15th and Sage (and the second Union became the Management Building, later Lally).

Sage Labs

Russell Sage was one of the true robber barons of the gilded age. There is the story of how one disgruntled employee burst into his office to shoot him. Sage used his male secretary to shield himself from the bullet. The secretary was shot, but lived. Sage did not pay the man's medical bills for the man who literally saved his life.

Later in his life, Sage decided he wanted to get married (or remarried, I don't know). Lacking any charm or knowledge of how to woo the fairer sex, he went to Emma Willard, who ran a "finishing" school for young ladies. He asked her to pick him a suitable mate. She in turn chose a girl, Margaret Olivia Slocum, whose family had recently become improvised. (Unbeknownst to the headmistress, this woman's family had been ruined by Sage's shenanigans.)

It was said there were three things Sage hated, philanthropy (the doing of good deeds), women, and education. He left his wife a vast fortune (for the time) of two million dollars in 1896. For revenge, she promptly gave it all to promote education, in particular, women's education such as Russell Sage College. She also gave RPI one million to build a new laboratory and a dining hall. (She was such an astute businesswoman, she also invested his fortune and despite giving away two million, upon her death, there was still two million, or in other words, she doubled her inheritance.)

Amos Eaton

Named after the man who took Van Rensselaer's vision and made it into a reality. The basement housed RPI's first computer, the entire basement.

'87 Gym

In 1886, a gymnasium was opened near the Main building. The Class of 1887, which would have been among the first classes to used this new facility, nonetheless later raised the money for a new gym further up the hill, which opened in 1912, on the 25th anniversary of their graduation. This new building was named after the Class (1887, not 1987). (And by the way, the rivalry between the two classes of '86 and '87 caused the Class of '87 to donate the $150,000 toward the gym which "shall perpetually look down on the '86 Field.)

I don't know the number of graduates in '87, but in 1885, there were only 32 and in 1890, 19, so raising enough money for a whole building by such a presumed small number is quite astonishing. (There were 21 people shown in the 1914 photo, above.)

The Gate

Originally there was a very ornate iron gate leading into the main campus from Sage. I believe when the '87 Gym was given its annex, the gate was cut down in size.


The school body was so small during the 19th century that on-campus housing wasn't really needed, nor provided. The Rankin House provided housing for needy students. The Warren mansion had been converted into a dorm in 1906, shortly after the estate was purchased.

In 1915, however, the first of many real dorms was built, the Quad. In 1931-'32, North Hall and E-Dorm were built, to house upperclassmen. (Apparently the Quad was just for freshmen.) Both buildings were named after RPI graduates who went on to become presidents of railroads. In 1961, North Hall was made into labs and offices, and then in '78, converted back into a dorm.


The "quadrangle" was supposed to be, as its name suggests, a rectangle, three sides of dorms and the fourth side, the Russell Sage Dining Hall. Before the complex was completed, it is said the President Ricketts ordered construction halted, as the remaining section would block the view of the main campus.


In 1931-'32, North Hall and E-Dorm were built, to house upperclassmen. E-Dorm was built in the shape of a giant capital "E". The 10 units within it were all named for 10 alumni who had gone on to become railroad presidents.

Troy Building

The citizens of Troy donated most or all of the money for this structure, during the centennial of RPI in 1924.


Named after Palmer C. Ricketts, President of the school. If I remember correctly, the building was built in 1934, among the last buildings constructed during his tenure.

Ricketts was president from 1901 until 1934, one of the longest terms in office (and Director from 1892 on). 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.


Built in 1931, the building was named after Benjamin Franklin Greene. He was senior professor from 1847 until 1859. He is the person who expanded the curriculum into a "polytechnic". (The name was changed to RPI in 1861.)

West Hall

West Hall was built as a Catholic hospital in 1868, designed by Marcus Cummings, the famed architect who designed most of Troy following the Great Fire of 1862. In 1924, it became a parochial school until 1953, when the school moved to north Troy. Eventually RPI acquired it.

