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Happy 100th Birthday, Doremus Gym

Doremus Memorial Gymnasium was dedicated 100 years ago today (June 13, 1916) with what the Ring-tum Phi described as a “flow of oratory enthusiastically received by a large gathering of alumni which occupied the main floor of the gymnasium and many spectators who filled the galleries.”

New York attorney Charles J. McDermott, a personal friend of the late Robert P. Doremus — for whom the building is named — gave the dedicatory address, “The Need for Recreation in American Life.” The Phi described his remarks as “a convincing appeal for physical education among Americans.”

In fact, the construction of Doremus came just as Washington and Lee had begun to emphasize what it called “a universal, systematic, and compulsory program of bodily care and training.” President Henry Louis Smith was the architect of this new feature of the curriculum. In his 1913 inaugural address, “The College of To-morrow,” Smith previewed his intentions with a section on “College Athletics.” He argued that “the college which aims to train the whole man will realize the vast importance of the body, and will place its care and training on a par with those of the mind.” Although Smith criticized the “present one-sided and narrow development of college athletics,” he believed instruction in physical education for all students was necessary in order to “build for every graduate a physique which will stand the long-continued pressure of modern life.”

It was, of course, serendipitous that the university had just received the unexpected and generous Doremus gift — a gift that is the basis for the oft-told story about the New York stockbroker who was so impressed by the warm reception he received from a unidentified student during a visit to the Washington and Lee campus that he decided to give his estate to the university. Mr. Doremus died in 1913, just as President Smith was assuming office, and Mrs. Doremus made a gift to build the gymnasium that same year. The entire Doremus estate, amounting to $1.5 million, came to the university in 1936 following Mrs. Doremus’s death.

Although the dedication of Doremus was held in early June 1916, the gymnasium had actually opened in November of the previous year. The Sophomore Cotillion was the first event to be held there, and the new building was a welcome relief since, as the Phi reported, the “dancers by no means crowded the huge floor, as has often been the case in the old gymnasium.”

The construction of Doremus had not been easy. There were numerous unexpected delays due to what the Alumni Bulletin described as a combination of “difficult excavation” and “adverse weather conditions” — something that will ring familiar to those involved in current-day construction projects around the campus.

Once completed, the building was said to be especially noteworthy by virtue of “its imposing front of 218 feet,” which became “the first object to catch the sight of the traveler on his approach to Lexington by train.”

Doremus featured 1,000 lockers; two large rooms in the basement, where the Albert Sidney and Harry Lee crews trained; a “sterilizing room” where the gymnasium “suits,” mat coverings, athletic team uniforms, and towels were “properly sterilized by direct exposure to live steam”; a separate laundry; a wrestling room; and a fencing room. The pool was 70 by 25 feet in length and went from a depth of 4½ feet in the shallow end to 8 feet at the other end. The main gymnasium floor, or the “main exercise room” as it was called, was said to be large enough that it permitted two “regulation-size” basketball courts, while “its length is so great that, by taking advantage of the corridors at either end, a full 50-yard dash can be run upon it.” The running track that hung from the ceiling and circled the floor was the gallery for viewers of basketball games, other athletic contests, and many other public functions. Capacity was 750.

From its dedication in 1916, Doremus served for 56 years as the exclusive home to the university’s indoor athletic and physical education program, until Warner Center opened. Doremus’ “main exercise room” continues to serve as an auxiliary gymnasium, while the building now features a 10,000-square-foot fitness center, which was the result of a refurbishing project in 2002.

The university is conducting a $50 million fundraising campaign to upgrade the indoor athletics and recreation facilities with a renovation of Doremus, a reconstruction of the Warner Center, and construction of a new natatorium, scheduled to open in December 2016 at a site near Lewis Hall.