A History of Brown Athletic Facilities, Part III:
Moving Athletics Closer to Campus - 1951-1982
By Peter Mackie ’59
As the second half of the 20th century unfolded, President Wriston was transforming the University, bringing fraternities back on campus into the Wriston Quadrangle in 1952 and integrating Pembrokers into Brown classrooms. On the athletic side, the signing of the 1954 Ivy Group Agreement ushered in a challenging new era of competition with schools boasting superior facilities, larger enrollments, and deeper pockets.
As part of efforts to create new athletic facilities closer to campus, the University purchased the 39-acre Dexter Asylum from the city for just over $1 million in 1957.
Dubbed “The Great Purchase” by Athletic Director Paul Mackesey ’32, the entire area was renamed Aldrich-Dexter Field, perpetuating the old Aldrich Field name and recognizing philanthropist Ebenezer Knight Dexter, whose will had created an asylum for the poor in 1824.
The topography of the property required major regrading and terracing. After removal of the main Asylum building, the area along Hope Street became a 500-car parking lot. The middle section was carved into fields for soccer, lacrosse and intramurals, while practice football fields and baseball diamonds were created in the eastern-most section.
Over the next 25 years, new athletic facilities at Aldrich-Dexter Field were tied to capital campaigns. The first structure was the George V. Meehan Auditorium, dedicated in 1962 as part of the Bicentennial Development Program. The multi-purpose auditorium and skating rink was made possible through the generosity of Providence businessman George Meehan, who donated $500,000 toward the project. The facility was an instant success, with recreational skating, intramural hockey, as well as varsity hockey for men and the nation’s first women’s program (1964).
With the 1961 selling-off of a 12-acre portion of Aldrich Field to a developer for $306,000, Brown’s outdoor facilities were gradually developed at Aldrich-Dexter. The baseball field was named for Edward B. Aldrich 1893 in 1959, but play did not begin there until 1963. The Nicholson Memorial Tennis Courts on Manning Street were abandoned in 1961 and the name unofficially transferred to new courts, which coincided with Brown’s entry into the Eastern Intercollegiate Tennis League.
The various outbuildings of the old Asylum were gradually razed, with the exception of the infirmary (next to Meehan), which was converted into Aldrich-Dexter Fieldhouse. This brick building provided “temporary” locker room and office facilities until 1981.
Lights were installed on the practice football fields, and in the late 1960s minimal lighting was directed from the practice football field toward the soccer pitch. Prior to this point, soccer coach Cliff Stevenson positioned cars around the field to provide headlight illumination at late practices. Gradually Aldrich-Dexter Field become better lighted, thanks to the efforts of the Soccer Association. Players and coaches also contributed sweat equity (painting and landscaping) to upgrade the facility.
Bleachers from Meehan Auditorium provided limited seating in this period, and a cast-off Meehan scoreboard was mounted on a trailer. The first permanent scoreboard, costing $12,000, was donated by Tony Ittleson ’60. In the fall of 1975, after $28,000 was provided by soccer alumni, illumination was sufficient to hold night games. In 1979, permanent grandstand seating was installed at a cost of $40,000, and the soccer/lacrosse field was named for Cliff Stevenson.
Meanwhile, on the waters of the Seekonk, the men’s crew program, which had been resurrected in 1949, was moving into new quarters. In 1966 the Saltesea Packing Company building was purchased and renovated. The Hunter S. Marston Boathouse, named for benefactor Hunter S. Marston 1908 contained an apartment for coach Vic Michalson and his family, in addition to rowing tanks and boat storage. Women’s crew began to share space at Marston after its founding in 1974.
In the 1970s, as part of the Program for The Seventies, a $2 million aquatic facility was erected on the south end of the parking lot at Aldrich-Dexter Field. Completed in 1973 and first called The Natatorium, the 1,500-seat Olympic-sized pool with its distinctive circus tent roof was renamed the Smith Swim Center in 1976 to honor H. Stanton Smith ’21 and his wife Marjorie, former acting director of Physical Education at Pembroke. Squash and handball courts were later added in the west end.
Also, out on Elmgrove Avenue, Brown Stadium was undergoing renovations. In 1971, a new track was dedicated, and in 1978, football’s centennial season, Operation Pride provided aluminum seats to replace the wooden originals. The last of the 1925 bleachers had been removed after the 1952 season. Venerable Marvel Gym received a makeover for its 50th birthday in 1977 at a cost of $370,000.
For women at Brown, the 1970s was a watershed decade. The merger of Brown and Pembroke in 1971 completed the gradual integration of the two campuses which had begun in the early 1950s. The passing of Title IX legislation in 1972, and the beginning of Ivy League play for women in 1974 also contributed to this transformation. A softball field was fashioned from an intramural area, but women had precious little in the way of facilities at Aldrich-Dexter, and they often chose to dress for practice and games in their dorm rooms.
In October 1981, the $6.6 million Olney-Margolies Athletic Center was formally dedicated in conjunction with The Campaign for Brown. This massive concrete structure with its roof playing field (Warner Roof) finally provided Brown with a first-rate indoor facility. Named for the primary donors, Joe Olney ’36 and M. Price Margolies ’36, it was designed by Dan Tully, also the architect of the Smith Swim Center. An important feature was the promise of substantial energy savings (estimated at $50,000 per year), to be realized by recycling heat from Smith into OMAC. The 60,000-square-foot indoor playing surface was primarily intended “for recreation and intramural use to improve the quality of student life at Brown.” For the first time, female student-athletes had their own locker facilities, although they were shared seasonally. The Aldrich-Dexter Fieldhouse had now outlived its usefulness, and was razed to create additional parking.
As the 1980s began, Brown was beginning to compete on a more level playing field in terms of athletic facilities, although it still lagged behind its peers. The development of Aldrich-Dexter was still a work in progress, but new initiatives lay on the horizon. After the retrenchment of the 1970s, Brown was again poised to move forward in pursuit of athletic excellence under the quiet leadership of President Howard Swearer.