Mason Labs

This was another religious building acquired by the Tute. Built as an orphanage in the 19th century (St. Vincent's Female Orphan Asylum), RPI bought it in 1946 as a temporary dorm, but instead was made into apartments for faculty. By '57, it was made into labs. It stood on the corner of Peoples Ave. and 8th Street.

It was named after RPI graduate and chemistry professor William Pitt Mason. Born in 1853, he graduated in 1874 and three years later was hired by the school. He was still teaching in 1917.

When I came to RPI in '68, the building housed the Biology Dept., among other departments. It was a long walk from the main campus. The building was torn down in '73 and Peoples Ave. curved south so it meets Federal Street.

Houston Fieldhouse

During WWII, the Navy took over RPI to crank out engineers in a crash-course of just months. After the War, they gave RPI the Fieldhouse (legend has it that is was originally a blimp hanger but the official story it was a surplus warehouse.)

University Building/Voorhees Computing Center

This was a monastery that sat on the high overlooking downtown. The original building dated back to 1856, with a chapel section being added c. 1933 to form a "T". It was built as Troy University, which went bankrupt a mere four years later. In 1862, it was sold to the Catholic Church and later sold to the Sisters of St. Joseph as a seminary.
RPI acquired it during the big post-War push, and named it the University Building. It was torn down in 1968, but the chapel section left standing, used as the library. When a new library was built on the site of the University Building, the chapel section became the Voorhees Computing Section.

Peoples Avenue Complex/H Building/J Building

This 10-building complex was built on Peoples Avenue as St. Vincent's Guardian Angel Home for Wayward Girls, starting in 1886. (I've also heard it was called the House of Good Shepard.) They cared for unwed pregnant women until they give birth and also ran an orphanage for any unwanted children that were born. (In 1886, Arthur Weiss said "the house is a home for fallen women desiring to lead a pure life.") Thus in a way, the Church enabled the downtown red light district by handling "mistakes" made by the wayward prostitutes.

The complex was acquired during RPI's big post-War expansion. The individual buildings were given letter designations. (The model railroad was in the second story of B Building, the one with the round tower, from 1868 until 1972.) Most of it was torn down in the early '70's, with only H Building and J Building surviving. The Alumni House sits on the site of A Building.

Student Union

The Union was first in what looked like a Colonial Revival house on the northwest corner of the '86 Field, since been torn down. Then it was in the Management Building (now called the Lally). In 1966, the Union moved to a new home on the east side of 15th, and this time, the building was owned by the Union, not RPI.


Troy's original armory was on River and Ferry Streets in downtown. It was built around 1860, replacing the "Puritan Hotel". In 1884, it is claimed they built a new one but it appears they simply rebuilt and enlarged the original one.

In 1917, this original Armory burned and a new one was built on 15th St. (It is said to have been finished in 1919 but the cornerstone claims 1922. There is also the cornerstone from the original one placed at the front door. (Some campus tours claim the old one was moved up the hill brick by brick, stone by stone, and reassembled. That is only true for ONE stone.)

When the new one was built, the campus ended at 15th Street. When I came here to RPI in '68, what is now the visitor parking lot was filled with army tanks and surrounded by chain link fencing. There was no roadway leading in from the east side. What is now a walkway from the set of wooden steps on "freshmen hill" to the 15th Street bridge was an unpaved path through tall grass, affectionately nicknamed the "Ho Chi Minh Trail".

Eventually RPI built a new armory south of town (1971), and traded buildings with the National Guard.

Rice Building

The Rice Building is a stunning example of High Victorian Gothic. There are pointed arches over the windows, but also notice the use of the building materials themselves for the colors.

The building was built in 1871 and is said to have been the inspiration for the Flatiron building in New York City. It was built by Benjamin H. Hall and called the Hall Building. It was rehabbed and taken over by RPI c. 1999. Somewhere along the way, the building lost its spires. I don't know why the building was renamed the Rice Building, or who it is named after.