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The Improbable Saga of Renwick Gymnasium

Before Rains Center was built in 1989, Pomona College was home to two smaller gyms, both of which (in keeping with the rather confusing tradition of naming multiple buildings after the same person) were called Renwick Gymnasium. According to a News Bureau press release of August 1982, the smaller of the two was first built in 1900, the larger in 1918. Originally intended as a barracks for training student soldiers during World War I, the “Big Gym” was soon used for physical education classes. It was not long, however, before the building was home to more than sweaty students.

Because the barracks had been hastily constructed, its inner walls soon proved an hospitable environment for pigeons, bees, and woodpeckers. The side effects of these new occupants were less than pleasant, with students and faculty subject to bee stings, classes disrupted by bird droppings, and the building's temperature affected by industrious, acorn-storing woodpeckers that riddled the walls with holes. Capturing the degree to which these unwelcome guests left their mark(s), Marjorie Harth, in Pomona College: Reflections on a Campus, describes how “in the late 1960s, hoping to encourage donations for the beleaguered facility, tours were given during an Alumni weekend and visitors treated to the dramatization of the building's hazards including heat exhaustion, bee stings, and frost bite.” (79)

The fervent hopes of students and faculty for improved facilities were fulfilled when the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the Claremont Department of Community Development declared the larger Renwick Gym to be unsafe and slated it for demolition. A 1982 press noted the building's “weathered wood” and described the structure as “woodpecker-riddled” and “bee-infested.” Despite such issues, which made classes in the gym unreasonably hazardous, some members of the Claremont community were opposed to the idea of dismantling the historic building. Harth quotes President David Alexander, describing the quandary in which he found himself: “The citizens of Claremont objected to our razing the building” despite the fact that “Renwick Gymnasium . . . was hopelessly inadequate…[and that] we were confronted by an order declaring the building to be a fire hazard. One alumnus publicly called me a ‘thief in the night.'”

For more information, see Marjorie L. Harth, Pomona College: Reflections on a Campus, 2007.